KALYN FAY – Good Company (Horton Records)

Good CompanyAfter international critical recognition for Caroline Spence and Courtney Marie Andrews, it’s time for the Tulsa-born singer-songwriter to step up to the plate and take her deserved place in the spotlight. Following on from her 2016 debut, Bible Belt, which was rooted in her father’s Cherokee heritage and her mother’s Christian beliefs, featuring John Fullbright on keys, Jesse Aycock on guitars, dobro and lap and pedal steel, and Carter Sampson and Jared Tyler among those providing harmonies, Good Company both consolidates and expands her prowess as both a writer and a singer on songs that explore her relationship with her home state of Oklahoma, looking forward rather than back.

It opens with her “staring out the window of this beat up old Camry” on the slow paced, wearyingly sung title track, seeking to break free of a life just running to stand still and how “we’re all just looking for something” though, for her, not, like her friend, settling for marriage and a family simply because that’s what you do. ‘Wait For Me’ has a more soulful edge to its sway as, accompanied by muted resonant guitar, she asks “will you miss me when I’m gone?”, underscoring the urge to get away but also the need to hold on to ties.

Riding a chugging rhythm and electric guitars crafting an open desert ambience, ‘Highway Driving has an appropriately more uptempo approach with its hints of Gretchen Peters and again talks of hitting the road even if you’ve “got no place to go and nowhere to run” in the hope that something or someone will turn up to provide a distraction.

Inspired by seeing both her friends and parents working through rough patches in their relationship, ‘Baby, Don’t You Worry’ is a slow, accordion-coloured barroom waltz about taking it slow, easing into the similarly paced, late evening bluesy post-break up ‘Come Around’ as she sings about “missing things I can’t seem to get over”, wondering whether “it’s pride I feel or an ache that I suffer” and planting her feet on steady ground, sustaining the mood with the pedal steel ache of ‘Long Time Coming’ and trying to put the past behind.

‘Oklahoma Hills’ lifts the pace slightly for a bluesy, organ-backed number about becoming tired of the road and thinking of things left behind as the seasons change and the songs of home are whispered in the wind and she pointedly admits “maybe I’m just a mess.” Another organ-paced slow waltz, ‘Alright In The End’ again has thoughts turned homewards and of “stars shining over Tulsa” and the hope “that they’re shining over you too.” Starting quietly, ‘Faint Memory’ maintains the reverie with thoughts of missing “slow dancing close in the living room and the record skips while it plays our tune”, remembering “the good times when life didn’t seem so bad”, and reflecting on how “sometimes it’s hard to see what you had”.

Veined with hints of The Band, the penultimate organ-based number, ‘Fool’s Heartbreak’, speaks of the challenges of moving on when you’re not even sure that’s what you want (“Feels like I’ve been working hard but I’m not sure what for/What’s the point of fighting if you don’t want the war”), waiting on the good times but “stuck in the chains of love” caught between “hell and the heavens above”.

It ends, a candle in the window, with the hauntingly lovely, dobro and accordion-stained ‘Dressed In White’, a song enrobed in grace and redemption, forgiveness and rebirth “calling for the best her father offered” as it gathers to a hymnal fall.

If there’s a criticism it’s that, because of the thematic nature of the songs, it can feel a little one-paced, and a little musical uplift might not have gone amiss, but, regardless, this is company you will want to keep close.

Mike Davies

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‘Come Around’ – official video:

MALCOLM HOLCOMBE – Pretty Little Troubles (Gypsy Eyes Music )

Pretty Little TroublesHis voice croakier and gummier than ever, sounding as one review put it, like he’s wearing someone else’s teeth, even so Holcombe continues to deliver the goods when it comes to coal dust coated Appalachian blues. Pretty Little Troubles a quick follow-up to last year’s Another Black Hole.

Joined by Dennis Crouch on bass, Jared Tyler on mandolin and dobro, Verlon Thompson on acoustic and Resonator slide with producer Darrell Scott on pretty much everything else save percussion (Kenny Laone/Marco Giovio), as well as contributions by Jelly Roll Johnson on harmonica, Joel Miskulin on accordion, strings-player Jonathan Yudkin (who comes into his own on the stomping ‘The Sky Stood Still’) and Uillean piper Mike McGoldrick, it’s essentially an album about either troubled times or women.

