Born and raised in the Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina, Malcolm Holcombe is being recognized by the contemporary U.S and European folk/americana community as a performer of national stature, and an uncommonly unique guitarist/vocalist about whom Rolling Stone magazine says: “Haunted country, acoustic blues and rugged folk all meet [here]…”
Malcolm Holcombe’s new album Down the River, his ninth, is born from that bed of contradictions we all lie in. There are songs here such as “Twisted Arms” and “Whitewash Job” that sizzle with anger at a society that seems intent on losing its way and running over its poor and disenfranchised. These are coupled with songs from a softer, more generous perspective such as “The Crossing” and “In Your Mercy,” written in the voice of an old woman who sees “All I worked for/…sold and surely gone,” but who trusts that “many years will tell the truth.” There is truth embedded in these songs the way quartz is embedded in the steep driveways and black dirt of Malcolm Holcombe’s western North Carolina.
The multiple perspectives of these songs speak of the man who wrote them. Malcolm Holcombe takes the stage in the same clothes he wore driving to the gig, and his soft voice, rasped from years of smoking and singing to be heard in honky tonks, rises to a howl as he frails his guitar with furious precision. He stomps, growls, rolls his eyes as he plays, then between songs cuts the tension with a corny joke. A veteran of Nashville who has little good to say about the music industry—“a bunch of people trying to buy their way to fame”—he has won the praise of such artists as Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams as he works and tours from his home in western North Carolina. A once-legendary drinker and hell raiser, Malcolm is now many years sober and embraces a gentle if non-specific spirituality.
Down the River is just the most recent step in a journey that began in western North Carolina in 1955. The youngest of four children, Malcolm was fascinated by the guitar early, an interest he fed watching TV in his parents’ living room. “If it had a guitar in it, I’d watch it,” he has said. After high school and a brief stint in college, Malcolm played for a while with a trio called Redwing, then in a duet with Sam Milner. Eventually he found his way to Nashville where he established a local reputation and signed with Geffen Records.
In 1996, in one of those twists of logic only understood in the music business, Geffen signed Malcolm and paid to record his major label debut A Hundred Lies. The album was pressed, promotional copies were sent, and the album, a stunning, low-key masterpiece, was never released. In the wake of that fiasco, Malcolm made his way back to Asheville, North Carolina. A Hundred Lies was eventually released on a much smaller label and garnered some attention, including a four star review in Rolling Stone, and Malcolm began booking his own shows. There are stories from this time of drinking, drugs and wild behavior, but like most in recovery, Malcolm would rather let the past stay in the past. “It’s miracle to be here every day,” he offers. “I’m just glad to be able to drive on my side of the road.”
Newly married and sober, Malcolm released a series of independent records, then signed with a couple of small labels. Down the River is Malcolm’s first independent release in several years and reunites Malcolm with Ray Kennedy, who produced earlier efforts like Gamblin’ House and For the Mission Baby. This album also boasts more recognizable guests than most of Malcolm’s earlier records. Emmylou Harris lends background vocals to “In Your Mercy,” and Malcolm duets with Steve Earle on “Trail of Money.” Darrell Scott plays dobro, banjo and electric guitar, and former Uncle Tupelo and Wilco member Ken Coomer handles drums. “I wanted to shoot for Mars,” Malcolm says of the high-powered lineup on this record. “Luckily, Ray knew some Martians.”
But the core of each cut is Holcombe’s voice, which can growl like a cement truck in low gear or mellow into a heart-tugging croon, and his guitar playing. Malcolm plays with his bare fingers and his percussive attack makes it easy to overlook the precision with which he plays. “I always forget what a good guitar player he is,” said an audience member after a recent Malcolm Holcombe show. “You think he’s just beating on it, but then you realize he’s fingerpicking really fast and not missing a note.” There is an intensity in Malcolm Holcombe’s performances that can put off those used to a more laid back product, but those who have watched him know that Malcolm Holcombe is not just playing for gas money. This is who he is and what he does.
This circles back to the righteous fury I spoke of in this new batch of songs. “I don’t claim a thing/ Not a two-bit clue/ But I heard somebody whisper/ War kills the truth,” he sings/ hollers on the album’s first cut “Butcher in Town.” Later, on “Twisted Arms,” he spits, “Fair and square/ Looks good on paper.” This arises from Holcombe’s view of present day society. “The subject is unavoidable,” he says about the political content of the songs. “There’s just an appalling amount of injustice and greed everywhere you turn.”
