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Fresh Tracks: A Parting Song from Malcolm Holcombe

Malcolm Holcombe, one of the finest songwriters to ever come from the Blue Ridge, passed away on March 9 after battling a long illness. For fans of regional roots music, he was an essential figure, a craftsman who sang songs with gritty mountain wisdom and handled his guitar with an aggressively mesmerizing style of finger-picking.

A prolific tunesmith, the western North Carolina native released nearly 20 albums, dating back to 1994’s “A Far Cry from Here,” and last week independent label Eight 30 Records dropped a posthumous single, “My Ol’ Radio.”

Holcombe recorded the song in 2019 as a benefit for a recording studio, and it’s a fitting example of his rustic folk sound, full of bygone imagery and blue-collar empathy. During his long career, Holcombe flirted with the Nashville mainstream, making an album for Geffen Records (that was ultimately released by another label) in the late 90s, but he was best known for performing in concert halls and coffee houses around the South. He also found favor with more famous contemporaries, including Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle. The latter appeared on Holcombe’s 2012 album “Down the River.”

“Malcolm Holcombe was a preacher, carnival barker, shaman and blues man behind a microphone,” singer-songwriter Rod Picott said in a statement. “His performances seemed tethered to another world. I had the feeling of watching someone fight off the nether world while convening with something blessed. He was brilliant, sweet and kind and while you were well aware you were dealing with someone who had fought off hellish demons he could be almost childlike.” 

To get the best sense of the magic Holcombe could create for a small room of listeners, I highly recommend reading this piece BRO contributor Mark Powell wrote for Oxford American in 2018.

Photo by Brian T. Atkinson

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