Album Reviews

Malcolm Holcombe

Pretty Little Troubles

Artist:     Malcolm Holcombe

Album:     Pretty Little Troubles

Label:     Gypsy Eyes Music

Release Date:     4/7/2017

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Malcolm Holcombe is a troubadour seemingly from another age. Somehow his vivid imagery can evoke characters right out of a Dickens novel or, closer to home, southern writers like Faulkner or Eudora Welty. Straight out of the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, Holcombe brings his observant keen eye to the people of the region, their struggles, their hard earned victories, and somehow many of his observations and short vignettes are widely applicable to all of us.

Following 2016’s highly acclaimed Another Black Hole, Holcombe turned to kindred spirit, multi-instrumentalist, and singer-songwriter Darrell Scott to produce this effort. “Malcolm Holcombe is an artist of deep mystery and high art,” says Scott. “He is who I listen to, and have for over 20 years—this record goes on my list of “working with my heroes”—all the goods that I value in songs and artistry are in Malcolm—the real deal.” Scott plays all kinds of instruments but also enlists the support of Holcombe’s long-time cohort, Jared Tyler on mandolin and dobro, Dennis Crouch on bass, Verlon Thompson on acoustic guitar and Marco Giovino on percussion. Other players guest on select tracks.

Holcombe has his own unique guitar style, a hybrid of fingerpicking and strumming, taking the listener from blues-based riffs to Celtic balladry. As an aside, if you get a chance to see Holcombe live, do so. He is absolutely riveting as he gets into a focused, almost hypnotic zone while rocking back and forth in his chair. And, his gruff, resonant, cigarette-burned voice belies his sense for melody – many of his songs have really catchy hooks.

Close your eyes. You can see his characters emerging from the coal mines, heading for the barroom, or home to a rather dilapidated dwelling where a wife struggles to feed too many kids, while fending off the arguments of her beaten down, disgruntled husband. Case in point, here are some excerpted lyrics from “Good Ol’ Days” – “Joseph Marta seven kids/I know them names by heart/your mother’s father worked the mines/Petersburg to Charleston/St. Petersburg to Charleston” and later “fifty cents a bloody day/no child labor laws/most them lil’ babies died/disease and alcohol/disease and alcohol.” Songwriters like Guy Clark, Butch Hancock, and Eric Taylor can paint vivid pictures of the many aspects of Texas. In a similar way Holcombe does the same for Appalachia but while I can come up with a host of Texas writers, I don’t have a long list of Appalachian bards.

While Holcombe’s lyrics, unique voice and guitar are enough for the singer-songwriter devotee, this is his most musically adorned album. Much of that is due to Scott, adding a banjo or pedal steel in the right places, bringing in the Celtic touch of Ulleann whistles and pipes in “Eyes of Josephine,” and even a string arrangement for “The Sky Stood Still”. These flourishes make this album a bit more accessible than previous Holcombe outings.

After a day of hard work, many seek comfort by reaching for the bottle. Perhaps a better alternative is to just sit down and listen to Holcombe, not to say the two need be mutually exclusive. Holcombe is indeed one-of-a-kind. Seek him out.

—Jim Hynes

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