FOR FOLKS WHO APPRECIATE HEARTFELT EMOTION, understated, poetic lyricism and rough, unadorned, bluegrass-inflected country music that pulls no punches, Malcolm Holcombe is among the very best talents alive today.
Raised in Weaverville, N.C., he’s lived a life others throw away nightly — one that’s taken him all the way from the competetive drag of Nashville showcases to a stint on Geffen Records (during a time when major labels still meant something positive for artists of his ilk), and back again to his humble, Appalachian roots.
Long known as something of a “secret hero” among others in his profession —some much more famous and/or successful than he— over the past few years, a dogged touring schedule and increasingly steady stream of powerful independent albums have put him in front of more people worldwide than might have seemed possible a decade ago. Now, with his brand-new CD Gamblin’ House hitting the Top 10 on the U.S. Americana Music charts, Holcombe’s work seems to finally be receiving deserved adulation from an increasingly large and diverse audience.
It’s always a joy to speak with this opinionated —but humble— student of his craft, because his gruff cadence contradicts his gentle nature, and his homspun analogies and aphorisms always seem to hint at well-reasoned, profound truths.
I caught up with this unpretentious seer by phone at his rural home in advance of his highly anticipated repeat engagement at a local counterculture coffeehouse (where he’s one of the very few acts that can easily command a $10 cover).
Have I caught you in the middle of anything?
Malcolm Holcombe: I’m just sittin’ around. We’ve got a few friends over for the Fourth of July, and that’s real nice. ‘Cept there’s about a million flies in the house. I don’t know who invited them, ya know?
Did you set off any fireworks?
Malcolm Holcombe: Well, Jesse’s nine-and-a-half, so of course we had a few.
Are fireworks legal in N.C.?
Malcolm Holcombe: I don’t know. Maybe? We had a few friends run up and down the road and they grabbed some in Tn., along with another couple buddies that absconded with some out of state doo-dads...
Sorry we’re starting this interview a bit late, but my old van was giving me trouble.
Malcolm Holcombe: I know how that is, man. I’ve sunk a lot of money into a Jeep Grand Cherokee. It’s got 188,000 miles on it! (laughs)
Yeah, well, it’s just that I’m not mechanically inclined at all. I couldn’t fix this thing if my life depended on it.
Malcolm Holcombe: That’s alright there, Jim. Everybody’s good at something.
To those of us who are just observers of your art, it seems you’re experiencing something of a resurgence of interest in your music of late. Does it feel that way to you?
Malcolm Holcombe: A resurgence of interest?
Yeah. It seems like you’ve had a more steady output of records for the past few years and I hear your name here and there more often. Do you get the feeling more people are interested in what you’re up to these days?
Malcolm Holcombe: Ya hang around the barbershop long enough, you’re gonna get a haircut. How does that work for you? (laughs)
(Laughs) Well, I can certainly appreciate that. Speaking of haircuts, when’s the last time you had one?
Malcolm Holcombe: Well, that’s been a long time. It’s been a long time. I remember it was 75 cents, and then a dollar and then a dollar and a quarter when I was growing up in Weaverville. They charge you more now because people have gotta look at magazines and have hair like Mr. and Mrs. Jones, you know?”
You mean a hairstyle as opposed to a haircut?
Malcolm Holcombe: Yep. It used to be a haircut and now it’s a hairstyle! I’ve got other things on my mind. Besides, of course, you can always catch up on some good gossip in the chair. That same barbershop’s still there in Weaverville. I haven’t been there in a while, but it’s still open on Main Street. I remember being about seven, eight or nine years old with all these old guys sitting there smoking cigarettes. A boy couldn’t hardly breathe in there.
What’s the biggest difference between the way you live your life today as say, ten years ago?
Malcolm Holcombe: Well, I got a beautiful family. And, uh, thanks to fans and friends and the grace of the good Lord, I can do some travelling and see some beautiful people and the country and be of service to my fellow man. That’s what I’m tryin’ to be available for. That’s why I’m talkin’ to you again, and thanks for workin’ this one. You’ve always been real kind and a lot of other folks, too. That keeps me and my family with food in our bellies and a roof on our back.
You can probably hear me typing frantically as we talk.
Malcolm Holcombe: Hell, you’re typin’ like a scalded dog! (laughs)
You tour mostly as a solo act, but lately, you’ve been making records with additional musicians or sometimes a full-band. Is it hard for you to shift into that mode of working when you go in the studio?
