Malcolm Holcombe

Malcolm Holcombe
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Years ago, following Malcolm Holcombe’s career could be as unnerving and high-wire suspenseful as his riveting live performances. His brilliance was obvious to a core of fans and some attentive music journalists, but so were the self-destructive tendencies that floated around this mercurial man like wraiths. We worried at times that we’d have to add Holcombe to the What Might Have Been pantheon with Hank Williams, Jaco Pastorius and Charlie Parker. We imagined talking about Holcombe in the past tense to the too many who’d never been able to hear his shockingly truthful and affecting voice.

By the grace of God however, there is no past tense in Holcombe’s life and career, just a very vibrant present and a widening sense of tomorrow’s possibilities. He is many years sober, performing worldwide and happily married to a woman who manages his schedule and keeps his inner garden clear for the work. He retains his quirky, fascinating character, and he writes – in spasms of energy and clarity, producing visions that hover between earthy solidity and rustic mysticism. He plays with rhythmic pounce and sings with psychological fire. And if the songs on his new album To Drink The Rain are a good indication, he’s working from a place of joy and balance.

To Drink The Rain

Malcolm's Band at Cedar Creek Recording Studio, Austin, TXis Holcombe’s eighth full-length album and the latest in a stream of exceptional new work that’s been flowing steadily since about 2005. Produced by Holcombe’s long-time sideman Jared Tyler, it was recorded over three days at Cedar Creek Recording in Austin with a crack band of hotshots from Texas and Nashville. The twelve tracks here are authentic one-take performances that strike the perfect balance between gravel and grace. And they further develop Malcolm’s unique take on country blues, enriching an often neglected tradition at the very core of Americana.

Before the details, a quick review. Holcombe grew up in western North Carolina, home to some of the planet’s oldest mountains and some of America’s deepest musical traditions. Radio and TV fueled Malcolm’s musical passions as a kid, and music became even more important after he lost both his parents relatively young. He toured with bands and landed in Nashville, where he took up an inconspicuous station at the back of the house – the very back - at Douglas Corner, one of the city’s best singer/songwriter venues. Stories began to circulate about the mysterious dishwasher with the subterranean voice and oracle-like talent. Sadly so did stories of wildly inconsistent behavior – profound sweetness crossed by bouts of stunning abrasiveness. He flirted with an official music career. But his stunning debut album made for Geffen Records was abruptly shelved, producing melodrama that only exacerbated Malcolm’s drinking and depression. A business that once had a place for complicated genius turned its back on him, and he teetered near the edge.

Moving back to the North Carolina hills proved a powerful tonic. Holcombe let in help where before he’d pushed it away. With deep faith in God and a commitment to his art, Holcombe repaired himself and his career. The measure of that fixing today can be found in the story of To Drink The Rain. Jared Tyler, who’s stuck with Holcombe through some trying times over nearly 12 years, was more than a little excited to produce the project. When he called bass player Dave Roe on short notice, the legendary veteran of Johnny Cash’s last band cancelled other sessions to fly to Austin, saying "Malcolm is the only artist that I would fight to be on his recording." And the partners at Music Road Records, a new but happening Austin label spearheaded by singer/songwriter Jimmy LaFave, recording engineer Fred Remmert, and investor Kelcy Warren, agreed to become Malcolm’s new musical home.

And what have they wrought? Well, the opening track offers a pretty good clue with its spanking guitar line, its boogie blues feel and its "down the road with a smile" lyric. Malcolm sings "I put on my britches one leg at a time" like he’s just delighted with the sheer ordinariness of everything. And the tone continues throughout, though not without the intensity we’ve come to expect from Holcombe. The title track leaves nothing in studio, as Holcombe’s full-throated delivery is both an endorsement and example of the song’s message of living lustily. The instrumental contributions of fiddler Luke Bulla, drummer Bobby Kallus, and Jared’s dobro suggest the same kind of commitment. And all of this honest musicianship is captured honestly by Remmert behind the board.

Other highlights include "Down In The Woods," a pretty country waltz that could have been a Robert Hunter/Jerry Garcia collaboration. "Becky’s Blessed (Backporch Flowers)" portrays a supportive spirit and blossoms with sunny imagery. "The Mighty City" has newgrass momentum and mysterious lyrics that engage time and again. And "One Man Singin’," the album’s closing cut conjures up a picture of the best times from Malcolm’s Nashville years. It’s not clear if it’s autobiographical, but it does express Holcombe’s belief in the power of the song and the human impulse to share our inner lives. "The soul of his voice was familiar to the marrow," he sings. "My heart turned loose of my head."

And that’s a pretty good nod to the effect of hearing Holcombe sing. If you’ve not seen him in a live setting, this is what you have to do. His presence is spooky and timeless, as one imagines it was like to see Son House or Leadbelly. No emotional stone is left unturned. While you plan for this important experience, collect Malcolm Holcombe albums, starting with this one. He is cryptic, demanding, polarizing, bold, passionate and free, a combination badly needed in our time of infinite trivia. He’s even more interesting for having made a remarkable journey of recovery and discovery.

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