Twangville - May 2, 2017

Many people would argue that Gillian Welch captures all the beauty of Appalachia in her songs and performance.  You can hear the clear mountain streams and the fog draped valleys in the simple, haunting melodies she’s known for creating.  If that’s the case, then Malcolm Holcombe is the stark reality of last century’s natural resource and the SNAP program.  Produced by an insightful Darrell Scott, Pretty Little Troubles lets a coal miner’s poet lyrics make their impact while the instrumental accompaniments keep the songs from turning maudlin.

 Good Ole Days leads the pack with a banjo and guitar picking tribute to the fact those days were anything but good.  That’s what we reminisce about, though.  Damn Weeds is a metaphor for thinking it’s ever going to be the case you can just rest and enjoy the good.  The Sky Stood Still is a walking blues number, but surprises with a little classical violin instead of the fiddle solo.  The title track gives a kind of Tom Waits treatment to the situation with talking vocals and jazz feeling to the background instruments.

Pretty Little Troubles is not a single topic project, however.  Holcombe has been a traveling musician for decades and has the good stories to prove it.  South Hampton Street had a displaced gypsy feel to it long before I heard the lyric about the gypsy woman on south Hampton Stree.  The Eyes O’ Josephine is a lilting, Celtic tune with a classic broken heart theme.  Bury, England documents a gig in the industrial part of the UK where the building “smelled like an old folks home inside” and the coffee the venue provided wasn’t fit for a dog.  The dual leads from Holcombe’s guitar and Jared Tyler’s dobro make the travelogue the catchiest song on the record.

 Pretty Little Troubles is not a CD you put on for guests at a party.  It’s Americana noir.  But it will serve to remind you how good your station in life really is.  For that, it’s uplifting.  Add the no-held-punches of the lyrics and the first rate melodies and it’s an album that adds to any folk collection.

- by Shawn Underwood

Charleston Gazette Mail - May 9, 2017

There’s a rough-hewn but honest ring to the music of North Carolina singer/songwriter Malcolm Holcombe.

Holcombe, who performs Sunday night on “Mountain Stage” at the Clay Center, is no stranger to the rough and tumble — and sometimes tragic — tales contained in his songs.

He spent years bouncing around, playing small bars and clubs. He drank too much, spent the occasional night in jail, hitchhiked and lived a harder life than some.

“I don’t recommend trying for the hardscrabble life,” he said. “You have to drive and aim for the potholes.”

But living hard has suited him and given him a perspective in writing about the poor and disenfranchised that’s closer to the bone.

More than anything else, Holcombe writes about people. It’s what he knows.

“We’re all dots that connect,” he said. “We’re all of one blood, though some of us are a little tainted.”

Holcombe included himself as part of the tainted, and didn’t see himself as having been all that remarkable. He doesn’t remember when he started writing songs, exactly — somewhere in his teens — and his music education was piecemeal.

“It was nothing different than anybody else,” he said. “I had some family that picked a little. I had friends that picked a little. I made it through my first chord book and that was as far as I went with that.”

He listened to his mother’s record collection, which included Tennessee Ernie Ford and Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite.”

“Mother played the French harp [harmonica]. I don’t know how she did it. She had bronchitis,” he said.

But they played together some. He said she told him not to sing through his nose.

Holcombe laughed about it and said, “Our parents tell us all kinds of things, don’t they?”

His taste in music and his interest was influenced by what was around him. His family and friends, sure, but also whatever was on the television.

“I was like everybody else, watching Ed Sullivan on the TV and Flatt and Scruggs,” he said. “The same as everybody else.

Despite some nice notices for his latest record, “Pretty Little Troubles,” produced by acclaimed songwriter Darrell Scott, Holcombe said he hadn’t made up his mind about whether he was any good at writing songs. But he knows what he likes — fewer songs about himself, more songs about the world he inhabits.

Holcombe lives in the South, which isn’t just geography, but is an entire culture of weary, rural people living through difficult times.

West Virginia is part or the South, too.

“My wife’s grandfather and wife came from St. Petersburg, Russia in the 1920s,” Holcombe said. “His name was Joseph. He worked in the coal mines in and outside of Charleston back in the 1920s and ’30s.”

Their story became the song “Good Ol’ Days.”

Holcombe isn’t sure what the months ahead mean for him. He’ll be out on the road in support of the new record, but also keeping his eyes and ears open. New songs sometimes show up when he travels.

“Stirring up the dust in my old truck does more for me than writing my poor, pitiful me drunk heartbreak stories,” he said. “At least, that’s what interests me.”

- by Bill Lynch

AltCountry.NL - May 16, 2017

Malcolm Holcombe

Opgeslagen in: RECENSIES — John Gjaltema @ 23:35   

Zonder problemen is Malcolm Holcombe nergens. Waar zou hij in godsnaam over moeten zingen? De Amerikaan bestaat van de problemen. Verdient zijn boterham met het zingen over alle sores die hem in deze problematische tijden overkomen. Pretty Little Troubles (Singular Recordings) noemde hij zijn nieuwste album. Eerlijk is hij wel. De zwartgallige blues en country, beide formuleringen zijn van toepassing, helt deze keer door de productie van Darrell Scott net iets meer over naar de countrykant. Op het zich in de kolenmijnen van West Virginia afspelende Good Ole Days is er de banjo van de producer, andere nummers kleurt hij met bouzouki, Weissenborn, steelgitaar mandola, baritongitaren of hij gaat achter de piano zitten of rinkelt wat aan bellen. Daarnaast trekt Joey Miskulin met accordeon door South Hampton Street. Die toevoegingen zorgen ervoor dat dit niet zomaar een nieuw album is waarop Holcombe zijn kleine zorgen uitserveert, omdat hij nu eenmaal niet anders kan. Omdat hij ervan moet leven bijvoorbeeld. Nee, Holcombe overtuigt met deze collectie liedjes die de crème de la crème van Nashville aangreep om hier iets bijzonders neer te zetten. Rocky Ground heeft zowaar wat van Guy Clark. Wat ons bij de opmerking brengt dat ook Verlon Thompson present is op dit album. Op Bury, England haalt Holcombe nog even herinneringen op aan Clark.


