Malcolm Holcombe – Tricks Of The Trade
Malcolm Holcombe – Tricks Of The Trade
Format: CD – LP – Digital
Label: Need To Know Music
Release date: August 20, 2021
Malcolm Holcombe. Just say that name over a few times in your head. I first heard it sometime in the mid 90’s in Nashville when a friend said, “RB, there’s a guy you really got to see, Malcolm Holcombe.”
So, I went to the old original Sutler to check out a Malcolm Holcombe show. Malcolm and his little combo were in mid-flow when I got there and I was stopped in my tracks just past the door. In a music city full of singer songwriters, I hadn’t heard anything like this guy, there or anywhere else. Malcolm was a study, head to toe and heart to mind.
He was definitely possessed of the work at hand, what you’d call in a zone. He had a powerful and unusual voice, and an urgent and honest expression. What he said you could feel on a personal level if not completely discern all the words. I listened close as the songs poured out of him, one song turning into the next, Malcolm hardly taking a breath between, not playing for or waiting on applause.
The players rolled with him. I didn’t know the bass man, but Kenny Malone was on drums and Jelly Roll Johnson on mouth harp. Malcolm sat in a chair in the midst of them reeling and rocking and sometimes seeming to levitate. He played an acoustic guitar with no flat pic or finger pics, sometimes tapping or banging on it like he was knocking on the door of the song. His right hand like no other I’d ever seen flail on a flattop. The guitar was alive and at the mercy of the man who held it, and when his voice rang out above it, telling its tale, well it was a wonder to behold.
I returned to the hills of East Tenn. with this news to tell my friend Iron John Webb, who as much as anyone had set me to taking that ride to music city on a weekly basis. I reported, “I finally saw somebody totally unique in Nashville, a fellow named Malcolm Holcombe.” To which he replied, “You mean little Malcolm, why I’ve known him for over 20 years.” Next time I saw Malcolm was back at the Sutler, this time sitting at a corner table. I introduced myself, letting him know we had a mutual friend. That connection to Iron John was an immediate entry into Malcolm’s world, a welcome mat laid down. They were friends from years before in western North Carolina where Malcolm hails from. After this, I kept up with Malcolm when and where I could, and followed his music, live and on record. Along the way we shared some co-bills, in-the-rounds, and some road traveling.
To know Malcolm is to know stories, the stories he tells in his songs and the stories people love to tell about Malcolm. And Lord knows some are legendary. The story that’s got my attention right now is he has a new record coming out, Tricks of the Trade. Malcolm’s an amazing recording artist in that he’s able to catch the fire of his live performances in the studio. He’s put out 16 or more records since the mid-90’s, but since 2015 he’s put out six full length albums and a separate series of singles. He’s had a big flow going hardly hampered by near death health crises, or pandemics, or the verities and vicissitudes of whatever the biz is, just a steady stream of brilliant original work.
Tricks of the Trade comes at the crest of this wave, Malcolm at full throttle and surrounded by his main accomplices, Dave Roe and Jared Tyler. Malcolm’s been recording with Dave Roe since 2007, and Jared Tyler goes back even further, at least to Malcolm’s 1999 masterpiece, A Hundred Lies. These guys understand Malcolm and understand his music, and serve as producer and co-producer of Tricks of the Trade, along with Brian Brinkerhoff who’s been the label/producer of this late flow of Malcolm records. And the record was made at Dave Roe’s Seven Deadly Sins Studios in Nashville. You can feel them owning that atmosphere on this one.
Jared has always been like the musical shadow of Malcolm on dobro, mandolin, and vocals, but on Tricks of the Trade he has jumped on the electric guitar and muscled up the grooves of a few of these tunes. I believe Malcolm could walk right outta hell with Dave Roe playing bass beside him and the devil’d be dancing and wouldn’t even know they were gone. I saw Dave and Jared play with Malcolm through a thunderstorm flood and tornado one night when I personally feared for my family’s life and had no escape. By some miracle we all survived. Somebody must have parted the seas.
To keep it in the blood, Dave Roe’s son, Jerry Roe, sits behind the drums for most of the songs. Miles McPherson takes the rest. Along with Malcolm, Dave, and Jared, that’s the band. Ron de la Vega makes a special cello appearance on ‘Lenora Cynthia’. Malcolm has on recent records received some wonderful vocal support from Iris DeMent and Greg Brown, and here Mary Gauthier and Jaimee Harris add their voices to a number of songs, including ‘Higher Ground’, to bring home its reckoning: I got freedom to choose/I got freedom to lose/I got freedom to choose/higher ground.
