Missoula Independent - August 24, 2017

Malcolm Holcombe brings a taste of Appalachia to River City Roots

By Melissa Mylchreest


I can't believe I'd never heard of Malcolm Holcombe before now. But it seems somewhat fitting: The gravel-voiced, backwoods denizen is by all accounts unassuming and humble, keeping to himself in the hills of Appalachia, producing his own music, and quietly going about the business of writing and singing some of the most striking, insightful songs about America's least-seen people.

Aside from a brief and tumultuous stint in Nashville, Holcombe, who plays in Missoula at this year's River City Roots Festival, has spent his whole life in North Carolina. The writer Alan Kaufman compares Holcombe to William Faulkner, calling him a "singular sort of solitary genius that ... is yet the voice of an entire region—the South." But while I agree that he's a genius, I think that to cast the net so broad as to encompass all of the South is to miss the true nuance of Holcombe's music.

These are songs about working-class America and the distinct sorrows and triumphs therein. Holcombe gives voice to this population through the ages, from the era before labor reform ("fifty cents a bloody day/ no child labor laws/ most them lil babies died/ disease and alcohol," from "Good Ol' Days," an ironically chipper tune) to today, when, despite all of our advances, the problems we face are just as sinister ("big money fills my pockets with words/ puppets poison my mind" from "Crippled Point O' View").

I don't think it's much of a stretch to say that Holcombe is to the working class and rural South what Richard Hugo was to the downtrodden and hard-living citizenry of Montana and the Pacific Northwest: Both find poetry in the ragged corners of life, without cheapening or objectifying it. The sorrow in Holcombe's lyrics is real because he has lived in this world. This is not some skinny-pant-wearing coiffed hipster singing about generic high lonesome hollers—this is a rough-around-the-edges, damaged, prophetic troubadour whose lyrics are honest and earned.

Holcombe is, no doubt, aided in his success by his voice and appearance—he looks and sounds exactly as you'd hope: scrappy, wiry, gaunt, ponytailed, with a voice full of whiskey and cigarettes. I spent days trying to figure out who he sounds like. A combination of Guy Clark and Steve Earle? Plus a little Tom Waits? And maybe Greg Brown and John Hiatt, too? And a little Billy Joe Shaver? But I realized it was futile. Malcolm Holcombe sounds like Malcolm Holcombe. When you throw in his masterful guitar-picking skills, what you end up with is a truly legendary sound.

The word "authentic" is grievously overused, but it's fitting in this case. Holcombe performs with an about-to-go-off-the-rails approach that suggests that he performs not necessarily because he wants to, but because he has to. The compulsion that drives him is undeniable. Other critics have used words like "uncanny" and even "spooky" to describe him, stopping just short of attributing his craftsmanship to possession by higher powers.

I tend to think that Holcombe isn't channeling a deity; he's doing one better, which is to be a thinking, seeing, empathizing human. In a world currently awash in divisiveness and animosity, Holcombe is a welcome voice, which is not to say that his songs are palliative or uplifting, because with a few exceptions, the lyrics are fairly dark (though the tunes themselves are somewhat more cheerful). What's important about his work is that he shines a light on people and situations that so often go overlooked. Certainly, the coal miners and truck-stop waitresses and down-and-out wretches have seen countless bards capitalize on their condition over the years. But few musicians seem to approach their subjects with the kind of fierce protectiveness—even love?—that Holcombe brings.

Mountain Times - August 17, 2017

- by Derek Halsey

BOONE — Malcolm Holcombe has been western North Carolina’s resident poet of the disparaged, desperate, broke down and hard-working salt-of-the earth people of the mountains for a long time now.

Holcombe knows of what he sings as he has lived many of the human situations that inhabit his unique and idiosyncratic story songs, and his life on the road experiences fuel his innovative and hard-scrabble guitar playing.

Holcombe’s latest album is called “Pretty Little Troubles” and the genius of the project was the addition of Darrell Scott as producer and sideman.