- by John Gialtema

Keys and Chords (Belgium) - May 16, 2017

MALCOLM HOLCOMBE: PRETTY LITTLE TROUBLES

Heel zelden krijg je een cd, waarvan je niet goed weet wat je ermee moet. Wel ‘Pretty Little Troubles’ van de uit de Blue Ridge Mountains, North Carolina komende Malcolm Holcombe, is er zo eentje. Met zijn 61 jaren is Malcolm niet meer van de jongsten en zo klinkt hij ook. Vocaal doet hij mij het meest denken aan Watermelon Slim, die ook een heel apart stemgeluid heeft en in een vakje kan je Malcolm al helemaal niet stoppen. Het lijkt wel een stoelendans. Malcolm switcht dat het een lieve lust is tussen folk, blues, country en Americana. Zelf bespeelt hij de akoestische gitaar en laat hij zich op deze opnames bijstaan op mandoline, dobro, percussie, bas, accordeon en harmonica. Verwacht echter geen opgepoetste songs. Neen, het klinkt allemaal erg rudimentair, wat volgens mij ook aansluit bij Malcolms levenswijze. Wat je de man zeker niet kan verwijten, is dat hij niet rauw, authentiek en eerlijk klinkt. Ik kan me voorstellen dat niet iedereen zal vallen voor ‘Pretty Little Troubles’, maar ik kan wel stellen dat Malcolm bij mij een gevoelige snaar geraakt heeft. Tussen de vele momenteel op de markt gegooide als blues, folk, country en Americana bestempelde albums, is deze van Malcolm Holcombe toch een (h)eerlijk lichtpunt.
 
Lambert Smits (4)
If you are a fan of honest, raw, authentic sounding folk, blues, country and Americana, then Malcolm Holcombe is your man!

-by Lambert Smits

Blues Magazine (NL) - May 16, 2017

Another simply wonderful release from one of North Carolina’s genuine originals, a guy who is pretty much without peer these days. Malcolm Holcombe has a voice that is pure gravel and grit, smoky and smoke-fuelled, always edgy, blisteringly demanding and decidedly different. Produced by Americana master-musician and singer-songwriter Darrell Scott, Holcombe is perfectly matched here in the studio by a producer who is at the top of his game in and as part of the Nashville machine.

Holcombe himself seems to have surfaced fully formed, with a song-writing mastery and mystery that few, if any, of his current US contemporaries can match. Rolling Stone magazine in the US has described him as ‘….haunted country, acoustic blues and rugged folk,’ an enviable accolade that aptly illustrates his current importance and place in the US music world.

‘Pretty Little Troubles’ is possibly his finest release so far, following on from the past two highly praised offerings, ‘Gambling House’ and ‘The RCA Sessions.’ This is music delivered with raucous, raw vocals, storytelling lyrics that often surprise and always engage, and fine blues-undercurrents wrapped together with fine fretwork and acoustic picking that is both gripping and grizzled.

Holcombe is a modern musical troubadour who readily touches parts others never get near, and who, without fail, produces the real-deal, rumbling acoustic music with meaning and memorable flair. ‘Pretty Little Troubles’ is a great album, a positive must-have for anyone who loves and values originality and sparkle with a traditional acoustic, country-blues grounding.

- by Iain Patience

music-news.com - May 12, 2017

Pretty Little Troubles

I love to get a new Malcolm Holcombe for review; he has never let me down in the past and he sure as heck doesn’t this time.

Last year’s release, ‘Another Black Hole’, was one of my albums of the year and here he has teamed up with producer Darrell Scott to make one that is at least as good.

Holcombe’s ‘voice’ is not exactly musical but he carries emotion more poignantly than the finest of opera baritones and his songs resonate with the hardships and desperation of the Blue Ridge Mountains where he was raised but he also paints pictures of the positivity of striving to survive.

Here he opens with a chiller of a number in ‘Crippled Point O’ View’ with Jelly Roll Johnson’s harmonica creating a lonely place. ‘Yours No More’ is a tribute to the immigrants and refugees who have worked so hard to make America the strong state it is today.
When he livens things up as on ‘Good Ole Days’ there is still a sharp and cutting turn of phrase as what sounds like a fun bit of bluegrass looks at the problems of the good old days – seriously sarcastic and brilliant for it.
The title track has a jaunty lift to it but those sardonic vocals tell the story very differently while ‘Bury England’ tells the tale of a gig in …. Bury, England.

Malcolm Holcombe is a unique songwriter, never sorry for himself but often filled with righteous anger at the state of the world and the unfair hardships that he and his people have had to struggle through. The important thing, for me, is that there is no sense of whingeing or moaning and he makes music that is all the stronger for it.

The album is flawless, swimming in integrity and beautifully played. Another masterpiece.


- by Andy Snipper

Americana UK - May 8, 2017

Malcolm Holcombe “Pretty Little Troubles” (Gypsy Eyes Music, 2017)

For those not familiar with Malcolm Holcombe, he is somewhat of an institution. There aren’t many artists that can say they’ve had a career quite like him and after 20 years and 15 studio recordings, he’s still going as strong as ever and continuing to expand on the vast body of work he has built. The production on the record is crisp and clean and allows room for the impressive guitar skills of Holcombe to shine through along with some subtle and perfectly placed harmonica to compliment the gravelly, whiskey-drenched and rough-around-the-edges vocals we’ve come to expect from him.
 
That being said, at times and even with the quality of the production on the record, it is difficult to understand the lyrics and can make the songs a tough listen, however, these moments are few and far between and display a level of authenticity often brushed over or touched up on modern recordings if nothing else.
 
The record kicks off with a classic blues number Crippled Point O’ View and for the next few tracks, we are treated to a brief showcase of sorts, demonstrating the variety of styles which he is able to lend his talents to and the versatility he has to offer. From the tender ballad Yours No More, through the foot-stomping, bluegrass number Good Ole Days and finishing up with the infectious Outta Luck, the variety on offer throughout this record is impressive to say the least and really cements Holcombe as more than just a country-blues singer as opposed to a multi-faceted artist who has honed his craft over the course of many years in the game. However, these aren’t the only highlights of the record and the diversity never slows up, as further down the line there is album namesake and brilliant walking-blues number Pretty Little Troubles and a tale of a trip to a quaint UK town in Bury, England featuring some brilliant anecdotes about “the worst cup o’ coffee” he ever had to drink, amongst other things. Holcombe is at his best on tracks like these when he is playing his own brand of the blues and finding humour in the more troubling times whilst delivering them in such a colloquial manner that you almost feel like you’re right there with him trading stories.
 
