Malcolm Holcombe by Alan Kaufman
Malcolm Holcombe is possessed by a singular sort of solitary genius that, like the novelist William Faulkner, is yet the voice of an entire region – the South--and even of a generation, though somehow transcendent of it, timeless. If true greatness moves from the particular to the universal, his music speaks for all of humanity while remaining entirely his own.
A North Carolina son of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Holcombe belongs to a tradition of bardic singer-songwriters that includes such legends as Townes Van Zandt, Blaze Foley, Gurf Morlix and David Olney. He is an acclaimed contemporary of Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle and has shared the stage with Merle Haggard, Richard Thompson, John Hammond, and Leon Russell. Yet Holcombe stands apart, his soul-stirring lyrics are hill country high poetry, the music pure back roads. His musicianship is uncanny, like no other, as though he had invented the guitar.
In a very real sense he is a latter day Elizabethan poet troubadour of barrooms, ragged towns and coal miner shacks. His intimate, poignantly etched lyrics invite you in, sit you down, speak directly to you. Listening to them, you are befriended.
“joseph marta seven kids/i know them names by heart/ your mother's father worked the mines/ petersburg to charleston/ st petersburg to charleston”
“ol wringer washer's on the porch/ thieves done stole him blind/ one empty bottle rot gut wine/ cotton worked the mines/ ol cotton worked the mines”
Holcombe not only knows these people intimately, but offers you direct witness to their tragedy:
“fifty cents a bloody day/ no child labor laws/ most them lil' babies died/ disease and alcohol/disease and alcohol”
From Good Ol' Days:
Holcombe's guitarwork is always masterfully spontaneous. On stage, edgily rocking his chair, his finger-flying fretwork and strum spin the theater like a roulette wheel, while his granular voice takes us aboard an Americana folk bus that is a ravaged speeding palace of bad luck and hurtles us down the blacktop road of no return where chain gang blues mingle with Celtic madrigals resonant with hardbitten lives.
But also there are is the gentle echoing of the early Irish ballads of yore and you know that what you're hearing is like nothing that you've ever heard:
“a pint er two in belfast/ burns the eyes o' josephine/ an irish girl forever curls/ around your heart o' glass
shattered blowin' into town/ shattered goin' back/the nightshift calls your council/ pittance in your pockets”
“the wretched poor o' poison blood/the government the hospital/ they snitch and laugh and never smile/straight jackets for the crooked mile"
From Eyes of Josephine
It's all his own authentic poetry and in a metaphor like “Phenobarbital of night” shimmers the epiphany of a coal country visionary, a lyric phrasing that brings to mind Allen Ginsberg whom I both knew and performed with.
“i walk and stagger to your eyes/ the phenobarbital at night/ we locked you up and shut the door/ your brain is scattered on the floor”
Holcombe's songs contain not only love but fury, careen dangerously to the edge as they portray the hopelessness of the destitute, the broken wards of shattered lives whose desperate gambles turn up craps. Holcombe sings from gut-shot experience. And here, I'll summon one more legendary man of letters that Holcombe brings to mind, a very great one, for I believe that Malcolm Holcombe is as great a songwriting poet as any this country has produced: James Agee of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
Like Agee, Holcombe protests against the unheeded suffering of his kin, giving voice to their voicelessness, daring us to feel what is happening to the vulnerable in our midst. He asks you: 'How can this be?' But also, there is in him a tender spiritual resignation to the foibles of human kind, a forgiving grasp of consequence and a driving hope that moves brightly to the core of our being:
“much has been given, much is required, in the fire of the sun low in the night
all my friends are sick/ dyin' and dead/ my family is another baby born”
Another baby born. The ceaseless cycle of death and birth is his family. He has no time for remorse or nostalgia. Trouble is only trouble but it is Life that leads him. As he sings in Pretty Little Troubles, the title song:
"i keep a grin in my pocket/to spin the hard times/we been goin' thru
i believe if you struggle missin' good ol days/ you aint done much o' livin' the blues"
And what we come away with is the love and beauty of these masterpieces, an authentic slice of America from a brilliantly original native-born bard of broken hearts and dreams.