Scott is an amazing musician who has written many hit songs for top artists over the years, with “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive,” perhaps his best known work. Scott also has a wonderful singing voice of his own and is considered an all-star musician in that he can play virtually any instrument he puts his hand on.
As producer of Holcombe’s “Pretty Little Troubles,” Scott’s ideas are subtle, yet wonderful, surrounding Holcombe’s new set of original songs with steel guitar, accordion, banjo, Celtic instruments and more. Appearing on the album is long-time Guy Clark collaborator Verlon Thompson on guitar and vocals, Dobro player Jared Tyler, Joey Miskulin on accordion, Kenny Malone and Marco Giovino on percussion, Dennis Crouch on bass, Mike McGoldrick on Uillean pipes and whistle and Scott on guitar, bouzouki, Dobro, banjo, bells, piano and pedal steel guitar.

Malcolm Holcombe will be appearing in Boone for an early show on Thursday, Aug. 17. More information can be found on our Night Life Listings on page 22.

Holcombe is from western North Carolina near Asheville and now resides near Black Mountain. He has been playing in Boone and Blowing Rock for more than four decades.

“I always enjoy coming up to Boone,” said Holcombe. “I’ve been coming up there since they built that windmill that never did work somewhere in 1976 or ’77. It was an experimental windmill up there on the hill trying to generate electricity. It didn’t work too good and I think they had some problems with it, but it was the first windmill I had ever seen. I would come up there and play at the college. I remember Sally Spring back then, a singer who had a voice like Rosanne Cash, almost like Billie Holiday. I used to do shows with her up there at Appalachian State back in the 1970s and at Woodlands BBQ.”

Since those days, Holcombe has led an interesting life with some hard living thrown in the mix.

“I feel lucky to be alive all of the time, man,” said Holcombe. “If it wasn’t by the grace of the Good Lord and a lot of good friends, I wouldn’t be standing in the kitchen with some carrots. I might be pushing up carrots. I don’t drink any more so that helps out a lot. One is too many and a thousand ain’t enough. But, I found my driver’s license. I left them in my other pants for 20 years and like to have never got a hold of them.”

Holcombe and Scott recorded the album at Hippy Jack’s studio in Tennessee and Holcombe wrote the new songs in a two week stretch.

“I’ve known Darrell for a long time and I just thought, ‘Boy, I think he could probably produce a pretty good record,’” said Holcombe. “He brought in Verlon Thompson and my old buddy Jared Tyler and got some people that knew what they were doing to try and get this mule to plow.”

Holcombe’s song “Good Ole Days” is about a West Virginia mining family and is powered by Scott’s banjo picking.

The cut is about the supposed ‘good ole days’ when miners weren’t paid much and child labor laws did not exist, when life meant being “barefoot on the cabin floor, window panes of broken glass.”

“Damn Weeds” is another classic tell-it-like-it-is number by Holcombe, which says, “Growing up is an all day job, and I can’t get out of my way, I got my own row to hoe, slamming doors and doing chores, damn weeds are taking over.”

“Eyes of Josephine” has a fantastic Celtic groove to it, and the songs “Outta Luck” and “Rocky Ground” feature sweet and mournful steel guitar on them.

“Darrell can pick like a scalded dog, up one side and down the other, and he can play anything that’s got strings on it,” said Holcombe. “I knew that Darrell could play the pedal steel guitar and I was thinking, ‘Boy, I’d sure love to have some pedal steel on that ‘Rocky Ground,’ and man, he just added some soul to that song. I love the pedal steel guitar. It is pretty tasteful stuff and I am very grateful. I’m very pleased with it. I met both Darrell and Verlon many years ago so it was like going to an old friend’s house and sitting around and picking.”

Blues and More - June 2017

Described by Alan Kaufman as "...the voice of an entire region - the South - and even of a generation...", North Carolina's Malcolm Holcombe delivers a frill-free, heartfelt insight to the everyday issues and struggles being faced by the working classes and those otherwise downtrodden. And if his 'Crippled Point Of View' takes influence from what he observes immediately around him, he articulates hurt and frustration for those struggling to subsist in all corners of our threatened planet.

Everything's kept simple. Rugged of voice, uncomplicated melodically, the earthiness pervades. Whilst there is an eleven-strong credits list, Holcombe's studio buddies are used always to enhance his songs to atmospheric effect, from the bluesy bottleneck and jailhouse moan harmonies of 'Yours No More' to a rollicking banjo-driven country blues singalong, with an unobtrusive full band backing, in 'Good Ole Days'. When we meet a Gypsy street musician in ‘South Hampton Street', the keen sense of observation places us centre-stage in the situation, the Tex-Mex concertina adding vibrant colour to his sketch.