Overall, ‘Pretty Little Troubles’ is a solid record and a great addition to an ever-growing discography from a man that never seems short of an interesting story to tell and I’m sure it won’t be long before we hear from him again.

Summary: Malcolm Holcombe produces another solid collection of anecdotal folk-blues on his 15th studio recording.

- by David Stevenson

Lonesome Highway (Ireland) - May 3rd, 2017

Malcolm Holcombe Pretty Little Troubles Singular

There is little doubt that Holcombe has his detractors as well as his admirers. His grit and gravel sandpaper voice is not to everyone’s taste, but those that do fall under his spell seem to be growing and he has certainly been prolific of late with a number of albums to his credit over the last few years. This time out noted artist in his own right Darrell Scott has taken on the production duties. Holcombe’s bluesy tales, his own pretty little troubles, are as often about the world around him and how it is being eroded (Yours No More, Good Ole Days, Damn Weeds) as about his own life and times (Crippled Point O’ View, Outta Luck), some of the songs encompass both.

However these tales of woe are given a musical setting that always make them never less than interesting with a wide range of instruments adding substance and sustenance to the hardworn nature of the music. Many of the instruments are played by Scott himself but with major contributions from Jelly Roll Johnson, Joey Miskulin, Verlon Thompson and Denis Crouch. Mike McGoldrick brings a distinctly Celtic flavour to The Eyes O’ Josephine with Uilleann pipes, which makes that song an immediate standout. Yet in the end it is Holcombe’s voice which is the most prominent feature of the tracks and the success of the album will largely depend on your liking for that particular vocal inflection.

For those that do like this sound, Pretty Little Troubles is a compelling album that employs all the skills of its participants to best advantage which makes it a highpoint of Holcombe recorded output. His pretty little troubles have produced some nuanced and balanced personal and unique representations of the blues that are as effective as many of the more applauded practitioners of that often ignored genre. Malcolm Holcombe continues to do it his own way. Singular indeed.

- by Stephen Rapid

Country Standard Time - May 2nd, 2017

Malcolm Holcombe's voice leaves him sounding much like an ancient Mississippi bluesman for much of "Pretty Little Troubles." (In fact, the album's title cut is an acoustic blues workout that previews what John Hiatt might well sound like, say, 30 years from now). Holcombe even gets into character, playing the role of what sounds like a sharecropper's fate during "Rocky Ground," where this characteristic working man sings of both tobacco fields and loved ones. The latter also trades in acoustic blues for something a little more country, as the track is highlighted by steel guitar and harmonica.

"Pretty Little Troubles" isn't exactly what one would term an uplifting work. Many of these musical sketches are put to bluesy grooves because, well, Holcombe is mostly singing the blues. Furthermore, Holcombe's voice is permanently portraying a man of constant sorrow, seemingly in constant pain. "The Eyes O'Josephine," with its Irish folk song arrangement, is a welcome break from this otherwise mostly bleak Southern trudge. It sounds somewhat like what an Irish-inspired song from Steve Earle might sound like these days with his time-ravaged voice.

Between lines during "Bury, England," the listener can hear Holcombe breathing heavily as he sings at one point about a detestable smoking habit. Let's hope he's not speaking/singing biographically. Perhaps this is simply his chosen vocal style.

The music filling out "Pretty Little Troubles" concerns few topics either 'pretty' or 'little.' It is, though, as real and tangible as the rocky ground.

- by Dan MacIntosh

Knoxville News Sentinel - April 13, 2017

Malcolm Holcombe is the sort of songwriter other songwriters revere. The title might be tossed around loosely for others, but he’s the sort who gets called “the real deal” for a reason. His songs ring true. There’s a sense of place. His depiction of growing up in Appalachia isn’t affected, but there’s also a universality that anyone can get.

At the moment, though, “the real deal” is cleaning out his car in Swannanoa, N.C., where he lives. The spotty cellphone reception makes Holcombe’s voice even more craggy and slurred than it is in normal conversation. He laughs easily, though, and he recognizes that the voice on the other end is familiar.

“There’s a lot of folks who’ve been really good to me,” says Holcombe. “Knoxville has been mighty good, unless they lose a football game!”

Holcombe laughs, talking about UT football fans.

“When I lived in Nashville I had a next-door neighbor who painted his house orange and white.”

Holcombe has just released his new album, “Pretty Little Troubles,” produced by fellow singer-songwriter-instrumentalist great Darrell Scott.

Holcombe has worked on his own and with producers for years. He says there are definitely advantages to working with producers.

“It’s good to get another angle, another perspective,” he says. “But I can’t keep my mouth shut. I got some ideas, too. … I’ve known Darrell for a long time and he’s a real gifted feller. It’s a real privilege to work with him.”

Scott has praised Holcombe long before he signed on to produce the album, saying in an earlier interview, “I listen to him more than I listen to anybody. I just love his writing.”

Holcombe was born in Asheville, N.C., and raised in Weaverville, N.C. He played with Asheville bands The Hilltoppers and Redwing when he was a teenager, but moved on to performing solo shows as a singer-songwriter.

He says the music of Flatt and Scruggs and dobro player Josh Graves really caught his ear while growing up in the 1970s.

“It wasn’t puberty music,” says Holcombe. “Maybe it was anti-puberty music!”

In the mid-1990s he became the talk of Nashville. He was known for terrific songs, sometimes wonderful performances and a penchant for drinking. Steve Earle, no stranger to abusing substances, called Holcombe “the best songwriter I’ve ever had to throw out of my studio.”

Geffen Records signed Holcombe to a recording contract, and his 1996 debut album, “A Hundred Lies,” was sent to critics, who began writing glowing reviews. Unfortunately, a label shake-up saw the album shelved before it was ever offered to the public.

When the disc was finally released in 1999, Holcombe had moved back to North Carolina and the buzz was on other newer artists. For those who heard him, though, Holcombe’s reputation never faltered. He released the album “Another Wisdom” in 2004 and has followed regularly with acclaimed albums ever since.

Asked about the consistent quality of his songwriting and his output, Holcombe deflects to talk about some of the vintage music he’s been listening to lately — Old and in the Way, Gram Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers, The Desert Rose Band and others.