Malcolm Holcombe: Naw. Shucks no. I was really grateful to be able to use the same band for this new one Gamblin’ House and for the one before, Wager. The bass player, David Roe Rorick, I’d never met him, but we had mutual friends. He’s a pro and a real honest fellow. And gifted. I’ve known (producer) Ray (Kennedy) a long time, and (multi-instrumentalist) Ed Snodderly. So we just got together and said we’ll start it like this and end it like this and have some fun in the middle. (laughs) Yeah, its very humbling to be able to put out another record. We’ve had a lot of support from friends to make it all happen.
Well, these days, I’d say that’s what it takes.
Malcolm Holcombe: We were just talkin’ about Bill Monroe and listening to a lot of old 78s. You know, whether it’s country or bluegrass or whatever you might call it, a lot of folks opened up doors before we ever got in the vans. From the Martha White bus to the old station wagon to the ‘62 or maybe ‘63 Ford 289 rust bucket. How we get around. We gotta get around some way or another. “I’ll Change Your Flat Tire, Merle” — who did that?”
Is that a song?
Malcolm Holcombe: Yeah! You never heard that one?
No, I don’t believe so, but it sounds great. You and your contemporaries on the modern roots-songwriter scene are certainly carrying on a tradition that’s been around for decades.
Malcolm Holcombe: Yeah, we were just talking with a dear friend for pushin’ on 30 years. Talkin’ with him about a young crop of kids that are just pickin’ up one side and down the other. And with soul, not just notes! They’ve got soul and movement to ‘em, some of these young folk, from all over the country. I heard about these three young kids, The Tuttles. They got that cross-pickin’ on the mandolin and acoustic guitar and that lonesome sound that’s kind of bred into your bones. Just like the gospel bands that carry on and keep them old songs floatin’ around.
When I’ve seen you play live, you remind me a lot of John Lee Hooker.
Malcolm Holcombe: Uh-huh?
In that you have your own internal sense of rhythm that makes perfect sense when you’re the only guy onstage, but I imagine could be very difficult for other players to follow — or for you to bend to a common meter or tempo. What sort of effort does that require on your part or theirs to serve the songs best?
Malcolm Holcombe: Well, I just try to pay attention, you know? I try to look at least with one eye on land and head for some direction with the other.
Tell me a bit about this new label that’s behind you. They’re based nearby your home?
Malcolm Holcombe: Yeah, they’re based in Asheville. They’re called Echo Mountain records, and they’re an indie, fledgling label. They’ve been very supportive, and I’ve been grateful to work with them. They’re working very hard over there. I’m especially grateful for the artistic control and freedom that was given to Ray Kennedy and myself. It was very welcomed and appreciated to be working with Ray and to be able to keep the breath off our necks. (laughs) Yes. So, there wasn’t anybody breathin’ down our necks but each other!
I know you’ve run into some debilitating trouble with the music biz in the past. Does this feel like a comfortable label situation so far?
Malcolm Holcombe: Well, you know, we’ve all got levels of comfort and that’s directly related to our degree of spirituality. So, there you go.
What sort of goals or hopes does this label have for your career, and how much of a role are they looking to play in making those things happen?
Malcolm Holcombe: Well, I can’t second-guess anybody that I know or work with. That’s some thing.
How long did it take to actually make this new album?
Malcolm Holcombe: About five or six days. We had enough songs to do an EP called Wager, and then the new LP Gamblin’ House. We hunkered down and did them both at the same time.
Did you decide which songs would be used for the EP ahead of time, or only after you had a chance to listen to the totality of the work you’d done?
Malcolm Holcombe: After we got all the songs together and listened to ‘em, me and Ray and my wife all sat down and drew names out of the hat. You know, to make sure our heads were bigger than the hat.
I’m curious about the packaging for the new album. Did you draw the cover?
Malcolm Holcombe: No, goodness no! I had a fractured idea, and I called a buddy of mine who’s an architect and a blues player. I ran it by him and said, see if you can scratch this out. I was glad he was able to do it.
Is there a constant conceptual theme that runs through Gamblin’ House?
Malcolm Holcombe: Well, you know these have been difficult times the world over, and in our country and in every other country there are crosses to bear, you know? So, it’s been on many hearts and many minds, from soldiers to children to parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. Every generation has a responsibility and an accountability to their God and their family and fellow man. So there’s just a lot of points that have surfaced in these last few years that needed my attention, and that I felt I was obligated to contribute my opinion and thoughts on. Hopefully they’ll help reflect what’s on the minds and in the hearts of people in America and throughout the world. Now, whether that’s achieved or not, I don’t know. That’s not my job to make such a call. That’s what I learned a long time ago in Nashville — they told me, “If you sling enough bologna up against the wall, some of it’s gonna stick."
Where did the idea come from for the drawing inside the CD that folds out into a poster?