Holcombe’s words and naturally-articulated imagery mean that the lyric sheet reads like poetry, and he has an almost-Steinbeckian sense of place, his landscape encompassing fields, streets, bars, a Belfast cell and 'Bury, England'. But he is aware that the struggle is not new. The rough-edged country folk of 'Rocky Ground' is world-weary in describing the enduring, unforgiving nature of the land and how the associated travails get no easier down the generations, a sentiment echoed in 'Damn Weeds' and 'We Struggle'.

Great art has always been triggered and sustained by human suffering, but the ability to entertain in so doing is a mark of genius.

Il Popolo del Blues (IT) - 9 June, 2017

-by Pietro Rubino

Poniamo per assurdo che all’improvviso salti fuori un disco postumo del compianto Williy DeVille, magari caratterizzato da un deciso taglio folk/country: probabilmente suonerebbe in maniera molto simile a questo “Pretty Little Troubles”, ultima fatica di Malcom Holcombe. I due musicisti hanno infatti in comune il graffio e le tinte scure della voce, insieme ad un gusto per la narrazione molto vicino ad alcuni grandi autori americani del secolo scorso (vengono in mente Faulkner, Steinbeck). Ma se l’ululato del compianto DeVille risuonava soprattutto in una frontiera immaginaria posta tra Messico, Texas e Louisiana, Holcombe è piuttosto radicato stilisticamente nel territorio di origine: la North Carolina e le mitiche Blue Ridge Mountains. Ci si imbatte quindi senza forzature di sorta in un universo affascinante di sonorità prettamente acustiche, arricchito dalla peculiare capacità di Holcombe di catturare temi e suggestioni di diversi patrimoni culturali riletti secondo la propria personale visione. Un senso drammatico, un’epica del minimalismo che si avverte su cristalline ballate (“Yours No More”, la preziosa “Rocky Ground”), così come in esercizi ritmicamente più serrati (“Good Ole Days”). Scommetteremmo poi tranquillamente sull’esistenza di un preciso retaggio familiare del cantautore che rimanda al Vecchio Continente, vista la dimestichezza con cui Holcombe si muove su arrangiamenti che sanno molto di Irlanda e Scozia (“Eyes Of Josephine”, “South Hampton St.”). All’interno dell’infinita saga che racconta la continua rinascita del folk, “Pretty Little Troubles” è un episodio di tutto rispetto.

Folking.com - 9 June, 2017

- by Mike Davies

MALCOLM HOLCOMBE – Pretty Little Troubles (Gypsy Eyes Music )

His voice croakier and gummier than ever, sounding as one review put it, like he’s wearing someone else’s teeth, even so Holcombe continues to deliver the goods when it comes to coal dust coated Appalachian blues. Pretty Little Troubles a quick follow-up to last year’s Another Black Hole.

Joined by Dennis Crouch on bass, Jared Tyler on mandolin and dobro, Verlon Thompson on acoustic and Resonator slide with producer Darrell Scott on pretty much everything else save percussion (Kenny Laone/Marco Giovio), as well as contributions by Jelly Roll Johnson on harmonica, Joel Miskulin on accordion, strings-player Jonathan Yudkin (who comes into his own on the stomping ‘The Sky Stood Still’) and Uillean piper Mike McGoldrick, it’s essentially an album about either troubled times or women.

It’s the former that leads off with the bluesy, swampy ‘Crippled Point O’View’ with its clanky junkyard percussion, leading on to ‘Yours No More’, a slide guitar-backed song about America no longer extending its welcome hand to immigrants and refugees, the mood extending to more musically lively banjo picked ‘Good Ole Days’ with its call and response chorus and a reminder that rose coloured reflection often forgets things were not necessarily better back then.

As you might imagine, the pedal steel laced blues ‘Outta Luck’ with its line about how “poison lives in my blood” and talk of hot women, cold cash and drugs doesn’t exactly up the positivism ante. However, the gypsy flavoured ‘South Hampton Street’, a reminiscence of a girl with long black hair and a gypsy concertina busking on the street, has a more upbeat note, though the same cannot be said for another touring memory, ‘Bury, England’, a Dylanesque talking blues with Tyler on dobro about a gig where the venue “smelled like an old folks home inside”, he had “the worst cup o’ coffee” ever and the audience couldn’t give a damn.

