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					AT&T Webmail                                                                                         Page 1 of 3




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          A Hardscrabble Life in Music
          By JIM FUSILLI
          February 14, 2008; Page D7
          Weaverville, N.C.

          The tidy, upscale strip that serves as downtown still looks enough like old
          Weaverville that the 52-year-old singer-songwriter Malcolm Holcombe can point to
          his childhood barbershop. The house his grandfather once owned still stands around
          the corner. But the area in and around nearby Asheville is awash in new
          construction, and the Sunnyside Café here no longer features live music and now
          serves a quiche of the day. In his battered ball cap, tatty work shirt and frayed jeans,
          Mr. Holcombe seems a visitor from the past.

          Mr. Holcombe's new album, "Gamblin' House" (Echo Mountain), his fifth that's still
          in print, largely tamps down his most arresting traits -- his whip-crack growl and
          almost violent attack on guitar -- and the songs aren't as poignant as his best ones of
          the past. But the CD's bittersweet, country-folk music with a raging man at its core
          reminds us there is no one on the contemporary scene like Mr. Holcombe, who
          somehow can convey raw fury and deep affection at the same time. His career,
          though, has had more stops than fruitful starts and still isn't equal to his talents.




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AT&T Webmail                                                                                           Page 2 of 3




          "I don't know if you'd call what I have a 'career,'" he told me over lunch at the
          Sunnyside, his voice coarsened by nonstop smoking. "I'm just trying to maintain."

          In publicity photos, Mr. Holcombe seems chiseled and iconic, but he's shorter than
          they suggest, with a hint of sadness around his pale blue eyes: He seems a gentle old
          soul with a hard shell. Years ago, a son died, and Mr. Holcombe has struggled with
          drugs and alcohol; a friend, "Gamblin' House" producer Ray Kennedy, figures he's
          been sober for about five years.

          I first saw Mr. Holcombe perform in late 2005 at Joe's Pub in New York. Dressed as
          if he came directly from a hard day at a gas station, he took the stage without an
          introduction and with the house lights up. The audience tittered in confusion -- until
          he began to perform. He was a revelation, his singing frighteningly fierce, lyrics
          startling, his playing brutal and delicate. But he told pointless stories between songs,
          blunting the impact of the performance, though not enough to dissuade me from
          thinking it was a remarkable show. (You can find examples of Mr. Holcombe's
          recent solo concerts on YouTube.)

          As we drove through the Blue Ridge Mountains and visited the Asheville studio
          where he recorded "Gamblin' House," I found his hospitality appealing, and his
          stories about his parents confirmed his fondness for the past. But his cryptic answers
          to questions often drifted to silence before they concluded; later, I learned he'd
          recycled some of his replies from earlier interviews. He's quite likely the most
          guarded musician I've ever spoken with.

          Mr. Kennedy said he's known Mr. Holcombe for 15 years and still finds him a
          puzzle. "Malcolm has some demons that he wrestles with," he told me. "Or they're
          in his imagination. His mission is to find balance and serenity. He uses his art to try
          to salvage himself.

          Mr. Holcombe got his start in 1976, playing folk music in an Asheville bar. He
          moved on to Florida's Gulf Coast and in 1990 took a chance on Nashville. In Music
          City he tried to fit in, but "I couldn't do it. I couldn't get it," he said. Drinking and
          drugging drove him off track, but while "flipping burgers and taking out the trash,"
          as he put it, he pulled himself together enough to record a couple of albums and eke
          out a meager living. Today, he considers his hardscrabble life a form of research.
          "You can't write about ice cream if you've never tasted it," he said.

          The breakthrough was "I Never Heard You Knockin'," the 2005 album he cut when
          he returned to Weaverville. Backed only by his guitar, Mr. Holcombe growls, yelps
          and reaches deep into his being. "My mind plays tricks in the silence/I mumble and
          stutter and wonder in the night," he sings in the title track, adding, "That big ol' front
          door had steel side to side/I never had a key." In "Mama Told Me So," his narrator
          contemplates his mother's inevitable passing. "Who's goin' love me when I'm old?"
          he asks as the song opens. "You're the only one who's ever loved me true and kind/I



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          cover my ears to the pain of you leaving me behind."

          "Your mind whips through the past," he said when I asked how he wrote those
          remarkable songs. "Thoughts of your early childhood are very comforting. You
          think about Christmas morning or that birthday party, your mom holding your hand.
          You were protected and safe. Those early memories settle the dust. You were loved
          and things were OK."

          On "Gamblin' House," he hits the bull's-eye when his passion pushes past the
          prettified music. "Cynthia Margaret" is a lilting tribute to his wife, and "You Don't
          Come See Me Anymore" is a tender tune that brings an on-edge Roger Miller to
          mind, as does "Baby Likes a Love Song."

          In the opening track, "My Ol' Radio," Mr. Holcombe sings: "That big dog gets
          hungry, he ain't never satisfied. . . . He's gonna eat himself to death and leave
          nothing for the rest." I thought it was a song about a pet, but Mr. Kennedy told me
          that it's Mr. Holcombe's take on national politics -- which the producer didn't know
          until his wife was hired to do illustrations for the CD package. It's a charming little
          number undermined by lyrics too vague to be enigmatic.

          "Malcolm doesn't have a commercial bone in his body," said Mr. Kennedy, who
          called him a "streetwise hillbilly." "He's into the art of it. You can't tell him to
          change the way he is. Once he writes a song, he doesn't like to change a single
          word."

          A singular character in an era that prizes conformity in country and pop, Mr.
          Holcombe may never find a wider audience. But to dismiss him as a backwoods
          eccentric is to miss the insight and pain that inform his best writing. His songs
          suggest he's spent countless hours rummaging through his thoughts. He
          communicates best when he's in the studio and on stage, where he just about
          explodes.

          "I like playing music," Mr. Holcombe told me. We were sitting in a vest-pocket park
          across from the Sunnyside, talking about Django Reinhardt and Lester Flatt as the
          afternoon shadows grew long. I asked him if he had a day job to help with the bills.

          "I work around the house," he said, "but as far as an income goes, yeah, it's music."
          Then he suddenly added: "The bottom can drop out any time. I can get a job mixing
          cement for 10 bucks an hour. That's good money."

          Mr. Fusilli is the Journal's rock and pop music critic




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