The last time this writer described Malcolm Holcombe for his 2017 release Pretty Little Troubles, the phrase used was – “a troubadour seemingly from another age.” Holcombe is back with Come Hell or High Water and the phrase, of course, still fits. This is, rather unbelievably, his 13th studio album. Somehow his vivid imagery can evoke characters right out of a Dickens novel or, closer to home, southern writers like Faulkner or Eudora Welty. Straight out of the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, Holcombe brings his observant keen eye to the people of the region, their struggles, their hard-earned victories, and somehow many of his observations and short vignettes are widely applicable to all of us.
Holcombe has his own unique guitar style, a hybrid of fingerpicking and strumming, taking the listener from blues-based riffs to Celtic balladry. As an aside, if you get a chance to see Holcombe live, do so. He is absolutely riveting as he gets into a focused, almost hypnotic zone while rocking back and forth in his chair. And, his gruff, resonant, cigarette-burned voice belies his sense for melody – many of his songs have deceptively catchy hooks.
This time out Holcombe worked with producer/drummer Marco Giovino’s studio outside Boston last December with the help of frequent collaborator Jared Tyler on dobro, mandolin, guitars and vocals along with kindred spirits, the celebrated roots icons, Iowa-based Greg Brown and his wife, Iris DeMent. Both contributed vocal harmonies and Iris added piano on some tunes. Their presence differentiates this from his other recordings, but it is still Holcombe’s ragged voice prominent, delivering lines like “gas-guzzling rustbucket” or “JFK on the stickhouse mantle.”
Close your eyes. You can see his characters emerging from the coal mines, heading for the barroom, or home to a rather dilapidated mountain cabin. Or, in the opener, “Left Alone,” the homeless Vietnam vet. On “New Damnation Alley” DeMent’s harmonies sweeten an otherwise bleak outlook – “Feelin’ my age, feelin’ cynical and wrong, too scared to believe I belong anymore.” Similarly the harmonic dynamic colors the aching “I Don’t Wanna Disappear,” the Ray Wylie Hubbard-like blues-infused “It Is What Is,” the gospel-flavored “Gone by the Ol’ Sunrise,” or the send up of warning (“rain and the dread’) in “Black Bitter Moon” where he also sings the phrase ‘come hell or high water.” Tyler’s dobro and the DeMent’s voice are the perfect tonic for the series of regrets outlined “in the Winter” and sound rather buoyant in “Merry Christmas.” Holcombe closes appropriately with a man’s ponderings on the passage of time in “Torn and Wrinkled,” not measuring up to his dad’s Greatest Generation values. DeMent’s presence can be felt throughout and there are more chorus parts here than in previous Holcombe work, thus also the harmonies of Brown and Tyler.
The perspective here differs a bit from his third person story songs. He makes himself the protagonist, usually a downtrodden sort, offering observations and thoughts with emotions that range from loneliness and torment countered by comments on beauty and notions of hope. You’ll rarely meet anyone as modest as Holcombe who offers this on his stellar songwriting, ‘It’s not for me to judge what people think or ascertain from the tunes; they get what they get out of them. 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.’
After a day of hard work, many seek comfort by reaching for the bottle. Perhaps a better alternative is to just sit down and listen to Holcombe, not to say the two need be mutually exclusive. Holcombe is indeed one-of-a-kind – a true national treasure.
Photo by Jamie Kalikow