The song mentions Guy Clark and there’s a definite echo of him to be heard on ‘Rocky Ground’ while other highlights include the title track’s Waits-like walking blues, the fingerpicked ‘Damn Weeds’, a wry state of the nation comment, and the McGoldrick-featuring Gaelic-hued talking blues ‘The Eyes O’ Josephine’ with its line about having “a pint or two in Belfast” and “an Irish girl forever curls around your heart o’ glass.” Another spin on “the hard times we been going;’ thru”, it’s no huge departure from what he’s been doing for years, but if you liked that, you’ll want a copy of this too. Unless you’re from Bury, of course.

Arkansas Democrat Gazette - June 6, 2017

Singer-songwriter Malcolm Holcombe has a way with words.

This should come as no surprise, of course. The 61-year-old has made his mark with the hard-bitten poetry of his grizzled, folk-country blues. He's like an Appalachian Townes Van Zandt, a troubadour poet from the hills.

But it's still a kick to hear him speak, to drag a few comments out of him during a brief interview from his home in Swannanoa, N.C.

"If you want to raise corn, you've got to get out the hoe," he says when asked about his recent songwriting. "The pencil doesn't levitate in my fingers. I have to pick up the pencil, you know what I mean?"

He has been doing plenty of hoeing and pencil-raising lately, with two albums released in the last two years. His most recent, Pretty Little Troubles, is tried-and-true Holcombe, gentle finger-picking and hard-edged lyrics sung in a voice that sounds like a barn slowly falling in on itself.

One of the album's many highlights is "Outta Luck," where Holcombe name-drops Arkansas' capital.

"Fell off the edge down in Little Rock/Country girls really turn my head," he sings in his weathered wheeze, adding an extra umph that turns "Rock" into "Rock-ah." (He often does that on the last word of a line or verse, as if he's exhaling the final syllable.)

"I've just played there a bunch of times. It's just observations," he says on the inspiration behind the tune.

Pretty Little Troubles, the follow-up to last year's Another Black Hole, is his 15th album and was produced by Darrell Scott.

"Malcolm Holcombe is an artist of deep mystery and high art," Scott says in press materials accompanying the album. "All the goods that I value in songs and artistry are in Malcolm."

Holcombe grew up in Weaverville, N.C. When he was 12 or 13, he learned a few chords on a neighbor's guitar and then got his own, a Silvertone from Sears.

The sounds coming across the airwaves on giant AM stations like Chicago's WLS and Fort Wayne, Ind.'s, WOWO enchanted him: "I'd listen on my transistor radio late at night when you could get the big stations."

The acts he saw on TV programs like Hullabaloo and Where the Action Is were also big influences.

"They were silly shows, but a lot of them had good music in them," he says.

By high school, he was playing in a folk group and by his 20s he was in a band called Redwing. The band spent some time in Florida, but Holcombe soon made it back to North Carolina. He moved to Nashville in 1990 and went to work at a cafe called Douglas Corner where, between flipping burgers and washing dishes, he'd play a few songs on the cafe's stage before grabbing his apron and getting back to the kitchen.

In Nashville, "Holcombe was offering up works that were wholly different," wrote Peter Cooper in a riveting 2007 profile of the songwriter in No Depression. "They carried an Appalachian soul, with the sadness and humanity of something Sara Carter might have sung, but with melodic sophistication and an entirely unusual poetic sense."

There was interest from major label A&M, but he eventually signed with Geffen in 1996, recording an album that was promptly shelved. He wrestled with drink and drugs and eventually moved back to North Carolina where, married for a second time, he found some stability and continued to record, earning praise from fellow travelers like Lucinda Williams and Justin Townes Earle and a reputation for intense live shows.

He's a frequent performer at the White Water Tavern, when tours bring him to these parts, and is fond of the Little Rock bar.

"That's a fun place down there," he says. "I really like those people. Great audiences, and I always look forward to playing the White Water Tavern."

Holcombe's rich catalog offers a truckload of material to choose from for his sets, but does he have a favorite from the new album? The Celtic-tinged "Eyes of Josephine," perhaps, or maybe the evocative "Rocky Ground"?

"I'm just happy to remember most of the words to some of them," he says, adding, as only he can, "We just see what the dog has in his mouth when he comes back out of the woods."