“It’s still weighing on me,” Holcombe says of the music. “Then there’s Tom Paxton, Tim Hardin, Phil Ochs and Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, people who were spokesmen for the common man. It’s stuff that sticks in my head. Eric Taylor is another one. He shoots from the hip and still comes across. Darrell (Scott) is another one and David Olney is, too."

Many of those artists came from the protest movement, and Holcombe’s new album certainly has a topical feel, opening with the song “Crippled Point of View” and continuing with a song that addresses immigration.

“I think there’s a lot of stuff on people’s minds and maybe they’re fearful to express it,” says Holcombe. “Especially with this new administration, you look in people’s eyes and they’re confused and angry, maybe at a loss for words, and they’re hurting in their hearts. Things are not good. Whether you’re losing your job or your insurance and your kids are sick or you’re sick. I just think we’ve got our priorities mixed up. We’re just going for the coin.”

Holcombe says giving up alcohol was probably the biggest best decision he ever made.

“And that probably covers the rest of them, too! But that was just a gift. God did that.”

Holcombe tends to deflect compliments. Like an older generation, praise seems to embarrass him. And he’d just as soon talk about the advice of that older generation than current events or the art of songwriting:

“My dad said, ‘Don’t ever quit your day job’ and I wish I’d listened!”

- by Wayne Bledsoe

Elmore Magazine - April 7, 2017

Malcolm Holcombe

Pretty Little Troubles

 | April 7th, 2017

Artist:     Malcolm Holcombe

Album:     Pretty Little Troubles

Label:     Gypsy Eyes Music

Release Date:     4/7/2017

 

Malcolm Holcombe is a troubadour seemingly from another age. Somehow his vivid imagery can evoke characters right out of a Dickens novel or, closer to home, southern writers like Faulkner or Eudora Welty. Straight out of the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, Holcombe brings his observant keen eye to the people of the region, their struggles, their hard earned victories, and somehow many of his observations and short vignettes are widely applicable to all of us.

Following 2016’s highly acclaimed Another Black Hole, Holcombe turned to kindred spirit, multi-instrumentalist, and singer-songwriter Darrell Scott to produce this effort. “Malcolm Holcombe is an artist of deep mystery and high art,” says Scott. “He is who I listen to, and have for over 20 years—this record goes on my list of “working with my heroes”—all the goods that I value in songs and artistry are in Malcolm—the real deal.” Scott plays all kinds of instruments but also enlists the support of Holcombe’s long-time cohort, Jared Tyler on mandolin and dobro, Dennis Crouch on bass, Verlon Thompson on acoustic guitar and Marco Giovino on percussion. Other players guest on select tracks.

Holcombe has his own unique guitar style, a hybrid of fingerpicking and strumming, taking the listener from blues-based riffs to Celtic balladry. As an aside, if you get a chance to see Holcombe live, do so. He is absolutely riveting as he gets into a focused, almost hypnotic zone while rocking back and forth in his chair. And, his gruff, resonant, cigarette-burned voice belies his sense for melody – many of his songs have really catchy hooks.

Close your eyes. You can see his characters emerging from the coal mines, heading for the barroom, or home to a rather dilapidated dwelling where a wife struggles to feed too many kids, while fending off the arguments of her beaten down, disgruntled husband. Case in point, here are some excerpted lyrics from “Good Ol’ Days” – “Joseph Marta seven kids/I know them names by heart/your mother’s father worked the mines/Petersburg to Charleston/St. Petersburg to Charleston” and later “fifty cents a bloody day/no child labor laws/most them lil’ babies died/disease and alcohol/disease and alcohol.” Songwriters like Guy Clark, Butch Hancock, and Eric Taylor can paint vivid pictures of the many aspects of Texas. In a similar way Holcombe does the same for Appalachia but while I can come up with a host of Texas writers, I don’t have a long list of Appalachian bards.

While Holcombe’s lyrics, unique voice and guitar are enough for the singer-songwriter devotee, this is his most musically adorned album. Much of that is due to Scott, adding a banjo or pedal steel in the right places, bringing in the Celtic touch of Ulleann whistles and pipes in “Eyes of Josephine,” and even a string arrangement for “The Sky Stood Still”. These flourishes make this album a bit more accessible than previous Holcombe outings.

After a day of hard work, many seek comfort by reaching for the bottle. Perhaps a better alternative is to just sit down and listen to Holcombe, not to say the two need be mutually exclusive. Holcombe is indeed one-of-a-kind. Seek him out.

- by Jim Hynes

The Alternate Root - April 2017

MALCOLM HOLCOMBE - PRETTY LITTLE TROUBLES

Malcolm Holcombe (from the album Pretty Little Troubles)

The words of Malcolm Holcombe travel back roads. The tales on Pretty Little Troubles, his latest release, are aimed at lives that exist beyond of city limits. The rhythms shudder and sway as clouds roll by in colors of red, white, and blue in “The Sky Stood Still” while notes and chords quiet to a hush for “Rocky Ground” as neighbors rattle over the finger-picking on “Damn Weeds” and the title track spills its warnings. Malcolm Holcombe is the preacher with a clear understanding of the ways of his flock, a grifter that wins confidence by becoming one with his targets, the narrator that weaves his story so intricately that listeners feel it is their own. Pretty Little Troubles was recorded in The Outlaw Music Sanctuary located at Hippie Jack’s in Crawford, Tennessee with Darrell Scott sitting in the producer chair as well as joining Malcolm’s band backing with piano, jingle bells, electric guitar, banjo, pedal steel and a host of other stringed instruments.

The Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina nurtured the spirit found in the words and music of Malcolm Holcombe as he carves his poetry into the stones of high hill country. Malcolm Holcombe sings over a rumble of percussion as he speaks a “Crippled Point of View”. Pretty Little Troubles travels on a Celtic air over to Belfast for the viewing of “The Eyes O’ Josephine”, crosses borders to play a gig in “Bury, England”, and careens down “South Hampton Street” to the sound of a gypsy concertina. Malcolm Holcombe guides memories with rapid wordplay as he recalls “Good Ole Days” while he welcomes the unwanted into the soft embrace of “Yours No More” and closes the door to Pretty Little Troubles as he exits the album citing daily battles that are overcome with the inspiration found in his words on “We Struggle”.

