Malcolm Holcombe has a clear sense of the bigger picture.
Critics sing his praises, his peers hold him in the highest esteem (Steve Earle called him "the best musician I ever threw out of my recording studio"), and he plays to adoring fans across the United States and Europe. But Holcombe is surprisingly quick to downplay it all. As Holcombe says, he's just "embellishing other people's ideas."
"'Everybody's a songwriter,' is what this old friend of mine and mentor said in town," he says. "It took me years and years to try and get an idea of what he was talking about. I'm just passing along thoughts and information. Maybe somebody can get some use out of it or not, but we're always writing. Everybody's got their story within."
Holcombe, though, is especially adept at telling his. With his gravely voice and Everyman narratives, the North Carolina native conveys an unmistakable authenticity that can only come from living. And he's has done plenty of that.
From his early days on the road to working odd jobs in Nashville, Holcombe has experienced the triumphs and struggles that fill his songs. But that's not to say that the stories themselves are directly from life.
"I'm just dealing with the human condition," he says, with typical indirectness. "It's a bit of history and philosophy and beliefs. We're all from God, we just need to stay connected."
These days Holcombe is having no trouble staying connected to listeners. Gushing reviews of his work appear in publications ranging from Rolling Stone to the Wall Street Journal, and his last album, Gamblin' House, spent nine weeks in the Americana Music Association chart's top 20. Last year, he was tapped to contribute a track to the Songs of America project – a three-disc album that chronicles the nation's history through song — alongside a diverse pool of artists ranging from John Mellencamp to Devendra Banhart. Holcombe imagines his selection, a colonial era tune called "The Old Woman Taught Wisdom," being sung at the surrender at Yorktown.
"There's no proof that that song was sung during the surrender or on the battlefield," he admits, "but it's possible. It'd be like us singing "Yankee Doodle Dandee" or sitting around singing a tune in our head or singing to ourselves while we're getting' drunk or as you're walking around or ridin' along. That's my take on it. It's pretty much like a Randy Newman, but the personification is of Old England."
This week, his seventh effort, For the Mission Baby, hits stores and proves the acclaim has been well earned. From its twangy, infectious title track to the feel-good toe-tapper "Short Street Blues," For the Mission Baby is heartfelt and sincere, Appalachian to the core.
And it all seems to come so effortlessly. It's clear the man was born to be storyteller. Conversation with Holcombe is sure to be full of offbeat quips that could easily be incorporated into song, and his very description of the craft is about as intuitive as they come.
"There's no process or formula," he says. "If you wanna plow a field and plant some corn, you've gotta get out the plow, and get out there and do it. Leave the rest up to God."
With this latest release, Holcombe is taking to the road, with shows booked into March of next year, including a two-month stint in Europe, where Holcombe has had been greeted with open arms, slated to begin in January. Even though his style is at it's very core an American grown form of music, the always inclusive Holcombe says European audiences can relate just as well a his fans at home.
"We're all immigrants in this town, in this world, you know. Over there or over here. It's the universal commonality: smiles, eyes, huggin' and shakin' hands, kissin' and cryin' and laughing. People laugh the same way in any language."
But before he hops the pond, Holcombe will be headlining the Grey Eagle for his hometown crowd. Though you'd never guess it from his animated stage presence, the seasoned performed admits that he still gets nervous.
"I'm scared to death," he says. "I've been doing this a while, but it's still an adventure. "
But, Holcombe points out, playing at home does have its perks.
"I know where the coffee pot is there."
who: Malcolm Holcombe, with Jared Tyler
what: CD-release show
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Saturday, Oct. 3 (9 p.m. $10/$12. www.thegreyeagle.com)