Not Zippity-doo-dah – Malcolm Holcombe on his new set, ‘Down the River’
He lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina. He was born in a different part of those mountains than where he resides today, but not all that far – as the eagle flies.
All you need to know, though, about Holcombe’s actual status is this: Darrell Scott and Steve Earle, two of America’s finest songwriters, musicians and performers, showed up to support Malcolm on his upcoming independent release, Down the River (August 7, digital; September 3, physical copy). In addition, one of the greats, Ray Kennedy, sat behind the board as producer while Malcolm worked his magic on 11 new tunes. On top of that, Emmylou Harris made a guest appearance on one of the album’s sweetest gems, In Your Mercy.
Yeah, he may not be a household name. But among the best writers and performers in the country – in the world, most probably – he has earned respect.
Every track of Down the River features Malcolm’s unique guitar style, of which it was said by one writer: “Malcolm plays with his bare fingers and his percussive attack makes it easy to overlook the precision with which he plays.” Then there’s that voice, like Guy Clark after a carton of Camels; so gruff and gravely you can feel every lyrical nuance, every wry comment contained in his eloquent lyrics – from quiet, traditional tales to blunt and powerful depictions of the greedy and the weak. Still, even hardcore Holcombe fans will be surprised at the gentle, poignant delivery Malcolm provides on the new album’s title track.
I spoke with Malcolm by phone this week, and what follows is Holcombe talking about his work with the aforementioned legends, his view of what constitutes home, and an answer to why this album may his most important – and most political – work to date.
Toward’s the end of the interview, Malcolm quoted Townes Van Zandt: “There’s only two kinds of music… the blues and zippidy-doo-da.”
Down the River sure ain’t zippidy-doo-da.
Malcolm will be performing at The Down Home on Saturday August 11, at 9 p.m. Tickets are $12.
Mike Clark: Ray Kennedy produced Down The River. You’ve worked with him before; how did it feel to team with him again?
Malcolm Holcombe: Well he’s just… I’ve known Ray now going on a long time, and he and I are real like-minded on working together, on what we’re trying to come across with; and he’s real old-school and very creative. He’s a nice guy, with a good heart, in my opinion. He shoots from the hip and he’s got the goods to back it up; the know-how, the skills, the drive and the love for the music. And I trust him …
MC: Trust is very important in music, isn’t it?
MH: Trust is important when it comes to everything!
MC: In a press release, you quoted as having said you were looking to go to Mars, and Ray fortunately knew a lot of Martians …
MH: I don’t know. I don’t read that stuff …
MC: … so he brought along some pretty good Martians – Emmylou Harris, Darrell Scott and Steve Earle. I want to ask you a little bit about working with those three. First, how was it to sing with Emmylou?
MH: Well, she overdubbed her part when I was out of town, unfortunately. But I was very humble, and very grateful she was willing to sing on that song,In Your Mercy. She came to mind, as a long shot thought. She came to my mind that her voice on that song would be a wonderful human, but angelic contribution. Miss Harris has always had one of my favorite voices, and is one of my favorite human beings, in the way she put her own trip on every song she sings, and puts her heart on the line.
MC: Darrell Scott.
MH: I’ve known Darrell for roughly 15 or 20 years. I’ve always respected his musicianship, and he is an incredibly gifted singer, musician, writer; so it was, you know… Once again, trust and confidence, and he just put his own trip on it. He laid down the law and he didn’t spare no gavel, or the gallows either.
MC: He always seems so intense on the stage, is he that intense in the studio?
MH: He just kept his mouth shut and took care of business. He has a very compassionate demeanor, and focused. We had a couple of grins, but he’s very soft-spoken, eloquent and gentlemanly. And he didn’t punch me in the nose, so that’s in the plus column. Now that can still happen…
MC: And Steve Earle?
MH: He came in, and he’s just a man who is probably – in my opinion – one of the most serious and poignant songwriters that’s ever been born and is still living. As far as musicianship, and his ability to put his own trip on it, he’s to be reckoned with. We had a couple of laughs, told a couple of stories… and he didn’t punch me in the nose either. I was very grateful to have him on that song, the thought again came across that he would be an asset on it, and that he would boil the eyeballs of it as I was seeing it… Steve kicked those eyeballs out of my head. I was looking for someone to throw the gavel down, spring up the gallows, and stick my neck in the noose.
Between Russ Paul, Ken Victor, Ken Coomer, Victor Krauss, Tammy Rogers, we laid it down; laid it down. It was a wonderful experience to spin the chamber. And we got a good record, by the grace of the Good Lord, with a focus.
MC: You got a little more political here than I remember on this album. Conscious, or just where your head is these days?
MH: Hopefully, the times we live in bleeds into the consciousness of people, knowing where we are moment by moment. To me, its sticks out like a sore thumb. There’s people can’t somehow get their minds or thoughts of… the coin instead of their brothers and sisters, who are just barely making it.
But Townes Van Zandt once said there was two kinds of music, the blues and zippidy-doo-da and I tried my best to steer clear of the zippidy-do-dah.
MC: One more question, I know you were born in Western North Carolina, and still live there. What keeps you in these mountains?
MH: Well, you know, it’s like a stoop in Brooklyn or a field of corn in East Tennessee, or Chimney Rock or Mount Pisgah… or the look in a mother’s eye. It’s home. We all have different homes, though some of us bounce all around the world. I’m blessed that I can still remember the look in my mother’s eyes.
So, if I don’t know what its like to grow up on a stoop in Brooklyn, and someone else does, I don’t want to be sucking down a McDonald’s Biggie Coke and be sitting there with my mind rotting, and not know anything. I’ve got to get my head out of that cup.
People have to make a decision; make a choice. We have more choices than we’ve ever had, and we have to try to make good choices.
There is still a spirit that drives people to knowledge, and to being open-minded. We have to be peaceful and open to each other’s characters, and take time to look in a mother’s eye, or cop’s eye, or judge’s eye, or see the look on a cat’s eye before he lands on your neck …
By Michael Clark
To purchase Down the River, from Amazon:
Cross posted from ninety-nine