- by Danny McCloseky

Nashville Scene - April 6, 2017

Malcolm Holcombe Keeps Telling Appalachian Tales on Pretty Little Troubles

Holcombe releases his latest this week, and plays Music City Roots on Wednesday

Considering a writer’s approach to music, the American composer Aaron Copland wrote, “He seems to be most uncomfortable with it, and when he puts two words together to characterize a musical experience, one of them is almost certain to be wrong.” Ignoring how discouraging this is for music journalists, it touches on music’s ineffable mystique — in Copland’s case, American folk music and the expansive Appalachian vistas it evokes.

Malcolm Holcombe hails from the heart of those mountains, about 10 miles north of Asheville, N.C., in Weaverville. Like many singer-songwriters inspired by the American folk revival in the middle of the 20th century, Holcombe’s style of writing and performing reflects on both the rapid changes of the contemporary world and the old world that it’s squeezing out. But you wouldn’t confuse Holcombe for someone who’s too fussy to characterize a musical experience.

“A lot of it is just trying to remember what’s happening around me, you know?” he tells the Scene of his songwriting process. “I ain’t nothing new under the sun. I just got a different way of slinging baloney against the wall.”

Holcombe’s method yields expressions that seem raw and gruff on the surface, but contain multitudes of subtleties. That has helped him attain an esteemed position in the Americana world as an Appalachian songwriter’s Appalachian songwriter, and has drawn him close to many talented collaborators over the years. That includes Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame inductees Pat Alger and Tony Arata, who helped Holcombe make industry connections when he first came to Music City in the fall of 1990, as well as Emmylou Harris and Futureman, who would go on to make guest appearances on Holcombe’s records. 

One of the latest collaborators is Darrell Scott. A gifted singer-songwriter in his own wright, Scott has also worked with Guy Clark, and he produced Holcombe’s new studio album Pretty Little Troubles, which is out April 7. Together, Scott and Holcombe crafted a diverse sound for the new record, ranging from the Eastern European stomp of “South Hampton Street” — which features National Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of Famer Joey Miskulin on accordion plus a band that includes bouzouki, dobro, bass and guitar — to the traditional Irish pipes and drums of “Eyes of Josephine.” Holcombe’s distinctive voice, an instrument weathered by a career filled with ups and downs — in conversation, he doesn’t shy away from his struggle with alcoholism, or the jail time he did for “getting [his] beak stuck in the wrong places” and “not listening to anybody else besides between [his] ears” — carries throughout.

But the most striking aspect of Pretty Little Troubles is the same thing that makes the rest of Holcombe’s three-decade-plus catalog of songs indispensable. Throughout the record, he celebrates and illuminates the lives of people who eke out a living in Appalachia without painting them over with fictitious romanticism. In describing a town ravaged by the closure of a mine, “Damn Good Ol’ Days” looks past the economic security the mine offered to the exploitation of miners and their children. “Damn Weeds” starts with a tour through a trailer park where the vegetable garden and the neighbors’ kids sound like the narrator’s biggest problems, until he starts to discuss his failing health and a government he can’t trust. 

Ultimately, Holcombe hopes the record offers listeners a familiarity with the struggles of poor people too seldom afforded the respect of being treated honestly.

“I just hope it’s topical,” he says.

-by LUKE LEVENSON

Pop Matters - April 6, 2017

North Carolina singer-songwriter Malcolm Holcombe possesses one of those deep whiskey-soaked voices that come from a life spent working and playing hard. A voice like that can’t be faked; it has the authenticity born of living life through less than advantageous circumstances, and it can also be a voice of deep wisdom. Holcombe’s music comes from the country blues side of the mountain where plainspoken lyrics rest atop spare acoustic arrangements played with feeling. But Holcombe also weaves folk and country into his work. He’s about as Americana as one can be.

- by Sarah Zupko

Lone Star Magazine - April 8, 2017

MALCOLM HOLCOMBE: SING A LITTLE BIT OF THOSE WORKING MAN BLUES

 

North Carolina songwriter takes a hard look at harder times with his Darrell Scott-produced “Pretty Little Troubles”

Malcolm Holcombe’s tuneful growl sounds like it’s coming from the depths of a coal mine, or the smoky backroom of a seedy pool hall. It’s the sound of a man used to hard work and low pay, sleepless nights and bleary-eyed dawns that promise more of the same. His songs aren’t overtly political, but by detailing the economic struggles of people on the edge, the 61-year-old troubadour reveals his own proletarian soul.

He dedicates his new album, Pretty Little Troubles (released April 7 on Gypsy Eyes) to the “dreams, sweat and tears of all immigrants.” Recorded last November, the album’s tone is strongly reflective of the trepidation of the then-current election cycle. And the post-election aftermath certainly hasn’t lightened the veteran singer-songwriter’s mood.

“It’s hard for me to ignore what’s going on around me, politically or emotionally,” Holcombe says via phone from his home in North Carolina. “I can’t imagine what’s behind the atrocities we’ve been putting up with. There are so many potty mouth words I could use to describe it — I’d need a bar of soap in every pocket if I was going to start talking about it! … I feel like another iron curtain is falling, a wall of misinformation, alternate facts or plain old lies, nauseating, unbelievable stories that would be rejected by MAD magazine.

“I can’t recall another time I’ve been so desperate for some kind of hope,” he continues. “Racists and bigots are coming out of the woodwork. Maybe that’s why I’m writing all this crazy, angry stuff. You hang around the barber shop long enough, you’re gonna hafta get a haircut.”

Holcombe’s been writing his musical parables for as long as he can remember. He grew up in Weaverville, North Carolina, on a diet of transistor radio music: British Invasion, Wolfman Jack, Grand Ole Opry. He was in an acoustic folk group in high school, playing covers of songs by Dylan, Peter, Paul & Mary and the Kingston Trio. He was also writing songs of his own, though he dismisses those as “mostly the kind of fluff you think is important when you’re a teenager.”

“When I finally had five good songs, I made an album with my friend Sam Milner,” he continues. “It got some good reviews, so I made my way to Nashville. I got on a bus with nothing but a six-pack and a guitar. They didn’t let me keep the six-pack, but I was in Nashville for about eight years, off and on.”

Holcombe’s Music City stint started in 1990, and although a mainstream country music career was certainly never in the cards (let alone part of his intent), his songwriting did not go unnoticed. A publishing deal with Bug Music led to a recording contract with Geffen Records. “Next thing you know,” he says, “I’m eating pizza in Santa Monica and making an album. Then there was a shake up at the label and the record (A Hundred Lies) never came out.”

