Malcolm Holcombe is one of Americana music’s greatest enigmas. He’s celebrated by other luminaries in the field, such as Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, and Warren Haynes. His albums routinely receive critical praise in places like Rolling Stone, American Songwriter, No Depression, and USA Today. But no one really knows what to make of the North Carolina singer-songwriter.
He sings in a guttural voice evocative of Tom Waits with surrealistic lyrics reminiscent of John Prine, and he plays his guitar as if he’s chopping wood. To call him idiosyncratic would be an understatement. You can’t tell if he’s genuine or just putting on an act—and I have seen him perform live several times and own quite a few of his albums. So I just asked him.
I still don’t know the answer. He has a thick Southern accent and an aw-shucks attitude that makes him sound like a naïve bumpkin, even though he has performed in major cities around the world for over 20 years.
Holcombe was somewhat garrulous and generous with his time, but he spoke in riddles and went off on tangents while seeming to address my question, then noting with a laugh, “That will give you something to chew on.” It’s difficult to know if he was being evasive or simply caught up in the moment. He’s straightforwardly friendly and humble. He appears to be candid, open, and honest. Yet when it comes down to it, getting the facts from Holcombe is like trying to catch an eel in muddy water.
Holcombe will be performing solo at Byron’s in Pomeroy on June 12 and the Mill in Iowa City on June 13. He’s played at several different venues in Iowa over the years, and the rural native professes to love the Hawkeye farmland. He also claims to love the pastures of Sweden, where he was currently performing on a tour of Europe, and of course his home countryside of the Tar Heel state.
“I love the smell and feel of black dirt,” he said sincerely, and then continued, “but you know, people have these attitudes and have a hidden agenda about where you are from—and that comes out of fear and ignorance. Things stir up people and some people get stirred up and write poetry and write songs. . . . Unfortunately some people get stirred up and the next thing you know you got a Cain and Abel on your hands.” Holcombe then digressed about guns, the NRA, and the current state of politics. This is the way he talks, starting with one thought and chasing it down the rabbit hole.
That’s one reason why his music is so good. His songs take unexpected twists and turns so that a tune about a crop in the field can turn out to be about a man’s love for his wife, or a tribute to the good old days can transform into a critique of working conditions before child labor laws and safety practices.
As one who sees the spiritual in the material world, he frequently makes references to the Bible. It’s no exaggeration to say that, for Holcombe, every day is a miracle and we should be thankful we are alive to witness it. Some of this way of thinking comes from his struggles with drugs and alcohol earlier in his career. He’s been sober for many years now and credits a higher power for his recovery. The words “only by the grace of god” have a special resonance for him when describing his past troubles and current situation.
Iowans Greg Brown and Iris DeMent sing on Holcombe’s latest album, Come Hell or High Water, and he explained how this came to be. “I was sitting on the couch a while back and I had some tunes that I was going to lay down in the studio. I was talking to my wife, bouncing ideas off her, and said, ‘Hey man, I’d sure love to have a nice female vocal on these tunes. Something real folkie and natural as real honeydew lime water,’ and Iris DeMent’s name popped into my pea brain pretty quick.”
Holcombe’s wife told him that DeMent was married to Greg Brown. Holcombe was familiar with Brown’s work and considers him an American legend. Holcombe thought Brown wouldn’t even give him the time of day, but “I looked up Greg’s information on the doggone internet and pecked out a little email and left my phone number.” He didn’t expect an answer.
“Sho’ nuff, Greg called me on my old flip phone about 30 minutes later—un-be-lieve-able. Swept me out. We talked a pretty good while. The man had such a low voice, I felt like Wayne Newton trying to jabberjaw with him.”
The result was that two or three days later, Iris called him. The three of them got together with some other musicians in Massachusetts and laid down tracks for the new record.
“I’m very grateful,” Holcombe said, using a phrase he used more than once while we talked, this time about Brown and DeMent’s involvement but also about his marriage, his career, and just being able to live in the world.
Holcombe came across as a genuine eccentric with his North Carolina accent and folksy vernacular. One might not guess he was an internationally respected musician and celebrated lyricist with more than a dozen acclaimed albums. After hearing him speak, I’m still not sure if it was just a persona or that’s who he really is. But one thing is for sure—as an artist, he’s the real deal.