Friends, if you consider yourself any fan of live music at all, you need to do yourself a favor and get over to Springbrook Park this evening. One of my favorite songwriters and performers is making a rare outside-of-Knoxville appearance for the “Songs By the Brook” concert series, and if you’ve never had the pleasure of witnessing Malcolm Holcombe up close and personal, tonight is your night.
I first interviewed Malcolm about 15 years ago, and I usually catch up with him about once a year whenever he comes over Knoxville way to perform at The Laurel Theater (his usual stomping grounds) or any number of other venues that’ll give audiences an opportunity to pull up a chair and witness him in all his homespun glory. He’s a fascinating character, and when he performs, there’s something primal in the way he croons and howls and cradles his guitar like a lover.
He in no way wears any sort of sash that says “artist,” but there’s a reason I christened him as “Dylan of the hills” in one of the first stories I wrote about him.
“I’m interested in what people have to say, to a degree, but I’ve heard so many people talk that not too much gets my attention these days,” he told me back then. “If I’ve got something I can sink my teeth into, I’ll go after it, but meanwhile a man’s gotta have a back-up plan, or just a plain ol’ plan, and a plan usually involves every alphabet on this planet and every character.
“I remember something Harlan Howard told me at Douglas Corner Cafe many years ago in Nashville, when I was a barback for a guy named Robert Smith. Mr. Howard said, ‘Son, we don’t need singers; we need songs. Good luck.’ Well, I’m still writing songs.”
Although I’m sure there was a time when he didn’t write, it doesn’t rightly seem possible. Malcolm seems as old as the Western North Carolina hills he calls home, and whenever I give him a ring and he spins a yarn or two or rattles off a nugget of backwoods wisdom or cuts plain with his astute observations about life and the nature of man, he reminds me of some old hermit living back among the old-growth timber of the mountains, trading his arcane prophecies for furs and dried goods.
Born in Asheville and raised in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, Holcombe learned to play the flat-top guitar and joined up with a folk group called The Hilltoppers. Performing at fairs, dances and shows throughout the small town of Weaverville and thereabouts, he fed his spirit a steady diet of folk, traditional Appalachian ballads and bluegrass. In 1976, he drifted to Florida and, in 1990, Nashville, where he worked odd jobs and soaked up as much of the business side of the industry as possible before going back to North Carolina.
He’s cut several albums over the years, including one for Geffen, “A Hundred Lies,” that earned a four-star review from Rolling Stone. He’s been compared to Bruce Springsteen for the way he paints vivid portraits with his songs, turning them into haunting, brooding, moving affairs. There’s an ache of loveliness and loneliness, of torment and hope, threaded through each of his tunes. It’s the bark of a coyote somewhere down in the thick scrub of a dark gulley … the whisper-call of an old owl perched in the loft of a hundred-year-old barn listing closer to ground than sky … the rattle of thunder off of granite outcroppings overhanging an old stagecoach road, threatening to bury those who pass below in a cascade of falling rock.
On his most recent album, “Come Hell or High Water,” he traffics in imagery both arcane and glorious: “gas-guzzling rustbucket” … “JFK on the stickhouse mantle” … “the old man’s porch” … dozens of pictures that trump narrative, “a glimpse inside the flurried hurricane of the songwriter’s mind,” as I wrote for his online biography: “And by the time the record fades into the final track — ‘Torn and Wrinkled,’ a weary rumination on the passage of time and one man’s life’s work (‘my conscience carries all the weight to help another’s heavy burden’) — it becomes clearer than ever that Holcombe’s voice deserves some sort of recognition by the state of North Carolina for its unique contribution to the art and tradition of the hill country he calls home.”
This evening, as the sun sets on the natural amphitheater that is Springbrook Park, ol’ Malcolm will give you a glimpse into his world, and I can’t recommend strongly enough that you be in line to see it. It’s unique territory, a landscape that won’t be mirrored by any other artist, and I guarantee that you’ll come away a believer. And maybe, when the winter winds blow and trouble settles on your mind and you’re not sure where to turn, you might be inspired to make a pilgrimage to those North Carolina hills, to see what sort of predictions and portents he can give you to ease whatever burden you carry.