But when A Hundred Lies was finally released on Hip-O three years later (1999), Holcombe’s celebrations of the lives of ordinary people made him something of an underground sensation. The album wasn’t a hit in the conventional sense, but Holcombe’s plainspoken poetry was delivered with an effortless blend of folk, country and blues that earned him critical raves and a small but devoted following that’s grown steadily over the last 18 years and several more albums. Pretty Little Troubles finds him once again focusing on the forgotten people who make up the backbone of America. He recorded the album with producer Darrell Scott over four days at The Sanctuary in West Nashville.

“It’s a big open room, like a barn,” Holcombe says. “Darrell Scott brought in some gear and we all sat around in a circle — Jared Tyler on Dobro and mandolin, Verlon Thompson on guitar and resonator slide and Darrell on banjo, guitar piano and almost everything else — looking at each other and playing the songs live. I had arrangements for some of the songs, Darrell had ideas for some of them and others started off naked as jaybirds and arranged themselves through osmosis. As we started playing with each other, we put on their socks and pants.”

Troubles and truth: “You put your fingers on the frets and go from the gut,” says Malcom Holcombe. “When I’m feeling something, or seeing something going on, I have a duty to write an honest song about it.” (Photo courtesy of Malcolm Holcombe)

The songs on the album are full of the honesty Holcombe is known for. “Yours No More” takes the promise at the base of the Statue of Liberty — “Send me your tired, your poor … ” — and turns it into a warning, detailing the dangers a modern immigrant may face. Resonator slide and Holcolmbe’s rolling fingerpicked rhythms provide an uplifting counterpoint to this cautionary tale, with Scott, Tyler and Thompson adding gospel-flavored harmonies to the call and response of the chorus. In “Rocky Ground,” Holcombe describes a farmer trying to earn a living by coaxing crops out of barren soil, as moaning pedal steel and dark strummed chords intensify the desolation of the lyric. “We Struggle” closes the album with a celebration of the dignity of people trying provide for their families, in a time of diminishing returns. It’s taken at a funereal pace, with Holcomb’s quiet, weary vocal balanced by some mellow, Django-influenced guitar.

When asked if he played the song’s gently swinging, gypsy fills, Holcombe laughs. “That’s Darrell,” he says. “He’s a genuine man of few words, but he’s got the goods and the heart and plays hard. I ain’t that musical, or much of a creative player. I mostly use the guitar to get the words across. When I was a kid, I started on a pawnshop guitar my dad got me. I had a Mel Bay book that showed me where to put my fingers to make a chord. When I couldn’t figure out the chord, I’d hit the guitar out of frustration and it turned into a habit. That’s why my playing is so percussive. When you play alone, you gotta be a one man band.”

Holcombe has had a lot of experience doing that over the course of his long career, and the road he’s travelled has never been an especially smooth one. In the wake of his initial deal with Geffen falling apart, he continued to write songs and gig, both solo and as a trio, but struggled the whole time fighting his personal demons — namely, drugs and alcohol. “I knew I was gonna have drinking trouble the first time I popped the top of a Pearl beer, when I was a youngster,” he says.

That “trouble” might well have been the end of him had Holcombe not turned his life around 15 years ago. That’s when he met his wife, moved back to his native North Carolina to settle in Ashville, and began focusing on his prolific recording career in earnest. He’s made 10 solid albums since 2003, including To Drink the Rain in 2011 and Another Black Hole, released last year. Holcombe says his only agenda has always been to just write a good song.

“I don’t know if my songwriting’s gotten any better or not,” he says. “When I write a song, I hope that it not only makes me feel better, but that it may help somebody else. Sometimes I fail; sometimes I feel like I can’t fail. If anybody hears the songs, they can decide on their own if they’re worth saving or savoring. I just write ’em down and move on.”

His latest album’s closing track, “We Struggle,” sums up Holcombe’s approach. Like much of his work, it celebrates the realities of hard work and aging, ending on a hopeful note, with the birth of a child.

“You put your fingers on the frets and go by your gut,” he says. “My memory’s shot to hell, but when I’m feeling something, or seeing something going on, I have a duty to write an honest song about it. You know how you know if your child is telling the truth? It’s like that, an intuitive feeling that’s not of this planet. It’s a spiritual thing. You can tell if it’s a ray of sunshine or a shadow on the ground, if you’re saying something that’s baring its teeth, or baring its ass, or bearing the truth.”

By j. poet

Mountain Xpress - March 31, 2017

One of the first things one notices when listening to Pretty Little Troubles — the 15th album from Weaverville folk artist Malcolm Holcombe — is the sharp contrast between the music and the singing. For this album, Holcombe has enlisted the musical support of multi-instrumentalist and producer Darrell Scott and a short list of other ace players. The various ensembles create warm, inviting and intriguing musical landscapes for Holcombe’s often dark yet universal and familiar themes.

But that instrumentation — which includes Holcombe’s facile acoustic guitar work — is set sharply against the artist’s undeniably hoary, lived-in vocal delivery. And while Holcombe’s themes are reliably downtrodden, there’s a sense of — if not quite optimism — defiant resignation that burrows deep into his work.

While Holcombe is nominally a mountain musician, the songs on Pretty Little Troubles are deeply informed as much by gospel and Delta blues styles as by traditional Appalachian folk music. Holcombe will perform Saturday, April 8, at Isis Music Hall.

Scott’s production vibe on Pretty Little Troubles is deliciously “live,” and even without headphones, the listener is placed right in the center of the music. And while the general feel of the album is no-frills, it’s clear that a great deal of care went into creating that spontaneous air. The vocal backing provided by Holcombe’s associates — primarily Scott, Jared Tyler and Verlon Thompson— is made to sound like a much larger chorus. That chorus often suggests a Venn diagram intersection of rural church choirs, prison chain gangs of the old South and the slick harmonies of the Jordanaires.

Holcombe makes a point of being plainspoken, but he has a preternatural ability to make a well-worn phrase feel new. Case in point: Pretty Little Troubles‘ fourth cut, “Outta Luck,” includes the familiar phrase, “cold hands, warm heart,” but he couches the expression in a larger lyrical context that makes it feel like a wholly original construct.

