Malcolm Holcombe should be huge. Perhaps the lack of acclaim for the North Carolina native are the boyish looks that have long faded from his Music City days due in large part to years of substance abuse. Maybe it’s the baked gravel voice, or the enigmatic themes that wind you in circles. Maybe it’s the raw, human heart that beats in every word delivered like emotional shrapnel. maybe Holcomb is too real, too lacking in veiled irony. This is not the lily-livered , Fedora-wearing, twee folk music that’s permeated the music culture over the last decade. I can imagine Malcolm Holcolmb acoustic guitar emblazoned with “This Machine Kills Hipsters.”
Holcomb’s ninth album, Down The River, bursts to life with “Butcher In Town” featuring Darrell Scott’s dobro acreens off Ken Coomer’s kick drum and Tammy Rogers-King’s jumping mandolin. “You a’int from here, When the shit hits the fan, There’s more meat on a pencil, From the butcher in town.” reels the chorus warning us of “All black and white, From the wars of the souls, Too much whiskey, Money and gold.” Abuse of power is a theme throughout Down The River. Whether the personal delusions of a man bilking a woman from her earnings and blowing it up into a greater vision of grandeur in “I Call The Shots” or the mass manipulation of world corruption in the frenzied “Twisted Arms.” The palpable indignation of “Whitewash Job” recounts recent topics of disasters and federal incompetence buttressed belied by a jaunty breakdown of Holcombe masterful picking.
Corruption is also represented, on “Trail O’ Money” guest vocalist Steve Earle, who once stated that Holcombe is ..”the best songwriter I ever threw out of my recording studio,” sounds comfortable with proletariat lines like “My instincts are wounded, My schools bleed with guns, My children are recklessly, Lost in the sun” He and Holcolmb join in the rallying chorus “Gangway i’m comin’ with a trail o’ money, Gangway stay outta my way, Gangway i’m comin’ with a trail o’ money, No room for the poor to stay.” No simple election sloganeering here.
Love songs fare little better in this hard soul’s terrain. “Gone Away At Last” brings along the river bank drums, stippling banjo and a fiddle dervish into a funnel cloud of a love song Cormac McCarthy could love.”The search lights beg to dim, In the blood of nightimes cover, No human sounds within, The lonely thoughts of lovers.” “the routine hammers solid, in the heads of spit and spoiled, (only) broken from contentions, Of the jealous snake’s recoil.” This is a long journey into the heart. “In Your Mercy” is a lament of a widow living in dire situation which is lightened briefly by the lovely lilt of Emmylou Harris.
These are not spoon-fed narratives guiding you gently through linear slices of life. Soapboxes are splintered for bonfire kindling and flags are shred and made into rags to dab tears or blot up blood. This is the human parade in all it’s violent and glory.