But it is not all storm and fury here. The pace is leavened by gentler songs such as “The Crossing” and “The Door,” a song from Holcombe’s back catalog. One song that will undoubtedly garner a good deal of attention is Malcolm’s duet with Steve Earle on “Trail of Money,” the album’s penultimate cut and one of the album’s highlights. But the album’s real masterpiece is the title cut and the final song on the album. Here the anger of earlier songs gives way to acceptance that understands the world has changed and not necessarily for the better. “They make the laws/ to suit themselves/ the ones that buy and sell the rest/ of us down the river,” Holcombe sings. But down the river is not as bad as it seems: “Down the river/ we pray for one another…we hold on to our dream.”
The acts of writing songs and playing music have always been hopeful ones, however the bleak the subject matter of the songs might be. With Down the River, Malcolm Holcombe has once again given us a handful of songs that are testimony to the human spirit. In these songs, the old truths still hold. Love, the inner life, music, these are eternal verities and will outlast the trickery and chicanery of those who would turn us against each other. In these strange and troubled times, we need Holcombe ’s witness as much as we ever have, and it is our good fortune to receive it.
To Drink The Rain
Years ago, following Malcolm Holcombe’s career could be as unnerving and high-wire suspenseful as his riveting live performances. His brilliance was obvious to a core of fans and some attentive music journalists, but so were the self-destructive tendencies that floated around this mercurial man like wraiths. We worried at times that we’d have to add Holcombe to the What Might Have Been pantheon with Hank Williams, Jaco Pastorius and Charlie Parker. We imagined talking about Holcombe in the past tense to the too many who’d never been able to hear his shockingly truthful and affecting voice.
By the grace of God however, there is no past tense in Holcombe’s life and career, just a very vibrant present and a widening sense of tomorrow’s possibilities. He is many years sober, performing worldwide and happily married to a woman who manages his schedule and keeps his inner garden clear for the work. He retains his quirky, fascinating character, and he writes – in spasms of energy and clarity, producing visions that hover between earthy solidity and rustic mysticism. He plays with rhythmic pounce and sings with psychological fire. And if the songs on his new album To Drink The Rain are a good indication, he’s working from a place of joy and balance.
To Drink The Rain is Holcombe’s eighth full-length album and the latest in a stream of exceptional new work that’s been flowing steadily since about 2005. Produced by Holcombe’s long-time sideman Jared Tyler, it was recorded over three days at Cedar Creek Recording in Austin with a crack band of hotshots from Texas and Nashville. The twelve tracks here are authentic one-take performances that strike the perfect balance between gravel and grace. And they further develop Malcolm’s unique take on country blues, enriching an often neglected tradition at the very core of Americana.
Before the details, a quick review. 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. The measure of that fixing today can be found in the story of To Drink The Rain. Jared Tyler, who’s stuck with Holcombe through some trying times over nearly 12 years, was more than a little excited to produce the project. When he called bass player Dave Roe on short notice, the legendary veteran of Johnny Cash’s last band cancelled other sessions to fly to Austin, saying “Malcolm is the only artist that I would fight to be on his recording.” And the partners at Music Road Records, a new but happening Austin label spearheaded by singer/songwriter Jimmy LaFave, recording engineer Fred Remmert, and investor Kelcy Warren, agreed to become Malcolm’s new musical home.
And what have they wrought? Well, the opening track offers a pretty good clue with its spanking guitar line, its boogie blues feel and its “down the road with a smile” lyric. Malcolm sings “I put on my britches one leg at a time” like he’s just delighted with the sheer ordinariness of everything. And the tone continues throughout, though not without the intensity we’ve come to expect from Holcombe. The title track leaves nothing in studio, as Holcombe’s full-throated delivery is both an endorsement and example of the song’s message of living lustily. The instrumental contributions of fiddler Luke Bulla, drummer Bobby Kallus, and Jared’s dobro suggest the same kind of commitment. And all of this honest musicianship is captured honestly by Remmert behind the board.
Other highlights include “Down In The Woods,” a pretty country waltz that could have been a Robert Hunter/Jerry Garcia collaboration. “Becky’s Blessed (Backporch Flowers)” portrays a supportive spirit and blossoms with sunny imagery. “The Mighty City” has newgrass momentum and mysterious lyrics that engage time and again. And “One Man Singin’,” the album’s closing cut conjures up a picture of the best times from Malcolm’s Nashville years. It’s not clear if it’s autobiographical, but it does express Holcombe’s belief in the power of the song and the human impulse to share our inner lives. “The soul of his voice was familiar to the marrow,” he sings. “My heart turned loose of my head.”
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, starting with this one. 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