The first time I met Malcolm Holcombe I was not even a year old, and he was singing me a lullaby. Whether this initial interaction happened at my parent’s home or at a table at a listening room remains an absent detail, but it happened, nonetheless. This was but a snapshot of an entire story that I recently unearthed this week through a conversation with Holcombe. His life is a kind of tale that parallels familial folklore with a darker twinge and a haunting narration sung with a voice beautifully ragged with life’s weathering. And like he must have sung to me many years ago, he manifested a handful of memories told through Southern idioms and a kind growl that made me feel like I truly had known him my whole life, despite us having our first conversation in almost 22 years. I am a pitiful storyteller in comparison to the Appalachian native, but here is the story I have pieced together of Malcolm Holcombe.
I asked the gracious folk singer-songwriter to tell me where it all began, and this is the answer I got: “I grew up in a small town north of Asheville, called Weaverville. And well, I played guitar. I ain’t got nothing special to tell you there, Katie-honey.” He told me how proud he was of me, referenced folk tales, imparted wisdom through an accent that seemed too authentic to be true, but he spoke very little about himself. So let’s skip to 1990. “I got a one-way Greyhound ticket to Nashville, and I didn’t even buy it. I didn’t have enough money to buy it. I had a female philanthropist, I think she felt bad for me…and I was drinking a beer, and they wouldn’t let me take it on the bus. Ya know, thanks for reminding me, that pissed me off,” Holcombe asserted. And so it began. He ended up in the kitchen of Douglas Corner, doing all the tasks every start-out musician can imagine. He was getting by on a simple wage with a little help from some friends and several substances when he “launched his career in show business.”
“My big break in Nashville was when I met your daddy and some of the writers that played…it all began at Douglas Corner with plastic ants and a bear suit. And that bear suit cost $40. Now I want you to print that, that’s a lot of money in the early 90s.” I didn’t understand why his debut onto the scene included those items, so I went to a person I often employ to help translate life’s mysteries: my father, Tony Arata. “When I couldn’t get into the Bluebird to play, I got with Scott Miller, Bernie Nelson, Kirk “Jellyroll” Johnson, and Jimmy Stewart, and we put on these theme nights at Douglas Corner,” my dad explained. Having grown up with a songwriter as a parent, I always knew that there were untold adventures and hushed experiences that would boil to the surface at some point. “We called them ‘Fiascos,’ and that night was a picnic theme. And we got Malcolm up there and made him wear a bear suit.” They would pack the place and offer a writer’s round in a committed theme that rivals our current scene, transforming the listening room into a beach and even into a boxer’s ring, complete with costumes and a roped section in the middle of the room with a singular, center microphone to amplify them all. Apparently they even hired some girls to walk around and hold signs while they played. Classy and committed, or rather “more camp than composition,” as Arata described.
“All we knew was that he was the cook at Douglas. The first time Scott and I got him up to play, he blew everybody away,” said Arata. One evening, a representative from A&M Records was in the audience. Holcombe walked directly from the kitchen with his apron still on, grabbed his guitar and sat on stage, played a few songs that rattled the audience with truisms and heart, concluded and walked back to the kitchen, only after asking if my dad needed coffee without a look back at the representative or audience. Holcombe didn’t act in this manner because he disregarded the industry or his listeners, but it seemed as though he never thought too much about anything outside of the basic humanity of sharing songs. Even when I asked him what his most treasured song was from his personally crafted library of poems and melodies, he said, “Dark Side of the Moon. But I can’t play it.” With a bit of Southern accent that had inevitably slipped into my voice after settling into conversation with him, I kindly said, “well, Malcolm, I don’t think you wrote anything on that album. What of your music do you favor?” “Oh, no I don’t. I got short-term memory. I don’t think about any of that.” He said his greatest challenge in music was “trying to spell,” and all that he is today and all that he has accomplished is by “the grace of the good Lord,” no credit due to himself, the songwriter who is now regarded as a folk idol. But before I touch on his retrospect, let me return to his mercurial story.
“If you hang around a barber shop long enough, you get a pair of scissors in your back,” Holcombe preached. When you listen to him talk and especially when he sings, there is an evident history of complexities and experiences, of stumbles down paths that would shake the modern addict sober. Instead of us talking about these times, he cited the folklore of “Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby” as his description of dependence. Holcombe wailed into the phone with a cadential laugh, “throw me into the briar patch, throw me into the briar patch!” Addiction had overcome him in Nashville, and in 1998 it was time to get another one-way Greyhound ticket back to North Carolina. As he quotes in “Words of December,” a track on his most recent album, “the blood of my past still runs warm and tender,” and it still remains very much a part of the mysterious but now, sober, Holcombe. From these ventures he adopted a motto: “you gotta keep your eyes on the clouds, not on the devil,” an accepted adage only after a few stare-downs with his own demons. Thankfully these hypnotics developed into a legendary discography.
It shouldn’t (and doesn’t) go unnoticed that his 1999 release on Geffen Records, A Hundred Lies, was regarded as one of the most timeless recordings to come out that year, a fact to this day, but it has found a competitor in Holcombe’s 2014 album, Pitiful Blues. Ten releases later it is a ten-track recollection that is but a simple thing to its creator. “I was sittin’ in the backyard, and I got a little microphone back here, just trying to rub two nickels together. I got Jared Tyler (producer), a good friend, who helped put a little record together,” he calmly said. This man on the other end of the phone never once elaborated on this brutally but beautifully piercing album, even when I pried. I only got this poignant and quite Southern remembrance on what it was like to write the songs: “If you want to eat corn, you got to get out the hoe. Period.” And as he laughed, I marveled at this man’s collection of wisdom and grace through grit. The same man who opened for Merle Haggard and sang with Steve Earle had nothing much to say about his music. Perhaps his music alone says it all.
“Katie, you gotta be true to your own heart. It’s a day-to-day struggle we all go through, and music’s just a warm, recognizable thing that holds people together. We are all parts of each other, and I’m just trying to keep my spirituality and some kind of conscious contact with something greater than myself,” Holcombe told me. “And that includes my wife,” he ended.
His reestablished life has embodied itself in an honest work of music that should be regarded as harmonic scripture, studied and sung by the modern audience. His story is contoured by the human experience and ministered through his songs. Malcolm Holcombe is a loyal representation of a folk musician: honest to the bone, scarred but not damaged and continuously faithful to the song and its strength.
Listen to him tell his tale tonight at the 5 Spot (9pm) with Patrick Sweany.