“I’ve played every watering hole and just about every crack in the sidewalk in Buncombe County and of course I don’t remember all of it,” singersongwriter Malcolm Holcombe says. For those who recall the early 1990s heyday of acoustic folk (when clubs like Be Here Now and McDibbs booked sincere songsters like David LaMotte and Christine Kane) it seems like Holcombe has been part of the scene forever. Though his old-as-the-hills adages and craggy visage lend to that perception, Holcombe’s rough-hewn vocals (of late he’s been dubbed “The Tom Waits of the Appalachians”), gritty folk-blues strumming and not-so-nice-guy lyrics set him apart from the squeaky clean David Wilcoxes once (gently) rocking college campuses and regional radio stations.
If Holcombe—now six CDs (depending on how you count) and four decades (depending on if you believe what you read in Holcombe’s spotty bio) into his career—seems under-celebrated and chronically under-the-radar, he’s also proven timeless. Each disc Holcombe (currently one of three acts signed to the Echo Mountain label) puts out is hailed by critics as “Malcolm Holcombe at his very best”; last year’s Gamblin’ House earns that accolade. From the opening thump of “My Ol’ Radio,” and the Americana-tinged stomp of the title track, to the snarl of “Evelyn,” this is a fully realized collection.
So how does Holcombe maintain not only his sinewy writing ability, but a tour schedule that has him on the road about half the year? “I ain’t got time to get tired,” he says. The musician spent most of the past January and February playing his way across Western Europe. He welcomes that fan base: “They have been awfully good to me and my family and I’m very grateful,” he says. “I’m just glad to be working and times are hard, so it’s a blessing and a miracle that they got this old hillbilly on one side of the water and the other.
Still, Holcombe isn’t willing to compare his overseas shows to those on home turf. “Here is here and over there is over there,” he tells Xpress. “And there’s about 4,600 miles difference.”
Holcombe does care about the larger context of his music. “A lot of the instruments and the folklore had their birth in Europe. Native Americans, as well, made their contributions,” he says, momentarily trading a mountain drawl for a studied metaphor. “I think we’re the low men on the totem pole here in the United States of America as far as being with age and longevity in the music business. Whether it be creating or bastardizing.”
Thinking globally and locally, Holcombe also keeps tabs on the Asheville scene. “This town’s changed a lot in the past 35 or 40 years, so once in a while I’ll poke my head around.” Among the roster of musicians who inspire him, Holcombe names Woody Wood, Annie Lalley and Don Pedi. He’s also a fan of local studio and record label Echo Mountain, where he recorded Gamblin’ with Grammy winning producer Ray Kennedy. “They have given me an opportunity to work on my craft and make records and [they] offered a very unusual relationship that gives me creative control,” Holcombe says. “They worked very hard and got this mule to plow and I’m happy to be plowing.”
Plan are in the works for a new album (“We’re gonna sling it around. We’re gonna pass it around like cornbread and beans.”) hopefully with Kennedy again, possibly recorded in Nashville, though the musician cautions, “You don’t count your chickens before they hatch.” He could begin laying down tracks this month: “It’s penciled in. We’re just sharpening our pencils and keeping a box full of erasers.”
That one-day-at-a-time resolve seems to permeate Holcombe’s current approach to music. Gamblin’ tracks “Baby Likes a Love Song” and “Cynthia Margaret” elucidate a happy marriage and a settling-down previously absent from the artist’s road warrior persona. “You know, if you sit in the barber chair long enough you’re gonna get a haircut,” he says cryptically. Writing about personal experience is, he explains, “just what we do. If we’re going down an old stone pathway and we stub our toe, we’re probably gonna let somebody know about it. If we see a bird in a tree, we’re probably gonna describe it and share it. We as humans have a hard time keeping our mouths shut.”
Whatever the end result, Holcombe is committed to translating life’s turns into song—though listeners shouldn’t expect repeat performances. “Once it’s been done it’s been done,” he says. “I’ll always play the tunes and I guarantee it won’t sound like the record.”
who: Malcolm Holcombe
what: singersongwriter and local legend
where: Flat Rock Music Festival’s Spring Fling
when: Holcombe performs Saturday, May 2 at 6 p.m. (The festival runs 1 p.m.-midnight. $35 adults, $17.50 kids 11-17. www.flatrockmusicfestival.com.)