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‘Getting the Job Done’

Article Published: Jan. 5, 2012 | Modified: Jan. 14, 2012
‘Getting the Job Done’

Malcolm Holcombe performs at 641 rpm in Boone Jan. 13.
Photos by Bill Emory

Malcolm Holcombe has been up and down thousands of roads in his decades’ long career as a songsmith, singer, guitarist and general troubadour.

After too many roads and too many newspaper interviews to count, Holcombe admitted this week, in the same gravelly drawl that colors his songs, that he doesn’t even bother keeping track anymore.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t count ’em. I do the best I can to show up and play.”

Yet another highway will bring Holcombe and his unique brand of mountain, country, folk blues to Boone’s 641 rpm on Friday, Jan. 13. He’ll perform his songs, including selections from his new Music House Records release, “To Drink the Rain,” beginning at 8 p.m.

This is Holcombe’s second Boone appearance in as many years. He played 641 rpm last December, though he said he doesn’t have any specific recollection of the occasion.

“Just another stop along the road,” he said. “Just trying to get the job done.”

Even if Holcombe can’t sort out the blur of a thousand one-night stands, there’s little doubt that he imparts lasting memories to the audiences he leaves behind. His music is filled with striking stories that speak of joy and sorrow, struggles and the everyday fears and humble triumphs of hard luck people.

At once downhome and worldly, Holcombe’s lyrics move unselfconsciously between romantic love and inevitable death. Some, such as “Down in the Woods,” an upbeat paean to Holcombe’s beloved Blue Ridge Mountains, at times more resemble psalms than folk songs, with plaintive cries to “turn loose o’ my tongue,” and exultations, such as “thank God for the stars, each one in the heavens.”

Despite sacred overtones, it’s Holcombe’s love of earthly things that comes through most clearly.

If Holcombe’s vocal chords sound as if they might have been slathered in coal pitch and set to a slow burn, it’s a beautiful, awful voice that soothes just as well as it can rile the spirit. And it never sounds a false note. That voice has attracted comparisons to those of Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, but Holcombe’s is carried along by an unaffected integrity that neither Dylan nor Waits can claim.

Holcombe grew up in the country around Asheville, where legend has it he cut his musical teeth.

According to one story he tells, his mother bought his first guitar from Sears. Before he had a chance to play it, though, a younger cousin toddled over to use it as a seat and crushed it.

His next flat top came from his father and a shady Asheville pawnshop. When an old Mel Bay guitar instruction book proved unhelpful in teaching him to play, Holcombe eschewed it and took to playing by ear and observation. He appears to have channeled those youthful disappointments into an emphatic style that surprises with its fearless variations between delicate and rough-hewn.

Though he has brushed against Nashville and the temptations and corrupting influences of big-moneyed record companies, the experience has left him glad to be back on his land near Ashville (Swannanoa to be exact), plying his trade from stop to stop.

In the meantime Holcombe’s reputation has steadily moved into the company of cult artists like Townes Van Zandt, whose status among critics and other songwriters far outpaced any name recognition among the mainstream American public. His 2008 release, “Gamblin’ House,” was listed among the year’s top albums in Billboard’s annual Critic’s Choice issue. Yet, like many underappreciated American artists, Holcombe was compelled to seek a broader audience in the U.K. and Europe.

Wherever the audience, Holcombe will show up ready for work – a guy with a guitar and some stories, no different from the help in the back washing the dishes or slinging the hash.

“Just trying to get the job done,” he likes to say. “In my opinion, it’s a gift to have the breath of life in your nostrils and your lungs. Some people are good at finding (their gift) whether they’re good with their hands, good with their eyes, good with their minds, or just good at listening.”

Anyone who’s heard Holcombe sing knows what he’s good at. He’ll be working at 641 rpm in Boone (691 W. King St.) on Friday, Jan. 13, at 8 p.m. All ages welcome. Cover is $8.

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