- by Sean Clancy

Written in Music (NL) - 4 June, 2017

We volgen Malcolm Holcombe, de man uit North Carolina al een tijdje die met langspeler als Gamblin’ Houses, To Drink The Rain, Down The River en Another Black Hole in het vizier kwam.  Zo’n tien jaar geledenvormde Not Forgotten voor mezelf de eerste confrontatie in 2007 met de countryfolkvan Malcolm Holcombe. De troubadour met de rauwe rasp vertelde al eerder op akoestische fingerpicking gezette verhalen die de minder gefortuneerden die zich evenals de singersongwriter aan de zelfkant van de Amerikaanse samenlevingbevinden.

Na zijn debuut, Trademark, een duoproject met Sam Milner in ’84 bracht Holcombe onder eigen naam al een handvol werkstukken uit die door gerenommeerde collega’s als Steve Earle en Lucinda Williams al geprezen werden, op Down The River duiken Earle en Emmylou Harris op als gastvocalisten, naast Darrell Scott. De onvolprezen snarenman zorgt naast muzikale ondersteuning voor de productie en dat tilt het authentieke troubadourwerk naar een hoger niveau zoals het op deakoestische bass van Dennis Crouch huppelende Crippled Point O’ View illustreert. De harmonica van Jelly Roll Johnson, dobro van Jared Tyler en resonerende gitaren van Verlon Thompson zorgen voor fraaie accenten op Pretty Little Troubles.

Als Holcombe’s roestige stem door een zangkoortje ondersteund wordt leidt dat naar het gospelpad in Yours No More en levendige bluegrass in Good Ole Days maar de sombere, uitzichtloze realiteit van het harde genadeloze bestaan van de mijnwerker overheerst. “Fifty cents, a bloody day, no child no labor laws, most them lil’ babies died, disease and alcohol, disease and alcohol”.

Holcombe vertaald zijn eigen ‘pretty little troubles’ in sombere mijmeringen als South Hampton Street, een op de rand van country en folk balancerend Rocky Ground of de op geïnspireerde fingerpicking en jazzy basstructuur grimmig uitgekauwde titelsong. In Bury, England wordt de betreurde Guy Clarke vermeld en na een akoestisch sololuikje worden de Keltische roots geëerd met The Eyes Of O’ Josephine. De Ierse uitbundigheid maakt snel plaats voor sombere bespiegelingen in The Sky Stood Still.

“Still as a stone, kicked up and downwishin’ children never grow old” vertrouwd Holcombe ons toe in de afsluitende akoestische ballade We Struggle. Een donkere visie die helaas verder reikt dan de Amerikaanse situatie en zich onveranderlijk in oerdegelijk uitgewerkt songwerk manifesteert.

Roots Highway (IT) - 2 June, 2017

di Gianuario Rivelli (02/06/2017)

La Statua della Libertà che si punta la pistola alla tempia è un'immagine potente, programmatica, disturbante. "Send me your tired and poor/ sick and sufferin'/ send them to me/ send them to me/Ellis Island is yours no more" ne è la didascalia eloquente. Yours No More, lamento gospel gonfio di disillusione, è il manifesto di Pretty Little Troubles, ennesima fatica discografica dello stakanovista Malcolm Holcombe (solo un anno è trascorso dal precedente Another Black Hole). Che la presidenza Trump con le sue linee programmatiche oscurantiste e votate alla chiusura potesse essere fucina di musica "di reazione" era una profezia fin troppo facile (successe alla grande anche nel corso dei due mandati del giovin Bush) e c'era da aspettarsi che il nostro non aspettasse altro per cavalcare le sue tematiche predilette, in questa fase particolarmente incandescenti. 

In tal senso va letta la dedica "ai sogni, al sudore e alle lacrime di tutti i profughi e i migranti" che, uscita dall'ugola di carta vetrata del vecchio ragazzo del sud, respinge ogni possibile accusa di retorica. D'altronde uno come lui, con il suo curriculum è al di sopra di ogni sospetto, operaio specializzato di un folk da sempre politico nel suo dare voce a coloro che uno spazio non lo avranno mai e se lo avranno sarà risicato e poco illuminato. E' il Malcolm che conosciamo: fronzoli e lustrini da evitare come la peste, look trasandato, basettoni e fingerpicking, voce cavernosa e disincanto. Un suo disco rimane sempre un viaggio affascinante, anche quando, come in questo caso, la qualità è un gradino sotto il suo livello migliore e nessun brano assurge al rango di indimenticabile. Beninteso, da qui non si butta via niente: non il blues che impreziosisce la splendida title track né l'andamento waitsiano con insolito uso degli archi di The Sky Stood Still, né il classico hillbilly di Good Ole Days, ironica e scatenata. 