Alan Kaufman's books include Drunken Angel and The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry.
Recorded at Room & Board Studios in Nashville, TN, and the 10-song set features longtime musical compatriots including Jared Tyler (dobro, baritone guitar, banjo, mandolin and harmony vocals), Dave Roe (upright and electric bass), Ken Coomer (drums and percussion), Tony Joe White (electric guitar), Future Man (percussion) and Drea Merritt (vocal harmony).
Born and raised in the Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina, Holcombe is highly regarded and recognized by contemporaries in Americana music including Emmylou Harris, Wilco, Steve Earle. An “emotionally captivating” (Isthmus), performer, Holcombe has shared the stage with Merle Haggard, Richard Thompson, John Hammond, Leon Russell, Wilco and Shelby Lynne.
In the end, who can explain the secret of endurance? Why does one marriage last and another does not? Why does one song or album catch our ear while others, arguably as good, slip past us? What convinces an artist or musician to continue pursuing the craft in a time of audiences with short attention spans and diminishing financial returns?
On the eve of releasing Another Black Hole, his fourteenth album (including a duet album cut with North Carolina music legend Sam Milner back in the 80s), Malcolm Holcombe is in no mood to ponder such things. “They’re free to like it or change the CD or completely ignore it,” he says over the telephone from New Haven, CT. “It all depends on how bad their conscience is.”
Those who have paid attention to Holcombe’s music will find more of what they expect here: Holcombe’s rasping vocals and bright, percussive guitar accentuating his insightful lyrics. A few of Holcombe’s longtime musical compatriots show up to help him out, most notably Jared Tyler, who plays guitar, banjo, mandolin, dobro and offers background harmonies and rock solid rhythm section David Roe on bass and Ken Coomer on drums. Swamp pop legend Tony Joe White plays electric guitar on a number of cuts, including the hard rocking “Papermill Man,” and the visionary percussionist Futureman, also known as Roy Wooten, inventor of the drumitar, lends percussion on several cuts. Drea Merritt drops by to sing harmonies as well.
Last year, Holcombe released The RCA Sessions, a retrospective of his two decades of recordings. For most of this time, Malcolm has handled his own career from his hometown of Swannanoa, NC, a few miles down the road from Weaverville, where he was born in 1955. Another Black Hole does not indicate a change of direction for Holcombe, only a widening and deepening of the groove he has worked for most of his years playing and singing. Lyrically, the songs mingle Holcombe’s off the cuff wisdom and sharp-eyed commentary on the human condition. Without staking a political or spiritual position, Holcombe’s songs make it clear that he sees his place with those who suffer at the end of the “suits and ties in the cubicles,” as he sings in “To Get By.” But because he sees things in human terms and in the terms of survival, Holcombe heads down to “Rice’s Grocery down on Main Street/ We got credit there.”
Ray Kennedy, who has produced several of Malcolm’s albums, including Another Black Hole, says, “Malcolm Holcombe is fiercely striking every time you encounter him on or off stage. You just get sucked into his extraordinary world of the twisting of words and wisdom that come from a bottomless well. The melodies and fierce rhythms wrap his narrative into an event where you find yourself at his unique musical carnival. Then suddenly he slays you with a sweet love ballad or a sarcastic social commentary.”
In “Leavin’ Anna,” Holcombe croons “A working man’s a working man/ Makes the flowers grow.” The laborers, the displaced, the papermill worker, the man who spends “nickels and dimes like hundred dollar bills,” these are Malcolm Holcombe’s people and the ones who live in his songs. But he is far less interested in talking about his own songs than in talking about other musicians whose names come up in the course of a conversation.
When country singing legend Don Williams is mentioned, Malcolm says, “I used to listen to that Portrait album all the time,” and asks if Williams played a couple of his more popular songs in a recent concert. He also speaks fondly of Les Paul and, later, of Keith Richards: “He’s rock and roll all day long, ain’t he?”
Recently Warren Haynes, another musician native to western North Carolina, has mentioned Malcolm’s name in interviews. Typically, Holcombe was unaware of this, but filled with praise for Haynes. “He’s a real gentleman. I’m glad to call him a friend,” he says. “He taught me how to bend a string on a guitar.”
