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