NEMM Blog (UK) - June 2015
"There's songs about you and songs about me/At the end of the day they all sound the same" is the opening line on the third track, 'I Feel Like a Train', from this stirring retrospective album by Nashville resident, Malcolm Holcombe, and it serves well as a declaration of intent for the rest of the album (although I don't mean that in any way as a criticism).
This album, recorded in the legendary RCA studios in Nashville, is an overview of a career under the radar. The songs are taken from across a two decade career but have been re-recorded by his regular superb band of musicians that is: Jared Tyler (dobro, electric guitar, lap steel, vocals); David Roe Rorick (upright bass), Tammy Rogers (fiddle, mandolin, vocals), Ken Coomer (drums, percussion), Jellyroll Johnson (harmonica), and Siobhan Maher Kennedy (vocals). There's really nothing new here but the songs are well crafted, engaging, superbly played and Holcombe has a crunchy, gritty voice pitched firmly in the territory around Merle Haggard and John Prine with a touch of Tom Waits distinctive croak thrown in. For me that's a pretty attractive package. The album is available as an impressive CD/DVD package at all good record stores.
Although next year it will be twenty years since his debut album this is another new name for me but one which I'll certainly track through his back catalogue. It's a fairly lengthily album and the songs do have a tendency to be a bit samey but overall they are engaging and will hook you in over a couple of Whiskeys during the long summer nights. There's echoes of Michael Chapman in a majestic 'The Empty Jar' that drips with sadness with a mournful violin in the background. Holcombe sings of having dozens of burdens and "each one has its home" in a lazy slurred vocal that just sucks you in. His vocal is sometimes indistinct but this helps to add some mystery to the songs - 'Butcher in Town' is a good example of this method of working.
The album opens with a real beauty titled 'Who Carried You' with a laid back groove and a vocal that calls up the ghost of J.J.Cale and draws in the romance of the road with mentions of New Orleans, a Buick roadster and a group of Cajuns. The dobro, mandolin and violin gives the melody a feel of classic country-folk that runs on into the following track "Mister in Morgantown" that features some classy blues harp from Jellyroll Johnson (a respected Nashville session player in his own right who has credits with scores of artists including George Jones, The Judds, Etta James, Shania Twain and Nancy Griffith).
"Doncha Miss That Water" is a sprightly little tune with serious message that will probably ring some bells over in California where the population is currently suffering a serious drought. The mandolin and fiddle lock together and push Holcombe's cracked vocal smoothly along. 'Mouth Harp Man' follows and is a wonderful performance right from Holcombe's gritty voice through the terrific ensemble playing and into a virtuoso blues harp performance once again from Jellyroll Johnson that tells you all you need to know about how to deliver with this often over looked instrument - a truly great performance. 'I Call the Shots' is a cocky song about double crossing low-life's and the need to run things just right. The guitars flash and Holcombe's cracked voice has a particular menace here as he talks tough to the crooked judge.
'My Ol' Radio' calls up a long past youth with co-vocals from Siobhan Maher Kennedy giving the tune a slightly different edge but the guitars crack and Holcombe still sounds like he's 100 years old. The songs here are all firmly in the country-blues-folk vein but Holcombe and his fine band of musicians give them all a real timeless edge and they sure as hell bring that class to all the songs on this terrific album.
The album ends with three classics - 'Down The River', 'Pitiful Blues' and the truly wonderful 'A Far Cry From Here' (featuring a sterling performance from Maura O'Connell on co-vocals) that typify that approach and listening to them I'm struck with a feeling that they could have been recorded at any time in the last twenty years and they would sound like classic country-blues songs or wonderful contemporary songs and its Holcombe's rumble of a voice and his fine musicians that make this material so distinctive.
This is another great record recorded in those legendary RCA studios and perhaps the ghosts of the greats who went before such as Elvis,The Everly Brothers, Waylon Jennings and Roy Orbison, all of whom recoded there, can still permeate the music.
Reviewer: Greg Johnson