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