Iconic and Elemental Songwriter Malcolm Holcombe Has Died

There are those musicians whose songs and influence work like the scaffolding holding up the facade of American roots. We’re not talking about the past legends that everyone still knows the name of. We’re talking about the songwriters who work in the shadows and always have, because they cower from the spotlight, self-sabotage whenever success starts to come within their grasp, and would never feel comfortable in their own skin if their sound reached beyond the four walls of dingy listening rooms in backwater locations.

Malcolm Holcombe was one of these elemental songwriters. Too raw, authentic, and unpolished for the spotlight, but a spellbinding influence on many who gladly step into it, he was the origin of multiple sounds and approaches to what today we label as Americana music. Even when he was young he sounded old. Even in health he seemed to be ravaged with sickness. Holcombe was like the very hills and valleys, roots, rocks, soil and branches singing out, if you were patient and quiet enough to hear them, and knew where to seek out their audience.

You can take these words from a random journalist as the Gospel truth, or you can just trace his career back, and see the reverence that contemporaries such as Emmylou Harris, Iris Dement, Greg Brown, Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle and Justin Townes Earle, and others held for Malcolm Holcombe, lending their names and voices to lifting up his musical legacy, even if it still amounting to nothing much louder than a fading wimpier beyond the musician class.

Malcolm Holcombe was born on September 2nd, 1955 in Weaverville, North Carolina, and was raised in part in Swannanoa. Both these towns are near Asheville, North Carolina, and as many locals will tell you, it’s authentic performers like Malcolm Holcombe that allowed Asheville to become known as the music town it’s known as today.

After graduating high school, Holcombe went to tech school and college, but couldn’t cut it. It was clear the pull of music was stronger, and that’s where he ultimately pointed his nose. Holcombe played in local bands like The Hilltoppers and Redwing, and collaborated with other songwriters like Ray Sisk, Sam Milner, and Dallas Taylor. But since the earliest portions of his career, Holcombe performed solo as a singer and songwriter, blending folk and early country influences into alluring melodies and compelling stories.

Convinced by peers that his music was too good to only be heard in night spots in the southeast, he moved to Nashville in 1990, taking the job as a dishwasher at the Douglas Corner Cafe (RIP) to make ends meet. The experiment almost worked, eventually. He earned the attention of Geffen Records in 1996 and signed to the label to record the album A Hundred Lies. Promotional copies were sent out, and received high praise. But with no commercial prospects for the project, it was shelved for three years, eventually coming out in 1999 as a reissue on Hip-O Records.

None of this mattered though. Malcolm Holcombe had already attained something nearing legendary status from those who’d seen him perform. Seeking out a live performance from Malcolm Holcombe was like searching for the headwaters of a great river to find the purest source. Frustrated by his experience in Nashville, he would eventually return to North Carolina, and though touring occasionally across the United States, he became synonymous with the state as one of the true representatives of the North Carolina sound.

Like many of the best musicians, Malcolm Holcombe could be his own worst enemy. Sweet when sober, erratic when drunk, this is what doomed his career at multiple turns. But eventually he turned to sobriety, and his faith in God to keep him on the straight and narrow. Folks trying to figure out what made Malcolm tick were often left with frustration. He would quote Bible verse, and in his heavy Southern accent, speak in limerick and colloquialism to get his point across, if he in fact had one.

Throughout the 2000’s and up to 2022, Malcolm Holcombe would record for independent labels and released well-regarded albums. This whole time, his cult status as a songwriter only grew. His voice went from weathered to sounding like death itself gasping through broken teeth, but conveyed an infinite beauty all its own.

Malcolm Holcombe was known as a survivor. He fought off Cancer to record his final album Bits and Pieces with long-time collaborator Jared Tyler in 2022. At the time, Holcombe and Tyler didn’t know if he would even make it through the sessions, but he did. On March 2nd, he had emergency surgery, and was placed on a ventilator. On March 9th though, Holcombe succumbed to respiratory failure. He was 68 years old.

“It is with a broken and heavy heart that I share the news that Malcolm Holcombe passed away today from respiratory failure,” his wife Cyndi Holcombe said. “He had been in a great deal of pain for a long time, and his spirit is now free from all that and he is singing with the angels. Malcolm loved all of you so very much and was so grateful to have such loving and devoted family, friends and fans. Please keep me in your thoughts as I try to navigate life without my true love of the last 22 years. And thank you again for sticking with us through thick and thin. Love & blessings to all of you.”

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