By Jim Schutze
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Along with his backwoods drawl and folksy demeanor, singer and guitarist Malcolm Holcombe displays an alarming and plainspoken intensity that mirrors his passionate songs and performances.
"It's a fucked-up America," Holcombe says. "I just try and put songs together that I think are befitting our time of crisis."
Driving through Georgia on his way to a tour stop in Florida, Holcombe is accompanied by wife Cyndi and is out promoting Gamblin' House, his seventh effort. Often compared to John Prine and Tom Waits, Holcombe's songwriting has the offhanded wisdom of the former while his guitar-playing definitely leans toward the wild exuberance of the latter.
Like his previous releases, House uses acoustic blues and folk as the backdrop for Holcombe's uncommon vocal style. Like a deranged evangelist, Holcombe howls and yelps his way through his songs, carrying on in a gospel manner that appears exhausting.
"It's this [Bush] administration that's wearing me out," Holcombe says with a laugh. "Honestly, where I was raised, you better have a fucking idea what you're talking about when it comes to church and things related to gospel."
New songs such as "You Don't Come See Me Anymore" and "The Shade" reflect the spirituality ingrained in the North Carolina surroundings where Holcombe grew up, the place he still calls home. Featuring a talented backing band and aided by producer Ray Kennedy (Steve Earle, Ray Davies), Gamblin' House is definitely the highpoint of Holcombe's career, an effort rooted in Appalachian traditions, but one that fearlessly goes in directions only Holcombe can take it.
One of these directions is the melding of the personal and the political. Holcombe's songs tell of romantic disillusionment cast against the uneasy nature of this post-9/11 world. "I'm praying for a home I can believe in/I'm praying for a home I can call mine," Holcombe sings in "I'd Rather Have a Home," a song that can be read as an allegory of a broken relationship or a country gone astray.
When he's not talking politics, Holcombe's wife of five years is the topic of choice. "She's my soul mate and the brains of this operation," he says. Cyndi helped pick out the tracks for the new album and is his only companion on this tour.
"I just can't really afford a band," says Holcombe. "Man, I'm just trying to make a living."