Complicated Genius

Late last year, I was honored to be asked to write a career/album bio for Malcolm Holcombe, one of the most interesting and shockingly powerful folk musicians of our time. I’ll never forget seeing him for the first time, after much build-up from those in-the-know, at Douglas Corner with a small acoustic band. His talent and passion simply exploded – out of his bony fingers and out of his chapped throat. After seeing many too many bards-with-guitars in the post-James Taylor mold, here was a guy who actually had the presence of the original bluesmen – the ones I thought I’d only ever get to hear on scratchy reissues. The songwriting was pure poetry and the delivery was pure expression. It wasn’t always pleasant, but it was as meaningful as anything I’ve heard coming out of a guy with a guitar.

Because it’s a busy time, I’ll offer you the core graphs of that bio that boil a multi-facted career into far too few words:

Holcombe grew up in western North Carolina, home to some of the planet’s oldest mountains and some of America’s deepest musical traditions. Radio and TV fueled Malcolm’s musical passions as a kid, and music became even more important after he lost both his parents relatively young. He toured with bands and landed in Nashville, where he took up an inconspicuous station at the back of the house – the very back – at Douglas Corner, one of the city’s best singer/songwriter venues. Stories began to circulate about the mysterious dishwasher with the subterranean voice and oracle-like talent. Sadly so did stories of wildly inconsistent behavior – profound sweetness crossed by bouts of stunning abrasiveness. He flirted with an official music career. But his stunning debut album made for Geffen Records was abruptly shelved, producing melodrama that only exacerbated Malcolm’s drinking and depression. A business that once had a place for complicated genius turned its back on him, and he teetered near the edge.

Moving back to the North Carolina hills proved a powerful tonic. Holcombe let in help where before he’d pushed it away. With deep faith in God and a commitment to his art, Holcombe repaired himself and his career. The measure of that fixing today can be found in the story of To Drink The Rain. Jared Tyler, who’s stuck with Holcombe through some trying times over nearly 12 years, was more than a little excited to produce the project. When he called bass player Dave Roe on short notice, the legendary veteran of Johnny Cash’s last band cancelled other sessions to fly to Austin, saying “Malcolm is the only artist that I would fight to be on his recording.” And the partners at Music Road Records, a new but happening Austin label spearheaded by singer/songwriter Jimmy LaFave, recording engineer Fred Remmert, and investor Kelcy Warren, agreed to become Malcolm’s new musical home.

That album is Malcolm’s eighth full-length project, and it’s one of the few times Malcolm’s live fire has been captured on tape. Producer Jared Tyler, a great musician himself, will be there in the band on Wednesday night, and I’m looking forward to re-connecting with him and with Malcolm at the Barn. We’re lucky to have Mr. Holcolmbe coming for a set.

But it’s a night of good fortune all around. Bobby Bare Jr., another complicated genius, is going to close out our show. He’s made so many kinds of music from pure country and folk to gut clenching rock and roll that we’re not sure what we’ll hear. But he’s always thought provoking and tapped in to some gothic Southern phenomena. Yes, he’s Bobby Bare’s son, and if you didn’t know that already, you have much remedial work to do on Nashville’s contemporary music scene. In that, Bare Jr. is a staple, and we’ll be on the edge our seats.

Less suspense, but certainly much anticipation of beauty and grace attends the arrival of Matraca Berg. This proven, award-winning songwriter (“Strawberry Wine” is her best known) and sometimes too-reluctant performer has recently released The Dreaming Fields, her first album in 14 years. It’s full of enlightenment, storytelling and vivid characters. And her voice has a golden glow. You’re going to love this set.

Also on tap, a show-opening blast of bluegrass from The Boxcars, the recently formed supergroup that took home the Best New Artist prize at this year’s International Bluegrass Music Assn. Awards. With Adam Steffey kicking on mandolin and Ron Stewart on banjo just to name two, this is a standout band with standout songs. And we’ll also hear from wide-ranging songwriter Daphne Willis. My first impressions remind me of Brandi Carlisle, but there seems to be many sides to this Chicagoan-turned-Nashvillian.

So come join us at the barn. You’ll feel smarter for having done so.

Craig H.

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