Holcombe’s choices of additional instrumentation on selected tracks — slide guitar on “Outta Luck,” keening pedal steel on several tracks, Jelly Roll Johnson’s harmonica — add subtle bits of dimension to his simple melodies. Yet when all of those adornments are stripped away, as on the solo guitar-and-vocal “Damn Weeds,” Holcombe shows that he doesn’t, strictly speaking, need those things; he only adds instruments when he wants to.

The finest examples of Holcombe’s use of augmented instrumentation on Pretty Little Troubles are the Celtic-flavored “Eyes of Josephine” and the soaring “The Sky Stood Still.” The latter switches between romping, uptempo sections and meditative breaks; thanks to Jonathan Yudkin‘s strings, it’s easily the album’s most musically sophisticated piece.

Holcombe’s voice — think Tom Waits with his teeth out — probably wouldn’t work well singing anybody else’s songs. But for his original work, there’s likely no better instrument on this earth. His vocal phrasing and delivery are as loose and rough-hewn as the arrangements are crystalline, and it’s the tension between those qualities that makes Pretty Little Troubles such a worthwhile listening experience.

- by Bill Kopp

Blog Critics - March 30, 2017

Malcolm Holcombe releases another gravelly blast from the shadows with Pretty Little Troubles, his new album produced with homespun grace by Darrell Scott. The pairing proves a fruitful one; Scott, a fine songwriter himself, seems to understand what kind of sonic geometries showcase Holcombe’s shades-of-grey songs best. Scott also organically fuses his own multi-instrumental skills with those of the other accomplished musicians behind Holcombe’s own acoustic guitar and scratchy rubber-on-the-road vocals.

Aptly for our times, Holcombe dedicates the album “to the dreams, sweat, and tears of all refugees and immigrants.” Many of the songs focus on the displaced, the dispossessed, the distressed. It opens with the bluesy, startlingly understated “Crippled Point O’ View,” inviting us to dive into the bottom of the barrel without delay. But after the explicit ode to immigrants in the beautiful “Yours No More” (see video below), powerful irony arises with the jaunty country-folk bounce of “Good Ole Days,” its jubilant hoedown dance beat sprinkled with images like “fifty cents a bloody day / no child labor laws / most them lil’ babies died / disease and alcohol.”

In other songs the lyrics flap under and over the flow of meaning, at moments bordering on the nonsensical to match the looseness of Holcombe’s singing. On a casual initial listen, you might wonder if melody has much importance in this opus. But the method to Holcombe’s shuffling madness becomes clearer with each track, elemental and intelligent musicality emerging in the grooves and melodies of the swing-waltz “South Hampton Street,” the bitter humor of “Damn Weeds,” and the riff-driven Irish balladry of “The Eyes O’ Josephine” with its uilleann whistles and pipes.

Amid the deceptively simple folksiness and cryptic lyrics of “Bury, England,” the images though vivid don’t give us a clue what the hell happened there. Holcombe uses the technique artfully. Don’t explain everything. Leave much to the imagination.

Yearning chord changes and lyrics make the gorgeous “Rocky Ground” the album’s pièce de resistance: “all i know and all i am / don’t matter anyhow / watchin’ you grow old and lovely / hungry to be found.” Yet in the half-mumbled closer “We Struggle” Holcombe shines a gloomier light on aging, returning to the theme of the lost and hopeless from the opening track: “Old and guilty / worried and sleepless…wishin’ children never grow old.” Holcombe creases a sense of decrepitude and weariness into his deliberately half-wrecked-sounding voice and uses both to pointed effect, speaking directly to the immigrant, the wanderer, the home-seeker in all of us.

- by Jon Sobel

Lonestar Time (IT) - April 19th, 2017

by- Remo Ricaldone

Malcolm Holcombe - Pretty Little Troubles
 
Pubblicato da Remo Ricaldone | Etichette: Malcolm Holcombe, Recensione Cd
 
Torna con cadenza regolare la voce strascicata ed evocativa, la caratterizzazione un po’ arruffata ma densa di riferimenti country, folk, blues e old-time di Malcolm Holcombe, musicista che arriva dalle Blue Ridge Mountains del North Carolina con il suo bagaglio di radici tradizionali filtrate da una grande personalità ed originalità. “Pretty Little Troubles” segue infatti di appena un anno “Another Black Hole” e ne segue anche le impronte fatte di notevole devozione per la sua terra e di profondo amore per la canzone d’autore tra Texas (chiaro e frequente il riferimento alla scrittura di Guy Clark per esempio) e gli Stati a sud della linea Mason-Dixon. La produzione passa dalle esperte mani di Ray Kennedy, dietro alla consolle del precedente album, a quelle altrettanto sapienti di Darrell Scott, tra i migliori ‘storytellers’ in circolazione e abbastanza intelligente da non cambiare suoni e inflessioni, mantenendo intatto il fascino un po’ ‘obliquo’ e variegato di Malcolm Holcombe, qui ancora profondo ed introspettivo, affascinante e misterioso. I suoni blues e gospel della tradizione afro-americana sono fusi con maestria con quelli country, folk e anche ‘irish’ del retaggio bianco, risultando naturalmente affiancati ad una vena cantautorale pura ed incontaminata. “Yours No More” ad esempio vede eccellenti colorazioni gospel incontrare la canzone folk, “To Get By” fa rivivere i ‘good old days’ con i suoi suoni tra bluegrass e old-time senza aver paura di essere ‘politically correct’ nel linguaggio e nell’approccio, “Outta Luck” è ballata superba che inevitabilmente ricorda il songbook di Darrell Scott, qui sempre presente con i suoi strumenti a corda. E accanto a Darrell Scott c’è il mandolino e il dobro del fedelissimo Jared Tyler, le chitarre del grande Verlon Thompson a ribadire il legame con il citato Guy Clark, l’esperto basso di Dennis Crouch, l’armonica di Jelly Roll Johnson che fa capolino qua e la, Joey Miskulin alla fisarmonica e il mitico Kenny Malone alle percussioni. Un ‘parterre de roi’ insomma che nobilita una vena compositiva sempre ottima come dimostra “South Hampton Street” con il fascino di certe canzoni marinare e la dolcezza un po’ bohemienne per la presenza della fisarmonica, la cristallina bellezza di “Rocky Ground” ballata nostalgica intepretata col cuore pensando a Guy Clark, “Bury, England” altro gioiellino di equilibrio acustico tra chitarre, dobro, mandolino e armonica, “Damn Weeds” folk song che riporta all’età d’oro del revival della canzone tradizionale nei primi anni sessanta con Dave Van Ronk in mente, “The Eyes O’ Josephine” con tutto il suo fascino anglo-scoto-irlandese e “We Struggle”, discorsiva e rilassata. Solo alcuni esempi questi che non fanno che confermare un ‘body of work’ decisamente superiore alla media e meritevole di essere apprezzato e conosciuto.

