Light, Dark and In Between

The recent passing of Leonard Cohen filled the air with reflections and impressions of a great artist with an unconventional gravel-strewn voice, a chiaroscuro worldview, a profound sense of romance and a poet’s fierce command of language. As I reviewed the catalog and history of Malcolm Holcombe to preview this week’s show, I was struck that many of the phrases and praises directed at Cohen could apply to this bard from Buncombe County, NC. They are both utterly original songwriters who seem to have been called to their jobs by a need to reconcile the incalculable and process the contradictions of the human condition. Malcolm returns to Roots this week with yet another superb album from his second act as a musician, a revival that’s been more focused and less fraught than his first. He’s part of a lineup that includes bluegrass romance, a brassy break-out femme fatale and our favorite folk rave-up band from Italy. You want variety? We sure hope so, because boredom is not an option.

When one moves to Nashville and starts to explore it and perhaps report on it with some authority, one discovers certain artists that one simply has to reckon with to grasp the depths of Music City’s soul. Your life will be fine not knowing every songwriter with a black Takamine guitar playing rounds at the Bluebird Cafe. But in my indoctrination years of the early 2000s, there was no sidestepping Malcolm Holcombe. If your measuring stick for what a song could be didn’t include his visceral, probing compositions and his lightning strike performances, you might as well blow off John Prine and Kris Kristofferson too. Trouble was, the lightning could strike in that exciting metaphorical way or it could do a lot of damage. Malcolm in his Nashville years was mercurial, irascible. He tried the patience of even his friends and fans in a manner that sometimes resembled Townes Van Zandt in his dark years. Yet on regular occasions, notably a memorable lamplight show at Douglas Corner, I saw Holcombe performed brilliant songs with a primal passion that called to mind the singularity of Howlin’ Wolf or Son House.

I’m happy to say that when Malcolm most needed recovery, sobriety and stability he found it, moving back to his home turf in the Blue Ridge and revitalizing his music and himself. There were some quiet years followed by a prolific decade of great work. That continues with the very new Pretty Little Troubles, produced by Americana superstar Darrell Scott. The collection marries the musical lift of a stellar band (Dennis Crouch, Jared Tyler, Verlon Thompson and others) with Holcombe’s oracular incantations. In a formal bio for the artist several years ago, I wrote: “He is cryptic, demanding, polarizing, bold, passionate and free, a combination badly needed in our time of infinite trivia. He’s even more interesting for having made a remarkable journey of recovery and discovery.” I’ll stand by that and look forward to yet another encounter with this powerful artist.

Our dash of bluegrass and classic country comes from Kenny and Amanda Smith, a couple who’ve quietly ascended to the top ranks of their demanding and exclusive genre. I got enthralled by Kenny many years ago when I was in a mad phase of learning about bluegrass flatpicking via Tony Rice, Norman Blake, Doc Watson, David Grier and Dan Crary. But I picked up on young talents as well, and when the album Studebaker by Kenny Smith (of the Lonesome River Band) crossed my path I was hooked. This guy could skate through passages as if on ice and brought a clean sweet tone and compositional chops too. But there amid the instrumental fireworks was a gorgeous ballad sung tenderly by Amanda Smith, and I thought, ‘Hey how soon can we get a full duo with more of her?” And it wasn’t immediate but eventually the Kenny and Amanda show got rolling, winning the IBMA Emerging Artist of the Year award in 2003. That’s matched on their mantle with Kenny’s two Guitar Player of the Year Prizes and Amanda’s Female Vocalist prize in 2014.

Another vocalist coming into her own and shaping a sound and presence that will surprise and excite is Ana Cristina Cash. She’s been on the show before as a guest of her new husband John Carter Cash, but it would be too simplistic to introduce her as the newest member of the legendary Cash clan. Because even a cursory listen to her debut Tough Love E.P. suggests that she’s got a clear vision of her own. The opening track “Tough Love Woman” has a timeless soul snap and shake with some tasty baritone sax and lush background vocals. There’s some classic Nancy Sinatra attitude and a contemporary edge as well. The deliciousness continues through six torchy tunes including a reworking of 1992 country radio favorite “Seminole Wind.” Ana’s background is fascinating and explains the Latin streaks in her sound. Her parents emigrated from Cuba and she grew up in Miami. As a youngster she sang on that massive global TV spectacle called Sabato Gigante, which I can’t wait to ask her about. Her first major release was in Spanish. With her new Nashville connections, a lot is possible, artistically and culturally.

And speaking of crossing boundaries and mingling cultures, we’re delighted to welcome back our favorite Italian vagabonds La Terza Classe. If you follow our adventures you know by now that this friendly and dream-driven quintet came into our lives when Jim Lauderdale stopped to help them with a broken-down van by the side of the highway. They brought the house down during their first short set and wowed on a return visit. This Roots gig is part of a tour of folk and roots venues in Tennessee, Virginia and the Carolinas. Since their last visit, they appear to have slayed it on Italy’s Got Talent with full show biz treatment, weaving old American folk songs and Italian folk songs together. These world travelers always have a story and good spirits to share.

Come for the darkness and stay for the light. It’s the shades of gray in between that make the music meaningful.

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