Greatest twists: Malcolm Holcombe re-records 16 songs for new album

KEEP IT SIMPLE: Although WNC folk artist Malcolm Holcombe recounts a 20-year career with The RCA Sessions, his plan going forward is straightforward: "Smoke cigs and pick," he tells Xpress. And "stay sober." Photo by John Gellman

When most musicians accumulate enough popular songs to warrant a greatest hits album, they simply gather the studio versions of those tracks, present them in an order they see fit and toss it out for their listeners to consume. If fans are lucky, they might get a new recording or a live cut of a favorite composition, but little else. But Malcolm Holcombe? He isn’t most musicians. The local folk artist and Weaverville native (who plays Isis Restaurant & Music Hall on Saturday, May 16) sidesteps expectations whenever possible, from looking back on the last 20 years of his career to approaching a Q&A session via email while on tour in Europe.

Mountain Xpress: To what do you attribute your success in Europe?
Malcolm Holcombe: The grace of God and trustworthy friends and especially fans and friends … and I’m sober.

Which countries and/or cities do you consider home to your primary fan base over there?

What accomplishments are you’re most proud of?
Pride goeth before a fall.

Do you have any regrets or point to any missed opportunities?

What advice do you have for musicians just now starting out to have a long, healthy career?
Don’t quit your day job.

In the fall of 2014, Holcombe went to RCA Studios in Nashville, Tenn., with past and present collaborators Jared Tyler (Dobro, electric guitar, lap steel, vocals), David Roe Rorick (upright bass, arco), Tammy Rogers (fiddle, mandolin, vocals), Ken Coomer (drums, percussion), Jellyroll Johnson (harmonica) and Siobhan Maher Kennedy (vocals). Their mission? Revisit songs from the 10 LPs and one EP that Holcombe recorded from 1994-2014, this time as live in-studio performances.

Essentially capturing a modern Holcombe concert for all to hear, this unusual handling of a greatest hits collection extends to the track order as well. As if to suggest traditional leanings — or at the very least tease them — The RCA Sessions begins with a six-song chronological arc from “Who Carried You” (1999’s A Hundred Lies) to “Butcher in Town” (2012’s Down the River). From there Holcombe goes steadily back in time to the title track of 2011’s To Drink the Rain, “Early Mornin’” (2005’s I Never Heard You Knockin’) and “Mouth Harp Man” (a song he wrote and performed for Johnson’s 2001 album A Few Close Friends), but establishing a pattern after that defies easy logic.

Over the final run, the order seesaws up to “I Call the Shots” (Down the River), down to “My Ol’ Radio” (2007’s Gamblin’ House) and “Goin’ Home” (2006’s Not Forgotten), back up again to title tracks from Down the River and 2014’s Pitiful Blues before landing at the pre-aughts starting point, “A Far Cry From Here.” If there is indeed a science to it all, Holcombe isn’t telling.

What’s your general attitude toward anthology or greatest hits albums? Are there other musicians who’ve taken unusual approaches to their catalogs that inspired you in part to go the direction you did with The RCA Sessions?
Ask my wife. … [I’m] grateful to have been asked by Brian Brinkerhoff executive producer and Ray Kennedy … It’s my job to be of service.

How long were The RCA Sessions  in the works?
About a year or so.

How did you choose the 16 tracks to re-record for this album? Were there ones that were tough to leave off?
We all made choices … and compromised.

What do you have planned for the Isis show, and who will be joining you?
Suit up, show up … Solo … Mike Ferrio opens the show. Smoke cigs and pick.

How would you like the next 20 years to play out?
Stay sober.

WHO: Malcolm Holcombe with Mike Ferrio
WHERE: Isis Restaurant & Music Hall,
WHEN: Saturday, May 16, at 9 p.m. $12 advance/$15 at the door

About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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