Ascoltare le dita di Holcombe che pizzicano la chitarra è sempre un gran piacere (Outta Luck), con il supporto puntuale di una band mai invadente (su tutti il polistrumentista Darrell Scott, il bassista Dennis Crouch e Jared Tyler su vari strumenti a corda) che asseconda i suoi immancabili chiaroscuri da perdente al servizio dei perdenti (Rocky Ground e We Struggle). South Hampton Street è puro folk appalachiano con sfiziose suggestioni gitane sottotraccia, mentre il compito di deviare (lievemente) dal tema è affidato a The Eyes o'Josephine- ballata in salsa irlandese con tanto di cornamuse- e a Bury, England, quasi un divertissement solare se Holcombe ci concede l'utilizzo di due vocaboli che appaiono ai suoi antipodi. Pretty Little Troubles ci riconsegna un Malcolm Holcombe non certo al top assoluto, ma sempre duro e puro, tanto sdrucito e schivo quanto autentico. Uno di quei personaggi sempre e comunque necessari.

Maximum Volume Music - 23 May 2017

by- Andy Thorley

REVIEW: MALCOLM HOLCOMBE - PRETTY LITTLE TROUBLES (2017)

These are, whichever way you look at it, odd times. Over here the public continue their swing to the right of politics, and are on June 8th about to vote for a party that wants to stop free school meals for kids and take £100 off the elderly to give it to their fat cat mates, and over in America? Well over in America, with the greatest of respect to them, what the hell they were up to last Autumn only they know.

However, whichever side of the political debate you are on (and I think this half of MV at least has just nailed its colours to the mast above) one thing we can all agree on is that times need to be reflected upon by the songwriters of the time. Not for nothing, after all did Woody Guthrie have a guitar with the legend, “this machine kills fascists scrawled upon it.”

Into that particular breach steps Malcolm Holcombe, with his fifteenth studio album, “Pretty Little Troubles.”  An acclaimed contemporary of Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle, Holcombe has shared the stage with Merle Haggard, Richard Thompson, John Hammond and Leon Russell, and there are elements of their work here, without actually sounding like any of them.

Instead, his take on traditional folk, blues and country, combines with a weather-worn voice to create something quite superb.

Never better, actually, than on “Good Old Days”. “50 cents a bloody day, no child labour laws. Most them little babies died, disease and alcohol.” He offers, as if to suggest that harking back to some golden age is pointless – if it ever existed anyway.

A beguiling collection sucks you slowly and cautiously in. The haunting harmonica lick of “Crippled Point Of View” betrays an immense sense of restlessness, while “Yours No More” is as harsh a condemnation of current political climate in his homeland (Holcombe is a North Carolina native) as you will find.

Capable of conveying such emotion with the imagery his lyrics contain, “Outta Luck” has a lovelorn quality, while the dark folk of “South Hampton Street” makes that one a real highlight. “Rocky Ground” with its mournful Lap Steel has echoes of Steve Earle at his most weary and the blues of the title track is classic in every sense of the word.

There are hints of Dylan about the wonderful “Bury, England” and the good people of the Lancashire town might not want to use it as their theme tune, but the poetic nature of what Holcombe does is shown best on work like “Damn Weeds” while the Celtic side, which is never too far away, is right to the fore, throughout the superb “The Eyes O’ Josephine”.

A longer record than many these days at 13 tracks, there are some flourishes with strings and something of a chug about “The Sky Stood Still” and it ends with another of its more varied moments, with “We Struggle” which has something of the widescreen about it.

Now more than ever, the world needs great singer songwriters and on “Pretty Little Troubles” Malcolm Holcombe proves exactly why you need him. A record that might not immediately reveal its charms to you, is nonetheless one that – if you invest the time in it – is one to cherish.