Malcolm comes of many musical traditions, folk, country, rock, bluegrass, blues, gospel, it’s all there somewhere rolled into a mix of his own declaration. And much has been made of Malcolm’s western NC mountain and hill country roots that seem to orient and flavor his rendering. It’s all of that, but more as well. I’m not sure what his bloodlines might reveal in the way of clues, but I’ve known a lot of ole boys from that part of the country, musicians and otherwise, and none of them bear the same qualities of perspective and insight that Malcolm offers in words and music.
There’s mystery in Malcolm’s songs like there’s mystery in life. Everything’s not spelled out, the songs take their own shape as much as being worked to a form. Side stage at one of our Liberty Circus benefit concerts listening to Malcolm play his set, David Olney and I both affirmed that Malcolm’s lyrics are often like reading Rimbaud in translation. A certain light shines through his words even when you don’t follow all of his meaning, a kind of endowment of meaning that’s given to the expression: there’s a rumble in the/paper walls/and the early morning questions fall/ from frigid winter lips/they call/into the sunlight we belong…why the tossin’ turnin’/nights/far from younger open eyes/to the aging starless skies…/she’s saving kindness to be/ strong/and into the sunlight we belong.
Like any songwriter, Malcolm sings universal themes. And when he sings of love it comes from a deep place as in ‘Lenora Cynthia’, and through his own personal visions: reach over to the mornin’/speak softly passin’ by/the prison in my head/must live and never die/the floor is hard as nails/ramshackled broken steps/I stumble in your arms/Lenora Cynthia. Or sometimes, like in the country song, ‘Misery Loves Company’, he has a hard but humorous take on love, I’ve tasted and I’ve wasted/the good life that I had/my poor selfish drinking/made a rich ol man go mad…I passed out and I cried out/my God what have I done/she’s gone… I oughtta be on tv/with a guitar strummin’/smile/cause misery loves/company/when the neon’s burnin’/bright.
In the end Malcolm sings foremost the plight of the poor, the lesser and oft forgotten, as in ‘On Tennessee Land’, or at the border where families are separated in ‘Your Kin’, or Appalachian poverty in ‘Damn Rainy Day’ where you learn pretty people and bossy people are better than you. He’ll let you know right away his state of affairs, it rained forty days/it rained forty nights/there’s a skunk in the well/and snakes in my mind. I gotta broken heart/fit to be tied/to a tree on the banks/of the river I cried.
The album is infused with takes on national crises and situations, but always filtered through Malcolm’s personal language and perspective. Everybody’s deal is with the ‘Money Train’, and ‘Good Intentions’ and ‘Crazy Man Blues’ lets you know what’s going down on a national level. The hierarchy of the rich and powerful are never far from Malcolm’s configuring, towers of money from LA/to London/your formidable foes/multiply. And he lets you know he comes from a different place, heat bill’s paid and the tv/works/good enough but my back/still hurts/bend over they gotta cure…
The title track of Tricks of the Trade lays bare the carny deceptions and illusions of the big top and connects directly to the kickoff track ‘Money Train’, its late verse: PT Barnum said/a sucker’s born ev’ry/minute/I’m standin’ in line/cause I got a ticket/for the money train… I gotta hot tub, a bathtub/a solar powered guitar/I clean up pretty good/and I turn it up louder/for the money train. He does turn it up a little louder on this record. Malcolm rolls deep and wide and lets you know how it is with him and the world, but he always paints a picture of determination. On the last song, ‘Shaky Ground’, he pretty much lays it out for us, what it is and how to do: let the rain do the job/let the rain fall on down/and wash away the walls/standin’ tall on shaky ground.
01. Money Train
02. Misery Loves Company
03. Into the Sunlight
04. Crazy Man Blues
05. Your Kin
06. Damn Rainy Day
07. Higher Ground
08. Good Intentions
09. On Tennessee Land
10. Lenora Cynthia
11. Tricks of the Trade
12. Windows of Amsterdam CD-ONLY BONUS TRACK
13. Shaky Ground
All songs by Malcolm Holcombe
Website: Malcolm Holcombe