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Remembering Electrifying And Mercurial Songwriter Malcolm Holcombe, Gone At 68

Jaime Kalikow

Malcolm Holcombe, the brilliant and enigmatic songwriter whom Lucinda Williams called “an old soul and a modern-day blues poet” has died at 68 years old, after a battle with cancer and a late-life surge of creative fire. He passed away on Saturday near where he was raised in western North Carolina, but Holcombe jolted his way into the consciousness of many roots music lovers and practitioners during a spell in Nashville 25 years ago. In a music community characterized by polite songwriter rounds, Holcombe was unnervingly ferocious and feral - a mesmerizing performer and lyricist whose mix of gifts and demons invite worthy comparisons to Hank Williams and Townes VanZandt.

“It is with a broken and heavy heart that I share the news that Malcolm Holcombe passed away today from respiratory failure,” wrote Cyndi Holcombe, his wife of 20 years, on Facebook. “He has been in a great deal of pain for a long time, and his spirit is now free from all that and he is singing with the angels. Malcolm loved all of you so very much and was so grateful to have such loving and devoted family, friends and fans.”

One of the closest is Jared Tyler, the Tulsa-based musician who’s played on or produced nearly all of Holcomble’s albums since 2005, while being a constant touring companion on resonator guitar. “Malcolm is the only musician on the planet that did what he did to me when I heard him. No one's ever moved me like he has,” Tyler said by phone on Monday. He recalled meeting Holcombe when Tyler was working in the kitchen at the Bluebird Cafe and some time after that being invited on stage to play with Malcolm and a band of Nashville pickers. “I'll never forget that moment, my first time to ever play with him. It was like jumping on a 1000-mile-an-hour freight train. It was just electric. And from that point on, he had me as his Dobro player.”

In Asheville, a hometown mourned. Jeff Whitworth, proprietor of the Grey Eagle, where Holcombe played many a night, posted: “Malcolm was a national treasure that we were truly blessed with here in Western NC where he spent nearly his entire life. Malcolm was a musician’s musician. While not the household name I always thought he deserved to be, he was quietly one of the most respected writers amongst the songwriting elite.”

Indeed Jason Isbell, Darrell Scott, Tommy Womack, Mary Gauthier, Jon Latham and others shared their grief over Holcombe’s passing.

Holcombe was a flinty eccentric with a forbidding glare but a heart famous for its tenderness among those who knew him. His scratched and scraggly voice comes from the Southern lineage of Charley Patton, Son House and the outsider folk tradition. He grabbed and spanked the strings of his guitar with controlled fury, and he’d lift up off his chair from his hips and lean all over the place, channeling his physical energy straight out of his sound hole, while all manner of philosophy and psychology vented from his throat. He’d let go a growl/sigh at the end of lines, like an audible blues comma, and his intensity on stage conjured the enormity of Howlin’ Wolf.

But amid the gyrations and flying spittle came Holcombe’s extravagant poetry, lyrics that float in the mind’s eye and conjure different things for different listeners. “I've heard misfortune’s losses, And wasted ways before me by the costs, Of givin' someone time enough for spendin', Love only borrowed,” goes the first verse of “A Far Cry From Here,” a song covered beautifully by Maura O’Connell. On the 2015 album To Drink The Rain, the song “Down In The Woods” contemplates the landscape of the Smoky Mountains with tenderness: “Way down in the woods, Far from the highways, Away from the moments, Unnoticed and gone, Way down in the woods, Touchin' moss so soft, On the deadwood dyin', In time's fertile arms.”

Holcombe was born in 1955 and grew up around Weaverville and Swananoa, towns outside of Asheville, when folk and bluegrass were ways of life more than a scene with shows. He was drawn farther into music when his parents died young. After playing in a few bands, he moved to Nashville in 1990, though he would later date the launch of his performing/recording career to 1994. It didn’t take long to land a record deal with a major label and make his debut album, but in a time when country singers were supposed to be upstanding and corporate minded, that didn’t go well.

Geffen Records, possibly worried about Holcombe’s increasing troubles with drugs and alcohol and his sometimes erratic and abrasive behavior, shelved the release - but only after it had circulated in promo form among journalists and industry folks who couldn’t believe its quality and originality. Meanwhile, Holcombe became the stuff of legend as the line cook/dishwasher at Douglas Corner Cafe who’d sometimes emerge from the back of the house, take off his apron, and blow the room away with a few songs before retreating back to the grease pit.

Eventually though, that album - A Hundred Lies - did come out in 1999 on Universal’s Hip-O Records, launching a cycle of acclaim and curiosity. And Holcombe moved back to the Asheville area where he made some big changes, finding love and getting sober. In the years since, he’s released a dozen studio or live albums, a substantial and remarkably consistent body of work that supported steady touring in the US and Europe. In 2015, he released the retrospective RCA Sessions, a fresh performance on CD and DVD of key songs across 20 years of work, cut live at RCA Studio A in Nashville. It’s a good introduction to Holcombe’s “hits”.

After that, despite health struggles that included cancer, Holcombe was especially prolific, releasing five albums since 2016. On the most recent, Bits & Pieces released in June of last year, we hear a vibrant, fully committed folk and bluesman giving 13 remarkable songs everything he had. Jared Tyler, who produced and played all the parts on that virtual band album, says Holcombe had yet another batch of excellent songs in the works when he died.

Besides an attention to detail about his recordings that might seem paradoxical given his instinctive style of performance, Tyler remembered a guy with a Jesus-like softness for strangers and the estranged. “He was one of the only people that could communicate purely with people on the streets that were more than likely homeless and really down on their luck, because he was that person too. He knew what they were going through. That's why he related to them and really loved on them just as much as anyone else. And that really made a huge impact on me,” Tyler said. “After I met him, for the first time in my life, it was like this is someone I want to be a soldier for. I want to be on his team. I want to be spreading the message he's got to spread and helping that in any way, shape or form that I could.”

In that spirit, I’ll not be surprised to see Tyler and others spark a surge of Malcolm Holcombe cover songs. As one-of-a-kind as he was, the songs lend themselves to infinite interpretation and will live on.

For more on Malcolm Holcombe, Peter Cooper’s superb profile from No Depression magazine in 2008 can be found here.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org