The Song Remains: Malcolm Holcombe (1955 – 2024)

Credit: Paul Landers

One of the most respected and gifted singer songwriters of his generation.

Steve Earle proudly stated “he’s the best songwriter I ever had to throw out of my studio”, while the late great David Olney recalled “When I moved here (Nashville) I thought I was a rebel, then I met him and I felt more like Vic Damone”. Both these quotes from two of the finest craftsmen of their art go a long way to describing the uncompromising genius of Malcom Holcombe who, having been diagnosed with cancer back in 2022, and in poor health for some time, died of respiratory failure on Saturday 9th March aged 68 years old.

Born in Weaverville, North Carolina, 2nd September 1955, by the time he was in his teens Holcombe was already performing in the clubs and bars of the nearby and somewhat larger Asheville with local bands The Hilltoppers and Redwing. After leaving school, he attended college for a short period before quitting to take up music full time forming a trio with Ray Sisk and Dallas Taylor releasing one album in 1985 entitled ‘Trademark’ as well as releasing a duet album with North Carolina music legend Sam Milner. In 1990 he bit the bullet and hopped on a Greyhound bus to Nashville to try to make his mark as a singer songwriter, initially finding steady work as a cook at the Douglas Corner Nightclub where he occasionally got the opportunity to perform on stage during their open mic nights. His first solo recording ‘A Far Cry From Here’, (1994) was released on the independent label ‘lo Music’, which quickly brought him to the attention of some of Nashville’s biggest hitters eventually signing for ‘Geffen Records’. While at Geffen, Holcombe would record the highly revered ‘A Hundred Lies’, in 1996 but due to the inevitable ‘big label politics’, the album would not see the light of day until 1999, finally being released on Hip-O Records and receiving a glowing review from journalist David Fricke in ‘Rolling stone‘ magazine, giving it a four star rating.  In truth had it not been for the persistence of such luminaries as Steve Earle along with Lucinda Williams the album may never have seen the light of day and clearly demonstrates the high esteem Holcombe was held by his peers.

By the time ‘A hundred Lies’, finally saw the light of day Holcombe had already fallen out of love with Nashville where he had developed a dependency for drugs and alcohol that he would struggle for years to kick, and instead returned to North Carolina, setting up home in Swannanoa, just a few miles from his birthplace. However he continued to release albums for a number of different independent record labels starting with ‘Another Wisdom’,(2003), garnering a reputation for being one of the finest writers of his generation, writing songs for the working class, like a preacher with a clear understanding of his parishioners, weaving his stories so intricately that the listener believes unconditionally that the story is their own. Holcombe once described his approach to songwriting by saying “You’ve got to sharpen your eye, just like a pencil, and throw some words together that are intelligible. That’s your job, and it’s a big responsibility, and it’s not to be taken lightly”. He took pride in his work and was proud of his profession.

Holcombe’s singing style was best described as a slightly stentorian but heartfelt baritone often compared to Tom Waits, that could be delivered in numerous guises as required, be that passionate, romantic to menacing or downright aggressive , but always with a lyrical poetic reverence like a travelling minstrel from a different age narrating tales of love and loss, torment and hope all authenticated by the scars of experience. Holcombe didn’t just write songs for the people he lived life for the people. Lucinda Williams in describing Holcombe called him “(An) old soul and modern day blues poet. He is a rare find”. while Darrell Scott who produced Holcombe’s album ‘Pretty Little Troubles’, (2017), described his songs as a mix of “Deep mystery and high art”, going on to say, “He is who I listen to, and have for over 20 years. This record goes on the list of working with my hero’s”.

Holcombe continued to tour right up until last year, having throughout his career shared the stage with some of the biggest names including Merle haggard, Richard Thompson, John Hammond, Wilco and the recently departed Leon Russell. His albums were also regularly supported by many of the finest singers, musicians and songwriters of the day, including Iris Dement, Tony Joe White, Mary Gauthier and Jaimee Harris, while musicians Jared Tyler and Dave Roe worked most closely with him throughout the years obtaining a level of understanding in to the workings and musical mind of an artist that drew deep from the resonant well of the American musical heritage. ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine described Holcomb’s music by saying “Haunted country, acoustic blues and rugged folk all meet here”.

Holcombe had been sober for the last twenty years of his life and during his career released eighteen albums the most recent being last years ‘Bits & Pieces’, that deservedly appeared on many end of year best of lists, his songs more sculpted than written, still draped in mystery, conveying all the sagacity and poignancy of an artist who had stood at the gates of hell and showed no fear.

The final words on Holcombe are best left to Darrell Scott who said “All the goods that I value in songs and artistry are in Malcolm – (he’s) the real deal”. That he surely was.

About Graeme Tait 111 Articles
Hi. I'm Graeme, a child of the sixties, eldest of three, born into a Forces family. Keen guitar player since my teens, (amateur level only), I have a wide, eclectic taste in music and an album collection that exceeds 5.000. Currently reside in the beautiful city of Lincoln.
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

9 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Fiona

It’s been a good few years since I listened to Malcolm Holcombe. Thanks for the article, for the reminder and for the lovely tracks.

Andy Trott

Thanks Graeme for the lovely obituary here. Heard the news of his passing and was hoping he would be honoured here.

Mike Ritchie

That is a fine tribute. There’s a ragged glory in Malcolm Holcombe’s music, no compromises and that’s why he is a stand-out for me. I don’t have all 18 of his albums but none in my collection is less than wonderful.

Jim

“Ragged glory” is right.

Jim

Thank you for your story, although i was deeply saddened to hear of Malcolm’s passing. He was an observer and participant of the struggles we live with everyday who had the ability and talent to compose those struggles in a song. Bless him and his family.