FATEA Magazine (UK) - April 15th, 2017

by- Paul Jackson


Malcolm Holcombe
Album: Pretty Little Troubles
Label: Gypsy Eyes
Tracks: 12
Website: http://www.malcolmholcombe.com
 
Critically lauded North Carolina based singer-songwriter Malcolm Holcombe has become something of a quiet institution since the release of his first record way back in 1996. It is difficult to know where to start when confronted with the degree of critical acclaim he has garnered over the past 20 years, so rather than try, I can think of nothing better to sum him up than this quote from Rolling Stone Magazine 'haunted country, acoustic blues and rugged folk'. However, this acclaim has not necessarily translated into the sort of recognition enjoyed by oft-cited contemporaries such as Steve Earle and Emmylou Harris and he remains perhaps something of an 'underground' folk hero.
 
I first came across him a few years ago whilst idly perusing live sessions on YouTube from the marvellous Union Music Store in Lewes, here in the UK. There he was, gravel voiced, ferociously beating his guitar and rocking back and forth on his chair in hypnotic fashion to spellbinding effect. I bought his then release Down The River and it's safe to say I have been something of an admirer of him since.

Another admirer, equally lauded American singer-songwriter Darrell Scott, has produced Pretty Little Troubles and musically Malcolm is joined by a veritable cast of thousands representing all that is good in modern country, folk and Americana. Far too many to list here, but the fact so many musicians of this stature want to play on a Malcolm Holcombe record says something of the esteem in which his peers hold him.

For me, the opening three tracks of this album are about as good an introduction to a record I have heard in a very long time. Moreover, for anyone new to Malcolm, a run through these songs will serve admirably as a whistle stop tour of his talents.

Crippled Point O' View sleazes in on a bumping bass line that could have been pilfered from Tito & Tarantula and the From Dusk till Dawn soundtrack. Throw in some Tom Waits type percussion and it is all marvellously disorientating before everything is grounded with the arrival of Malcolm's mightily gruff voice. 'I can't deny these troubled old times' he tells us and we are back in familiar territory as the song rolls through nearly four and a half minutes of musical twists and turns.

Yours No More is an acoustic, country-flavoured song with lovely layers of slide over Malcolm's guitar and his voice sitting right on top of the mix. One of his glorious laments to people used, abused and discarded by those with more power suddenly moves into almost gospel territory with the chorus voices doubling his vocal on 'Send me your tired and poor, sick and sufferin', send them to me, send them to me, Ellis island is yours no more'. Spine tingling stuff indeed.

Good Ole Days completes this opening trio of songs, driving along on banjo, bass and shuffling percussion in old timey bluegrass fashion. This being Malcolm Holcombe, it's safe to say the Good Ole Days are referenced ironically and the whole track has a playful feel with its call and response chorus and ensemble Soggy Bottom Boys vocals, which lend a timeless 'Oh Brother Where Art Thou' quality to the proceedings.

So, three tracks in and we have been treated to Malcolm Holcombe's full repertoire of gruff, belligerent, longing, yearning, ironic and playful all delivered with his trade mark vocals, guitar and the most creative and complimentary musical accompaniment imaginable. The only problem foreseeable here is that of peaking to early!

Fortunately, the rest of the album stands square with these openers and rather than go through each track individually, I will just pick out a few personal favourites to say a bit more about.

Bury, England, which is pretty much a verbatim account of a show in a northern UK venue, manages to marry a jaunty melody with an opening couplet of 'that ol building looked like a halfway house, smelled like an old folks home inside'. Things get worse from there, but as always, it remains difficult to establish whether this is sung with bile or warmth, maybe equal measures of both!

Damn Weeds is probably the most musically sparse song on the album, essentially Malcolm and his guitar but is yet another sweet, jaunty sounding number that belies its ambivalent themes. It also boasts some particularly visual lyrics 'a double-wide and a butterfly bush, maters got the blight, neighbours cuss the kids and dogs, ev'ry day and night'.

The Eyes O' Josephine is simply a stunning song. Malcolm's voice and guitar are welded to an Irish based backdrop that pushes the verses along until it takes over completely at about two minutes twenty with what I imagine is the Ulleann pipes of Mike McGoldrick. It feels that Malcolm physically fights his way back into the song for a mighty musical alliance that plays itself out for the next minute of so. Such is the authenticity here it would have been no surprise if a couple of reels and jigs were added on to the end in traditional Irish folk fashion!

I count myself as an admirer of Malcolm Holcombe and to my mind, this is his most complete album yet. The songs are strong, his trademark vocals are true and his acoustic guitar is as present as always, driving things along. However, for me, what gives this album the edge is the creativity of the arrangements, the quality of the production and breathtaking musicianship by all involved. Whilst crystal clear, the recording never glosses over or smoothes out Malcolm's vocal idiosyncrasies, warts and all, and essentially maintains the energy of a live take. Producer Darrell Scott should rightly take much of the credit for this, along with his own multi instrumental musical contribution. There doesn't seem to be an instrument this man cannot play! Factor in the previously mentioned bunch of musicians that are still too numerous to name individually, and you truly have the basis of a stunning musical soundscape.

So, another great Malcolm Holcombe album, but with bells and whistles this time. A truly joyous and uplifting piece of music.

 

Messenger (UK) - April 4th, 2017

by- Kevin Bryan

Malcolm Holcombe, "Pretty Little Troubles" (Gypsy Eyes Music)- If you've ever been fortunate enough to come across any of Malcolm Holcombe's work in the past you should have a good idea of what to expect from the contents of "Pretty Little Troubles." The grizzled old country balladeer is rather like Americana's answer to Tom Waits, delivering his haunting insights into the human condition with a hypnotic blend of fractured, smouldering vocals and stunning musicianship. This doesn't make for particularly easy listening but it's well worth investigating nonetheless, and the North Carolina native's 15th studio recording must rank as one of his best.