‘Everyone needs to tap their feet to music to get through this long old road’

Malcolm Holcombe
Malcolm Holcombe

Americana, singer/songwriter and guitarist Malcolm Holcombe, raised in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, has collaborated with Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle. He talks to JOANNE SAVAGE about leaving his wild days behind and why he loves singing the blues

He speaks in a gorgeous, slow southern American drawl, his sentences moving as though he had time to chew tobacco between words, all mellowed-out and deep, calm as a tranquil ocean.

Folk/Americana singer/songwriter and guitarist Malcolm Holcombe knows how to sing the blues and to finger-pick his guitar with meticulous precision.He was born and raised in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.

“It was a small town,” he drawls. “Lot of neighbours, family, friends. Kinda rural - not too unlike parts of Ireland - y’know?

“Yea it was beautiful, you could close your eyes and look out my back door and you’d see a landscape as beautiful as Ireland.”

I tell Holcombe I love his accent - the way he labours over words in that North Carolinan way is so exotic to the Belfast ear.

“Honey, you got a pretty one yourself,” he kindly offers (but, being honest, Northern Irish accents sound so flat and dull, not poetic and slow and luxuriantly sweet and thick as molasses - but what’s foreign can always initially carry superficial charm).

“I listened to a lot of records going up, not unlike most people, y’know? Tennessee Earnie Ford, Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones,” he explains when I ask about how his dreams of becoming a musician blossomed.

“And I’ve always played guitar. Not sure I could even guess what age I was when I started - I think maybe I was ten.

“I enjoy being up there on stage y’know - the Lord has been good to me.

“I see my music as trying to be of service. People need to laugh, tap their foot to music, they need to be entertained to help them get through this old road.

Holcombe is a bit of a reformed bad boy in that he left Nashville after proving too “rambunctious” to fit in with the scene, as he describes it. He was wild back in the day on drugs and hard liquor - there are periods of time in this musician’s misadventures that he cannot remember - but he has now been sober for 10 years, believes in God, tries to keep to the right path and is committed to clean, wholesome living. And mostly committed to making great bluesy Americana-folk.

“I think Nashville was disillusioned with me to be honest,” he confides. “Let’s say I was rambunctious and cumbersome to my fellow man. It’s a tough talent course but in the end I had to be true to myself so that’s what I’m doing now, singing my own material, touring with it, always trying to show up and be true to myself.”

His 2012 album Down the River saw Emmylou Harris sing backing vocals on ‘In Your Mercy’, while Steve Earle duetted with Holcombe on ‘Trail of Money’. As music bible Rolling Stone said of his unique style: “Haunted country, acoustic blues and rugged folk all meet here.”

His international tour sees him play at Belfast’s Errigle Inn tonight (April 10).

At the gig audiences can expect his usual intensity on stage, and a voice described as having such range it can “growl like a cement truck in low gear or mellow into a heart-tugging croon” - all over guitar playing that is laden with percussive attack.

As he confides, he also hopes to showcase tracks from new album Pitiful Blues, which is due for release in August.

“I thought we’d do a tune or two off the old record while we’re touring here, but we’re also doin some new ones from Pitiful Blues. The new album has a slice of new anecdotes as well as just like an overall view of the yin and yang that we all battle every day.

“What I love with singing the blues is calling a spade a spade. Down on your luck - be honest if you’re making a song about it.”

His sentences pick up pace when he talks about the part music has to play in bringing people joy and uplift and sometimes his sentences drift into a kind of hippy, spaced-out poetry.

“We’re all dots connected. We’re all children of God, y’know? And we can share our experiences and express our hope with each other whether it’s through music, through dancing, or kissing or loving, or just smiles and laughter or whatever.

“I am working on being a spiritual person but I guess I falter like everyone does.”

Malcolm expands on his 10 years of sobreity - a huge achievement for a former addict.

“Been sober 10 years now and there’s nothing that a drink won’t make worse. But I ain’t got no secrets about how I do it. I try to meet like minded people and go to meetings - that helps.

“I don’t have any clues honey,” he adds. “I’m just struggling on through.”

Malcolm Holcombe plays the Errigle Inn, Belfast tonight. Tickets at the door.