Malcolm Holcombe growls from the depths, raw as ever on his enigmatic new album Come Hell or High Water. Pearly harmony vocals from Iris Dement only cement the darkness on these 13 tracks of elemental, bluesy Americana.
On the North Carolina side of the Southern Appalachians, the
land still retains its secrets.
It’s a place of paradoxes, where poverty is handed down from one hardscrabble
generation to the next in towns passed over by the New South progress that
gives a city like Asheville its bourgeois charm. It’s a resilient pocket of
wilderness where a small band of Cherokee once disappeared into the misty
hollers to wait out the white man’s ire, back in the deep woods where old
growth timber blocks out the sunlight and compass needles sometimes spin
crazily and the trappings of civilization give way to things beyond human
On the cusp of releasing his 13th studio album — “Come Hell or High Water,” out
XXX on Singular Recordings — singer-songwriter Malcolm Holcombe is a both a
part of and apart from those Blue Ridge hills, a Southern folk golem brought to
life by the deeper mysteries that give these hills so much of their folklore.
His songs belong in the same Western North Carolina echelon of mysteries like
the Brown Mountain Lights or the ghostly apparitions along Helen’s Bridge or
the phantom choir of Roan Mountain — things that surpass conventional
explanation but summon forth a combination of awe and primal longing, an ache
to understand the great questions of the human condition.
Malcolm may not have the answers to those questions, but his songs are drawn
from the same waters that begin as a trickle in the deep woods: wild, untamed,
filled with the whispers and roars of all the mysteries and wonders those hills
contain. And like the region’s otherworldly manifestations, they come from a
place that transcends easy understanding, even by their creator.
“I don’t know, man; people ask me that stuff, and I can’t really tell you where
it comes from,” Holcombe says. “I’m not really good at pulling a Houdini and
getting the pencil to levitate. Getting my pencil to levitate is impossible;
it’s not in my realm of being. Like my friend Eddie from up here in Swannanoa
says, ‘If you like to get corn, you got to get out the hoe.’”
For “Come Hell or High Water,” he wields that hoe with a deft set of hands,
gnarled fingers smelling of tobacco and fresh dirt and the resin from thousands
of worn-out guitar strings. It’s his third record in as many years, but it’s a
pointless endeavor to talk to him about his creative process, because Malcolm
isn’t the sort of songwriter to poke those dark recesses of the mind to figure
out where the words that bubble up there come from.
“It’s like a friend of mine said years ago — everything’s a miracle or
nothing’s a miracle,” he says. “It’s just miraculous to be in this situation
with some wonderful folks that I’ve been working with over the years, and to be
supported by my wife and friends and fans.”
Two hundred years ago, early settlers might have visited a man like Malcolm in
a cave cut into the side of a North Carolina mountain, hauling tobacco or hides
through the Southern Appalachian woods to receive words of wisdom. Even with
the contemporary trappings of internet songwriting and email and digital studio
wizardry at his disposal, he’s not that far removed from that wild-eyed hermit
who speaks in riddles and metaphors and delivers prophecies and portents of
troubled times. If there's one thing you can depend on Holcombe to deliver,
it's honesty — often searing, often painful, always with the sort of deft turn
of phrase that has made ardent admirers out of his contemporaries.
“Malcolm Holcombe is an artist of deep mystery and high art; he is who I listen
to, and have for over 20 years,” says Darrell Scott, one of Nashville’s premier
sessions instrumentalists and a nationally respected singer-songwriter. “All
the goods that I value in songs and artistry are in Malcolm.”
“I think for most songwriters, songs are like clothing. Malcolm's songs are his
skin,” writes fellow Nashville tunesmith David Olney. “They are a direct
expression of who is as a man.”
“People like to say Malcolm Holcombe is a national treasure, and they got that
right,” adds R.B. Morris, an East Tennessee singer-songwriter, playwright and
the former poet laureate of the City of Knoxville. “He stands on all the old
American music traditions and takes them his own way into a very individual
“Come Hell or High Water” is trademark Malcolm: chiseled out of a life abundant
in both hard times and sweet ones. He was born and raised in these hills,
learned to play the flat-top guitar with a local folk group and woodshedded on
stages at dance halls, county fairs and community centers throughout the
region. He left for a spell, winding up in Nashville and signing a record deal
with Geffen that exposed him to a wider audience, but ever since he came back
home, he’s been content to do his own thing, earning admiration from
contemporaries like Steve Earle and Emmylou Harris and drawing comparisons to
everyone from the late Townes Van Zandt to Bruce Springsteen for the way he
paints vivid portraits with his songs, turning them into haunting, brooding,
moving affairs. There's an ache of loveliness and loneliness, of torment and
hope, threaded through each of the 13 tracks on his latest, all of them crafted
with the celebrated roots-music couple Iris DeMent and Greg Brown.
As exquisite as both guests sound, however, it’s Malcolm’s roughhewn and ragged
voice that “cuts through ya like a frozen butter knife,” to borrow a line from
“Old North Side,” one of the new record’s easy-like-Sunday-morning grooves.
It’s a song of snapshots as only Malcolm can take them — “gas-guzzling
rustbucket” … “JFK on the stickhouse mantle” … “the old man’s porch” … images
trumping narrative, a glimpse inside the flurried hurricane of the songwriter’s
“This world is full of goodness and a lot of positivity, but it seems like I
can relate to the underdog and the downtrodden, for obvious reasons,” he says.
“Those types of songs seem to strike a nerve more deeply than the ‘Yellow Brick
Road,’ because I think it’s a struggle for all of us to try to do the next
right thing. Some people have the spiritual chemistry to be able to achieve
that more easily than others, but I think we all struggle with getting up in
the morning and trying to live in our own skin.”
“Feelin’ my age, feelin’ cynical and wrong, too scared to believe I belong
anymore,” he ponders on “New Damnation Alley,” one of those vocal tangos with
DeMent that takes “Come Hell or High Water” to a level umatched by his past
catalog. When they channel the sweet ache of “I Don’t Wanna Disappear” or lift
up the gospel-blues praises of “Gone By the Ol’ Sunrise” or send up a warning
for the coming “rain and the dread” on “Black Bitter Moon,” Malcolm’s guttural
growls and hissing lamentations are tempered by DeMent’s country drawl
sweetness. And by the time the record fades into the final track — “Torn and
Wrinkled,” a weary rumination on the passage of time and one man’s life’s work
(“my conscience carries all the weight to help another’s heavy burden”) — it
becomes clearer than ever that Holcombe’s voice deserves some sort of
recognition by the state of North Carolina for its unique contribution to the
art and tradition of the hill country he calls home.
It's the groan of weathered timber from an abandoned mountain cabin during a
spring storm, the lonesome bark of a coyote on the other side of a ridge or the
whine of a locomotive cutting through Appalachian valleys in the dark of night.
It’s a haunting and mysterious thing, and like most of the mysteries of these hills,
the true beauty lies in the eyes — or in this case, the ears — of the beholder.
“It’s not for me to judge what people think or ascertain from the tunes; they
get what they get out of them,” he says. “I try not to think about it or get
too analytical about any of it. They’re just built through personal experiences
and living my life with family and friends, and by the grace of the good Lord,
I’m able to be of service and offer some stories.”