Thursday, August 2, 2012
LITTLE ROCK Malcolm Holcombe has survived the sort of musician’s lifestyle that has derailed lesser mortals, including Townes Van Zandt. Steve Earle has famously described Holcombe as “the best songwriter I ever threw out of my recording studio,” but these days, Holcombe has told one and all that his drinking, anger and wild ways are behind him. Lucinda Williams calls him “an old soul and modern day blues poet.”
Sounding much more ancient than his 56 or so years might suggest, Holcombe is most gracious when discussing his life and times, taking an almost Zen-like outlook on how he has managed to hang on and even thrive. Perhaps it’s his locale - he lives near the Blue Ridge Parkway, on the outskirts of Asheville, N.C., at an elevation that almost ensures immunity from the summer temperatures that some of us endure.
“We live in Swannanoa, which is Cherokee for ‘ beautiful waters’ or ‘river,’” Holcombe says. “And we’re at a cool 2,500 feet, although it can get hot at times.”
Growing up in the mountains, where bluegrass music holds sway, Holcombe reckons his love of music was kindled when he saw the duo of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs on TV.
“They did some good pickin’, that’s for sure,” he says. “And when Earl Scruggs went off on his own, he had this great dobro player, Josh Graves. His niece lives around here.”
As if to salute his watery whereabouts, Holcombe’s latest and ninth album, set for release Tuesday, is titledDown the River. And like his others, it’s a mix of folk, blues and country, carried forward by Holcombe’s weathered voice, which could be compared to that of John Prine, Tom Waits or Bob Dylan. Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle make guest appearances on the CD.
The record industry had given Holcombe a rude awakening after he began his career in 1985, recording onsmall labels and with other artists. In 1996, he recorded the album A Hundred Lies, which was hailed by those lucky enough to hear it. But hearing it was not easy, since his major-label home, Geffen Records, took it and put it on the proverbial shelf, where it sat for years. Meanwhile, Holcombe went back to the North Carolina mountains and his low-key career at his own chosen speed, eking out a hardscrabble existence, with his wife and their 13-year-old son.
“Some of that stuff I remember and some I don’t,” Holcombe says of his days coming to terms with thestar-making machinery of the Nashville, Tenn., music industry. “I try to be openminded and teachable, and I think I’m still an open book, but a man needs to make up his mind and have an opinion at times.”
His latest album’s title cut bears that out, as Holcombe sings: “They make the laws to suit themselves; the ones that buy and sell the rest of us down the river.”
Little Rock’s White Water Tavern, where he is playing tonight, is a favorite venue for Holcombe and his Martin guitar, as he has several shows there under his belt.
“I always have a good time there,” he says. “They’re awful kind and hospitable there. I just do my solo show, playing my acoustic guitar. I’ll sing whatever I can remember. It’ll be a musical flea market hullabaloo.”
As to whether he has a favorite composition he always likes to perform, Holcombe turns enigmatic once more with a baseball analogy.
“I’m just glad to get one across the plate if I can.”Malcolm Holcombe
9 p.m. today, White Water
Tavern, West Seventh
and Thayer streets, Little
Weekend, Pages 35 on 08/02/2012