Chances are that Another Black Hole will not be mentioned at Grammy time, but it is a strong addition to an ever-strengthening catalogue of music made by a humble craftsman in western North Carolina. “It is Malcolm’s perception of the world that make his songs hit you like a gunpowder blast. His gruff and tough delivery is a primordial power full of grit, spit and anthropomorphic expression,” says Ray Kennedy. Trends come and go. What is real is the ground beneath our feet, the sky above us, the struggle to earn a living. These are Malcolm Holcombe’s timeless subjects and the spin he puts on them makes our journey here more bearable.
by Al Maginnes
On April 6, 2015, to commemorate his 20 year musical career milestone, underground folk legend Malcolm Holcombe released The RCA Sessions. The set has international digital distribution through Proper Music Group.
Spanning the years 1994 to 2014, The RCA Sessions comprises 16 cuts in a CD/DVD retrospective that includes tracks from each of his previous 10 full length albums and 1 EP. Unlike the usual anthology of original recordings, Holcombe re-recorded the selected songs at the legendary RCA Studios in Nashville, TN in the fall of 2014. Included is the live performance favorite, "Mouth Harp Man", which is exclusive to this release, as well as well as the popular tracks "Goin' Home", "Who Carried You", and a very special duet with Irish folk great, Maura O'Connell, of Holcombe's classic, "A Far Cry From Here".
The band members, who have all frequently performed with Malcolm in the studio as well as for live performances, are: Jared Tyler (dobro, electric-guitar, lap steel, vocals); David Roe Rorick ( upright bass, arco), Tammy Rogers (fiddle, mandolin, vocals), Ken Coomer (drums, percussion), Jellyroll Johnson (harmonica), and Siobhan Maher Kennedy (vocals).
To represent Holcombe's live performance range- from the intimate nature of solo acoustic, to the much lauded duo configuration with long-standing multi-instrumentalist Jared Tyler, to the energy and intensity of his full band shows- the CD/DVD set includes all of the above-mentioned musical configurations. Cut as live performances in-studio, these tracks capture the spirit of Holcombe's incendiary concert performances and timeless songwriting. As this is the first time Malcolm Holcombe has released a DVD performance, it is sure to become a much appreciated addition to both long time fans, as well as the perfect introduction for the uninitiated. The RCA Sessions is not an end, but a culmination of work that spotlights the artistic mastery of one of the most unique and irreplaceable musicians working today in the contemporary folk scene.
Malcolm Holcombe grew up in western North Carolina, home to some of the planet's oldest mountains and some of America's deepest musical traditions. Radio and TV fueled Malcolm's musical passions as a kid, and music became even more important after he lost both his parents relatively young.
He toured with bands and landed in Nashville, where he took up an inconspicuous station at the back of the house - the very back - at Douglas Corner, one of the city's best singer/songwriter venues. Stories began to circulate about the mysterious dishwasher with the subterranean voice and oracle-like talent. Sadly so did stories of wildly inconsistent behavior - profound sweetness crossed by bouts of stunning abrasiveness.
He flirted with an official music career. But his stunning debut album made for Geffen Records was abruptly shelved, producing melodrama that only exacerbated Malcolm's drinking and depression. A business that once had a place for complicated genius turned its back on him, and he teetered near the edge.
Moving back to the North Carolina hills proved a powerful tonic. Holcombe let in help where before he'd pushed it away. With deep faith in God and a commitment to his art, Holcombe repaired himself and his career.
And that's a pretty good nod to the effect of hearing Holcombe sing. If you've not seen him in a live setting, this is what you have to do. His presence is spooky and timeless, as one imagines it was like to see Son House or Leadbelly. No emotional stone is left unturned.
While you plan for this important experience, collect Malcolm Holcombe albums... He is cryptic, demanding, polarizing, bold, passionate and free, a combination badly needed in our time of infinite trivia. He's even more interesting for having made a remarkable journey of recovery and discovery.
Craig Havighurst, Nashville