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