Malcom Holcombe may just be one of the best American songwriters youve never heard.
Or heard of.
While well-known in the type of circles that follow such things as deeply personal singer/songwriters, hes virtually anonymous to the vast majority of the record buying public. Thats a true shame, as the 48-year old guitarist is highly revered by such luminaries in his field as Steve Earle and the Grammy-winning Lucinda Williams. In fact, it was only through the almost constant pleading of those two stars that Holcombes 1996 Geffen debut A Hundred Lies was finally released in 1999 after more than three years sitting on a shelf.
The unfortunate by-product of a corporate merger had left the artists first chance at a national audience tossed aside as not commercial enough, and viewed as anything but a priority by the labels new owners.
However, after a tiny niche imprint finally got the message and pressed the record, it quickly earned a rare four-star review in Rolling Stone from no less a finicky scribe than David Fricke, who proclaimed it one of the finest albums of its type in decades.
A modicum of underground notoriety followed, but even after that great stroke of good fortune the mercurial Holcombe (whose measured, poetic discourse and still-strong Weaverville, North Carolina drawl at times draws unavoidable comparisons to Billy Bob Thorntons character in the film Sling Blade) remains a figure on the edges of the Americana scene.
After enough hard times and shady Nashville deals to fill a thousand tearjerkers, he now lives near Asheville in Swannanoa, North Carolina, with a wife and children. He tours infrequently, but has released two subsequent indie albums, both lauded by critics worldwide for their haunting authenticity and intensely private and clear-eyed nature.
Known to be mesmerizing and unforgettable in concert (he's said to go from a whisper to a scream and has been known at times to prowl the stage with a simmering fury), he continues to write and perform in the words of Fricke, blues in motion, mapping (the) backwoods corners of his heart.
Malcom Holcombe spoke with me from his home in the mountains about his influences, his inspirations, and his unabiding faith in the divine.
Connect Savannah: I know that long before you hit Nashville, you worked for years as a bar musician in the Tampa Bay area. Everyone I know whos spent much time playing music in Florida has plenty of strange tales...
Malcom Holcombe: You know what? Yeahhh... Uh... Very well said. Very well said. Yeah.
Connect Savannah: When A Hundred Lies finally hit the streets, you got compared a lot to '60s troubadours like Dave Van Ronk, Tim Hardin and Eric Andersen. Would it be a mistake to assume you were already conversant with their work and were aiming in that direction? Or were those critics just hearing some of their own record collection in your songs?
Malcom Holcombe: You know, thats flattering to me. Im glad to hear folks mentioning mentors of mine. Tim Hardin, Tom Paxton and some of the folks that get mentioned... and in my mind, those are troubadour and folk musicians and songwriters. I dont have any of their records, but Ive heard their stuff for many years. Tim Hardin... those were beautiful, soulful and real songs. So, to be compared to these people is really humbling to me. I dont read that stuff, you know.
Connect Savannah: Are you ever surprised at some of the artists whose work is compared to your own?
Malcom Holcombe: I can understand that people dance to a different drummer you know? Everybody has their own sounds in their head, and their heart, you know... Somehow theyre hand in hand, and sometimes theyre miles apart. Im grateful that anybody would take enough time to listen and make a comment at all.
Connect Savannah: Is there anything youve listened to lately that occupies the same space as your initial mentors?
Malcom Holcombe: Ahh... Good question! Well, Dave Olneys still out there. Tony Arata is a songwriter awww, well you know all about Tony, youre from Savannah!
Connect Savannah: Yeah. hes sort of a favorite son around these parts.
Malcom Holcombe: Hes a wonderful gentleman, and inspired me when I moved to Nashville more than anyone in my life. Hes a dear friend and has helped me more than hell ever know. As a child of God and a human being on this planet, and as a songwriter. Just his passion and his emotion and his truthfulness. Hes very humble. Weve done some shows together and weve got one coming up. And I think of anyone these days, he should be hand in hand with Tim Hardin, Tom Paxton, Burl Ives, on down the line.
Connect Savannah: People say that he has a certain way about him.
Malcom Holcombe: Well, he almost ran me over in his Grand Prix in a parkin lot one time! When you dont pave it, you get potholes, you know? But he stuck his hand out to shake my hand before he cut the wheel, you know! So, hes a good driver in dirt parkin lots. (laughs)
Connect Savannah: What was it like working with Dylan sideman Steven Soles on A Hundred Lies?
Malcom Holcombe: Well, hes a good producer. He stayed outta the way and called up some folks. He kinda let it flow. We learned the songs chain smokin and drinkin coffee outside his studio in Santa Monica. He was wonderful to work with and very positive. He and I and Greg Leisz would just sit around and Id show em how the songs went and then as soon as we had em wed go inside and cut it.
Connect Savannah: Ive heard you mention in interviews before that you feel like your talent is a gift from God.
Malcom Holcombe: Well, I think weve all got gifts that were given at birth. You know, life is one. What we do with those is a big responsibility, even if youre pushin a pencil. I have taken advantage of that. I guess theres some skill involved, but I dont think theres much skill in what I do. Thats just the way it is, you now? No man is an island. People call Him different names, but what I believe is that its a gift from someone bigger than me. So, its God. The big picture. I mean, The Man. Without bein ambiguous or too vague. Its a very personal thing to me. To all of us. Whatever we do is our spirituality. I try to reflect that in some songs. Theyre not contrived as much. I try not to contrive em. I try to make it at least as palatable as I can for my ownself. I try to deliver. Thats my job, and its been my job for a long time. Sometimes I show up for work and sometimes I dont. Im tryin to show up for work these days. I mean, if youre gonna make a ham sandwich, well then make it! Make it the best that you can with what youve got. If youre gonna eat it, eat it. If youve got any left over, you might wanna split it three ways. You could look around and see whos hungry. Some of the songs aint pretty. Well, life aint pretty. Life isnt a bowl of Cherrios! Or a bowl of cherries, or whatever. You know that yourself. Reality is not pretty. Sometimes it is pretty. The suns shining out here today.
Connect Savannah: Are you trying through songs to find the beauty in the ugliness? Does that make sense?
Malcom Holcombe: Yeah, it makes sense. But Im not tryin to make a purse out of a sows ear. Its a sows ear. Call a spade a spade, you know?
Malcom Holcombe plays The First Friday for Folk, Friday at 7:30 pm, at the Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church (429 Abercorn St.). Admission is free, with a suggested $2 donation.