Malcolm Holcombe brings a taste of Appalachia to River City Roots 

I can't believe I'd never heard of Malcolm Holcombe before now. But it seems somewhat fitting: The gravel-voiced, backwoods denizen is by all accounts unassuming and humble, keeping to himself in the hills of Appalachia, producing his own music, and quietly going about the business of writing and singing some of the most striking, insightful songs about America's least-seen people.

Aside from a brief and tumultuous stint in Nashville, Holcombe, who plays in Missoula at this year's River City Roots Festival, has spent his whole life in North Carolina. The writer Alan Kaufman compares Holcombe to William Faulkner, calling him a "singular sort of solitary genius that ... is yet the voice of an entire region—the South." But while I agree that he's a genius, I think that to cast the net so broad as to encompass all of the South is to miss the true nuance of Holcombe's music.

These are songs about working-class America and the distinct sorrows and triumphs therein. Holcombe gives voice to this population through the ages, from the era before labor reform ("fifty cents a bloody day/ no child labor laws/ most them lil babies died/ disease and alcohol," from "Good Ol' Days," an ironically chipper tune) to today, when, despite all of our advances, the problems we face are just as sinister ("big money fills my pockets with words/ puppets poison my mind" from "Crippled Point O' View").

I don't think it's much of a stretch to say that Holcombe is to the working class and rural South what Richard Hugo was to the downtrodden and hard-living citizenry of Montana and the Pacific Northwest: Both find poetry in the ragged corners of life, without cheapening or objectifying it. The sorrow in Holcombe's lyrics is real because he has lived in this world. This is not some skinny-pant-wearing coiffed hipster singing about generic high lonesome hollers—this is a rough-around-the-edges, damaged, prophetic troubadour whose lyrics are honest and earned.

click to enlarge Malcolm Holcombe sings songs about the working-class South. - PHOTO COURTESY ANDREA FURLAN
  • photo courtesy Andrea Furlan
  • Malcolm Holcombe sings songs about the working-class South.

Holcombe is, no doubt, aided in his success by his voice and appearance—he looks and sounds exactly as you'd hope: scrappy, wiry, gaunt, ponytailed, with a voice full of whiskey and cigarettes. I spent days trying to figure out who he sounds like. A combination of Guy Clark and Steve Earle? Plus a little Tom Waits? And maybe Greg Brown and John Hiatt, too? And a little Billy Joe Shaver? But I realized it was futile. Malcolm Holcombe sounds like Malcolm Holcombe. When you throw in his masterful guitar-picking skills, what you end up with is a truly legendary sound.

The word "authentic" is grievously overused, but it's fitting in this case. Holcombe performs with an about-to-go-off-the-rails approach that suggests that he performs not necessarily because he wants to, but because he has to. The compulsion that drives him is undeniable. Other critics have used words like "uncanny" and even "spooky" to describe him, stopping just short of attributing his craftsmanship to possession by higher powers.

I tend to think that Holcombe isn't channeling a deity; he's doing one better, which is to be a thinking, seeing, empathizing human. In a world currently awash in divisiveness and animosity, Holcombe is a welcome voice, which is not to say that his songs are palliative or uplifting, because with a few exceptions, the lyrics are fairly dark (though the tunes themselves are somewhat more cheerful). What's important about his work is that he shines a light on people and situations that so often go overlooked. Certainly, the coal miners and truck-stop waitresses and down-and-out wretches have seen countless bards capitalize on their condition over the years. But few musicians seem to approach their subjects with the kind of fierce protectiveness—even love?—that Holcombe brings.

Malcolm Holcombe plays the main stage at River City Roots Festival Sat., Aug. 26, 2:30 PM to 4. Free.

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