Music Riot - 24 May, 2017

“Pretty Little Troubles” – Malcolm Holcombe

“Pretty Little Troubles”; it’s a lovely example of irony. Malcolm Holcombe’s troubles are never little and they’re rarely pretty. The subjects of his songs may be everyday events, but they have huge significance to the protagonists. It’s fair to say that he’s revered by fellow artists and songwriters for both live and recorded work and this album’s another demonstration of the passion and unshowy skill of his songs. His style is firmly in the country/Americana tradition with hints of other roots showing through occasionally in the lilting Celtic- styled “The Eyes O’ Josephine” where the bass doubles up the guitar riff and the song’s completed with a penny whistle solo and the European-influenced story of an encounter with a female busker playing a concertina, “South Hampton Street”. Both songs evoke the setting perfectly without tipping over into pastiche. 

The transatlantic folk/roots community has almost unanimously distanced itself from the alt-right and Malcolm Holcombe’s affirmation of that stance comes in “Yours No More”, a hymn of praise to the immigrants that helped to build America. It’s not in-your-face radicalism, it’s a gentle reminder that we can all use a bit of historical perspective at times. His rough-hewn, two-packs-a-day voice rasps through the rockier numbers, but adds pathos to the more contemplative stories of the numbing grind of everyday existence, such as “Damn Weeds” and the album’s closer “We Struggle”; the problems may be small in the grand scheme of things, but they can seem like insurmountable objects when you get right up close and personal. 

There area couple of great turnaround songs on the album as well. The uptempo “Good Old Days” feels like a nostalgic romp until the lyrics turn to exploitation, disease , alcohol and dead babies and “Bury England” paints a stark picture of life as a travelling musician, depicting all the minor frustrations (terrible coffee) which are displaced by hearing great music on the house PA (in memory of Guy Clark) then going on to play a great gig with Jared Tyler. Malcolm Holcombe has the songwriter’s skill of creating a perfect vignette from a seemingly mundane series of events and even the title is an ironic play on the phrase ‘Merry England’. 

It’s raw at times, but “Pretty Little Troubles” is packed with lovingly-crafted and passionate songs played in atmospheric and uncluttered settings. It’s a lovely piece of work. 

CtrlAltCountry (BE) - May 2017

MALCOLM HOLCOMBE “Pretty Little Troubles” (Gypsy Eyes Music)

(5*****)

Zijn vijftiende studioplaat ondertussen toch ook al blijkt andermaal een echte voltreffer voor Malcolm Holcombe. De doorgaans onder lovende kritieken bedolven Amerikaanse songsmid doet het daarop dan ook in uitmuntend gezelschap. Zo tekende collega Darrell Scott bijvoorbeeld voor de productie ervan en gaven naast diezelfde Scott op tal van instrumenten ook Jared Tyler, Verlon Thompson, Marco Giovino, Dennis Crouch, Joey Miskulin, Kenny Malone, Jelly Roll Johnson, Mike McGoldrick en Jonathan Yudkin tijdens de opnames van “Pretty Little Troubles” acte de présence.

Het resultaat is zoals ook hoger reeds aangegeven van een werkelijk ademberovende, volstrekt tijdloze schoonheid. Vintage Holcombe in die zin dat hij ook hier weer meer knauwend dan zingend graag de minder aangename uithoeken van het leven mag frequenteren. Daar, tussen de ongelukkigen, de armeren en andere verworpenen gedijen zijn woorden nu eenmaal het best. Tussen de mijnwerkers en staalarbeiders, de boeren, oorlogsveteranen en aanverwanten, in het zweet huns aanschijns oogst hij zijn “Pretty Little Troubles”. Hun ongemakken liggen aan de basis van veel van zijn poëzie, van heel wat van zijn verhalen.

Inmiddels heeft Holcombe zich wat ons betreft met zijn stilaan bepaald indrukwekkende oeuvre een mooi stekje verdiend naast echte genregroten als een Townes Van Zandt, een Guy Clark, een Blaze Foley, een David Olney en een Ray Wylie Hubbard. Authentieker dan bij hem wordt Americana immers amper gemaakt. Hoe hij uit de scherven van gebroken harten en stukgeslagen dromen het ene na het andere fraaie miniatuurtje in elkaar puzzelt tart werkelijk alle verbeelding. Je vraagt je zo stilaan af, wat het zou opleveren als Holcombe zich aan het schrijven van boeken zou wagen. Het potentieel heeft hij er duidelijk voor.

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