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.