Malcolm Holcombe-Come Hell or High Water by Steve Wildsmith
On the North Carolina side of the Southern Appalachians, the land still retains its secrets.
It’s a place of paradoxes, where poverty is handed down from one hardscrabble generation to the next in towns passed over by the New South progress that gives a city like Asheville its bourgeois charm. It’s a resilient pocket of wilderness where a small band of Cherokee once disappeared into the misty hollers to wait out the white man’s ire, back in the deep woods where old growth timber blocks out the sunlight and compass needles sometimes spin crazily and the trappings of civilization give way to things beyond human understanding.
On the cusp of releasing his 13th studio album — “Come Hell or High Water,” out XXX on Singular Recordings — singer-songwriter Malcolm Holcombe is a both a part of and apart from those Blue Ridge hills, a Southern folk golem brought to life by the deeper mysteries that give these hills so much of their folklore.
His songs belong in the same Western North Carolina echelon of mysteries like the Brown Mountain Lights or the ghostly apparitions along Helen’s Bridge or the phantom choir of Roan Mountain — things that surpass conventional explanation but summon forth a combination of awe and primal longing, an ache to understand the great questions of the human condition.
Malcolm may not have the answers to those questions, but his songs are drawn from the same waters that begin as a trickle in the deep woods: wild, untamed, filled with the whispers and roars of all the mysteries and wonders those hills contain. And like the region’s otherworldly manifestations, they come from a place that transcends easy understanding, even by their creator.
“I don’t know, man; people ask me that stuff, and I can’t really tell you where it comes from,” Holcombe says. “I’m not really good at pulling a Houdini and getting the pencil to levitate. Getting my pencil to levitate is impossible; it’s not in my realm of being. Like my friend Eddie from up here in Swannanoa says, ‘If you like to get corn, you got to get out the hoe.’”
For “Come Hell or High Water,” he wields that hoe with a deft set of hands, gnarled fingers smelling of tobacco and fresh dirt and the resin from thousands of worn-out guitar strings. It’s his third record in as many years, but it’s a pointless endeavor to talk to him about his creative process, because Malcolm isn’t the sort of songwriter to poke those dark recesses of the mind to figure out where the words that bubble up there come from.
“It’s like a friend of mine said years ago — everything’s a miracle or nothing’s a miracle,” he says. “It’s just miraculous to be in this situation with some wonderful folks that I’ve been working with over the years, and to be supported by my wife and friends and fans.”
Two hundred years ago, early settlers might have visited a man like Malcolm in a cave cut into the side of a North Carolina mountain, hauling tobacco or hides through the Southern Appalachian woods to receive words of wisdom. Even with the contemporary trappings of internet songwriting and email and digital studio wizardry at his disposal, he’s not that far removed from that wild-eyed hermit who speaks in riddles and metaphors and delivers prophecies and portents of troubled times. If there's one thing you can depend on Holcombe to deliver, it's honesty — often searing, often painful, always with the sort of deft turn of phrase that has made ardent admirers out of his contemporaries.
“Malcolm Holcombe is an artist of deep mystery and high art; he is who I listen to, and have for over 20 years,” says Darrell Scott, one of Nashville’s premier sessions instrumentalists and a nationally respected singer-songwriter. “All the goods that I value in songs and artistry are in Malcolm.”
“I think for most songwriters, songs are like clothing. Malcolm's songs are his skin,” writes fellow Nashville tunesmith David Olney. “They are a direct expression of who is as a man.”
“People like to say Malcolm Holcombe is a national treasure, and they got that right,” adds R.B. Morris, an East Tennessee singer-songwriter, playwright and the former poet laureate of the City of Knoxville. “He stands on all the old American music traditions and takes them his own way into a very individual music expression.”
“Come Hell or High Water” is trademark Malcolm: chiseled out of a life abundant in both hard times and sweet ones. He was born and raised in these hills, learned to play the flat-top guitar with a local folk group and woodshedded on stages at dance halls, county fairs and community centers throughout the region. He left for a spell, winding up in Nashville and signing a record deal with Geffen that exposed him to a wider audience, but ever since he came back home, he’s been content to do his own thing, earning admiration from contemporaries like Steve Earle and Emmylou Harris and drawing comparisons to everyone from the late Townes Van Zandt to Bruce Springsteen for the way he paints vivid portraits with his songs, turning them into haunting, brooding, moving affairs. There's an ache of loveliness and loneliness, of torment and hope, threaded through each of the 13 tracks on his latest, all of them crafted with the celebrated roots-music couple Iris DeMent and Greg Brown.
As exquisite as both guests sound, however, it’s Malcolm’s roughhewn and ragged voice that “cuts through ya like a frozen butter knife,” to borrow a line from “Old North Side,” one of the new record’s easy-like-Sunday-morning grooves. It’s a song of snapshots as only Malcolm can take them — “gas-guzzling rustbucket” … “JFK on the stickhouse mantle” … “the old man’s porch” … images trumping narrative, a glimpse inside the flurried hurricane of the songwriter’s mind.
“This world is full of goodness and a lot of positivity, but it seems like I can relate to the underdog and the downtrodden, for obvious reasons,” he says. “Those types of songs seem to strike a nerve more deeply than the ‘Yellow Brick Road,’ because I think it’s a struggle for all of us to try to do the next right thing. Some people have the spiritual chemistry to be able to achieve that more easily than others, but I think we all struggle with getting up in the morning and trying to live in our own skin.”
“Feelin’ my age, feelin’ cynical and wrong, too scared to believe I belong anymore,” he ponders on “New Damnation Alley,” one of those vocal tangos with DeMent that takes “Come Hell or High Water” to a level umatched by his past catalog. When they channel the sweet ache of “I Don’t Wanna Disappear” or lift up the gospel-blues praises of “Gone By the Ol’ Sunrise” or send up a warning for the coming “rain and the dread” on “Black Bitter Moon,” Malcolm’s guttural growls and hissing lamentations are tempered by DeMent’s country drawl sweetness. And by the time the record fades into the final track — “Torn and Wrinkled,” a weary rumination on the passage of time and one man’s life’s work (“my conscience carries all the weight to help another’s heavy burden”) — it becomes clearer than ever that Holcombe’s voice deserves some sort of recognition by the state of North Carolina for its unique contribution to the art and tradition of the hill country he calls home.
It's the groan of weathered timber from an abandoned mountain cabin during a spring storm, the lonesome bark of a coyote on the other side of a ridge or the whine of a locomotive cutting through Appalachian valleys in the dark of night. It’s a haunting and mysterious thing, and like most of the mysteries of these hills, the true beauty lies in the eyes — or in this case, the ears — of the beholder.
“It’s not for me to judge what people think or ascertain from the tunes; they get what they get out of them,” he says. “I try not to think about it or get too analytical about any of it. They’re just built through personal experiences and living my life with family and friends, and by the grace of the good Lord, I’m able to be of service and offer some stories.”
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