Malcolm Holcombe: I’m not too handy with a pencil, but I had this idea for the poster —which is also the artwork on the CD itself— and so I kinda sketched out a little “caveman drawing” and then Ray Kennedy’s mentioned his wife was good with a pen, so I let her take a stab at it. She made it come to life. She made it her own. Her name’s Siobhan, which is Irish. Ray’s wife really put a trip on that man, and she nailed it!
Do you have a favorite track on the record or is there a particular tune you see as the focal point of the album?
Malcolm Holcombe: “Gamblin’ House.” There’s a couple of ‘em I like good, but I don’t know, Jim. Songs are songs and kids are kids, man, and you get into this muse thing... Well, I think that’s bullshit! I mean, that’s my opinion. I got no problem with anybody else, right or wrong.
I’m curious as to your songwriting process. I’m sure each song may come to you in its own unique way, but I wonder if you ever have a topic or a tale or a thought in mind that you want to express in song, and so you actually try to write a lyric that will somehow get across an existing idea, or if it’s more common that you simply write a song, and only later perhaps come to understand what it means to you.
Malcolm Holcombe: Well, you know, if you wanna get a haircut, or you think you need a haircut, you gotta walk into the barbershop! You stand out in the middle of the street, you’ll get run over. So, what’s that old saying? The lazy foot gathers no moss? Or corns. Yeah, man, I gotta cut my corns. You ever had corns?
No, I don’t believe so. Is that like a bunion?
Malcolm Holcombe: Sorta, but it’s deep-rooted in your foot. You need a damn mouse to pull it out. You gotta dig down there to get to it. So, if you think you need a song that needs writin’, you gotta sit down and put a pen in your hand and grab it. Go ahead, change a tire and get to work!
Have you ever gone through extended periods where the songs just wouldn’t come?
Malcolm Holcombe: Nah. Like I said, you gotta be willin’ to show up. Either get behind the wheel or stick your thumb out. Put a pencil in your hand, or maybe you got a good memory. Somthin’ that rattles your ribs with a butter knife or somethin’ that really sings in your heart. That gestates in there. You know, hey man, you made it to work! Put another tire on, fix the engine, whatever you need to do. You play too, don’t you? How’s that band of yours doin’?
Well, we’re actually about to out a new CD.
Malcolm Holcombe: That’s great!
We’re calling it our “country record”. It’s about as country as we get. We do a Mel Tillis song on there, though, so that’s pretty darn country. (laughs)
Malcolm Holcombe: I always liked Mel Tillis. Lord, yeah! I can’t wait to hear it, man.
You’ve played Savannah several times it the past, and usually at the Sentient Bean. Is that venue similar at all to the types of places you normally play, or is the size and the way it’s laid out kind of an exception to the rule?
Malcolm Holcombe: Hey man, they got electricity. More importantly, some people show up! It’s a very pretty town and it’s one of our favorite places to play.
In the past we’ve talked about some of your songwriting heroes and people you consider tops at their game. Are there any artists you’ve been enjoying listening to lately that you could recommend to folks?
Malcolm Holcombe: Yeah, David Olney. I’ve been doing some shows with David. I’ve known him for pushin’ on 20 years. Man, he is hot as a fox. Pertinent. And he’s rockin; hard. He’s a wonderful player. Soulful, serious, slappin’ it, man! Ticklin’, slitherin’ and floatin’ and everything else. (laughs) Yeah, David’s a-slitherin’ and a-floatin’!
We just celebrated Independence Day. Any thoughts on what that might mean to you or the rest of the country in this day and age?
Malcolm Holcombe: Well, I tell you what. I voted for Obama. It’s time to shake things up and he’s gettin’ a lot of younger people out there to register. I think he has a purpose and soul very akin to JFK and Martin Luther King, and I really have faith and hope in this gentleman. I’ve got faith and hope and that’s what keeps us goin’, right? Family, friends and the universe.
I just have a few more short questions. What’s the single biggest misconception you think people may have of you?
Malcolm Holcombe: Ahhhh... There you go again! (laughs) I can’t second-guess people, you know.
What’s the hardest part about being Malcolm Holcombe?
Malcolm Holcombe: Well, it’s just a continuum to strengthen my spirituality and my relationship to God and my fellow man. I always gotta check my motives.
What’s the best part about being Malcolm Holcombe?
Malcolm Holcombe: I’ve been blessed. To be a spit in the ocean is very humbling, and to see smiles and laughter and have the fundamentals: a beautiful family and friends. We all have to separate the wheat from the chaff. It’s an ongoing, progressive lot in life.
What: Malcombe Holcombe
Where: The Sentient Bean
When: 8 pm, Fri., July 11
Cost: $10 for ALL-AGES