It’s the former that leads off with the bluesy, swampy ‘Crippled Point O’View’ with its clanky junkyard percussion, leading on to ‘Yours No More’, a slide guitar-backed song about America no longer extending its welcome hand to immigrants and refugees, the mood extending to more musically lively banjo picked ‘Good Ole Days’ with its call and response chorus and a reminder that rose coloured reflection often forgets things were not necessarily better back then.

As you might imagine, the pedal steel laced blues ‘Outta Luck’ with its line about how “poison lives in my blood” and talk of hot women, cold cash and drugs doesn’t exactly up the positivism ante. However, the gypsy flavoured ‘South Hampton Street’, a reminiscence of a girl with long black hair and a gypsy concertina busking on the street, has a more upbeat note, though the same cannot be said for another touring memory, ‘Bury, England’, a Dylanesque talking blues with Tyler on dobro about a gig where the venue “smelled like an old folks home inside”, he had “the worst cup o’ coffee” ever and the audience couldn’t give a damn.

The song mentions Guy Clark and there’s a definite echo of him to be heard on ‘Rocky Ground’ while other highlights include the title track’s Waits-like walking blues, the fingerpicked ‘Damn Weeds’, a wry state of the nation comment, and the McGoldrick-featuring Gaelic-hued talking blues ‘The Eyes O’ Josephine’ with its line about having “a pint or two in Belfast” and “an Irish girl forever curls around your heart o’ glass.” Another spin on “the hard times we been going;’ thru”, it’s no huge departure from what he’s been doing for years, but if you liked that, you’ll want a copy of this too. Unless you’re from Bury, of course.

Mike Davies

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‘Pretty Little Troubles’ – lyric video:

Malcolm Holcombe – new album

Malcolm Holcombe

In the end, who can explain the secret of endurance? Why does one marriage last and another does not? Why does one song or album catch our ear while others, arguably as good, slip past us? What convinces an artist or musician to continue pursuing the craft in a time of audiences with short attention spans and diminishing financial returns?

On the eve of releasing Another Black Hole, his fourteenth album (including a duet album cut with North Carolina music legend Sam Milner back in the 80s), Malcolm Holcombe is in no mood to ponder such things. “They’re free to like it or change the CD or completely ignore it,” he says over the telephone from New Haven, CT. “It all depends on how bad their conscience is.”

Those who have paid attention to Holcombe’s music will find more of what they expect here: Holcombe’s rasping vocals and bright, percussive guitar accentuating his insightful lyrics. A few of Holcombe’s longtime musical compatriots show up to help him out, most notably Jared Tyler, who plays guitar, banjo, mandolin, dobro and offers background harmonies and rock solid rhythm section David Roe on bass and Ken Coomer on drums. Swamp pop legend Tony Joe White plays electric guitar on a number of cuts, including the hard rocking ‘Papermill Man’, and the visionary percussionist Futureman, also known as Roy Wooten, inventor of the drumitar, lends percussion on several cuts. Drea Merritt drops by to sing harmonies as well.

Last year, Holcombe released The RCA Sessions, a retrospective of his two decades of recordings. For most of this time, Malcolm has handled his own career from his hometown of Swannanoa, NC, a few miles down the road from Weaverville, where he was born in 1955. Another Black Hole does not indicate a change of direction for Holcombe, only a widening and deepening of the groove he has worked for most of his years playing and singing. Lyrically, the songs mingle Holcombe’s off the cuff wisdom and sharp-eyed commentary on the human condition. Without staking a political or spiritual position, Holcombe’s songs make it clear that he sees his place with those who suffer at the end of the “suits and ties in the cubicles”, as he sings in ‘To Get By’. But because he sees things in human terms and in the terms of survival, Holcombe heads down to “Rice’s Grocery down on Main Street/ We got credit there.”

Ray Kennedy, who has produced several of Malcolm’s albums, including Another Black Hole, says,

“Malcolm Holcombe is fiercely striking every time you encounter him on or off stage. You just get sucked into his extraordinary world of the twisting of words and wisdom that come from a bottomless well. The melodies and fierce rhythms wrap his narrative into an event where you find yourself at his unique musical carnival. Then suddenly he slays you with a sweet love ballad or a sarcastic social commentary.”

In ‘Leavin’ Anna’, Holcombe croons “A working man’s a working man/ Makes the flowers grow.” The labourers, the displaced, the papermill worker, the man who spends “nickels and dimes like hundred dollar bills”, these are Malcolm Holcombe’s people and the ones who live in his songs. But he is far less interested in talking about his own songs than in talking about other musicians whose names come up in the course of a conversation.

When country singing legend Don Williams is mentioned, Malcolm says, “I used to listen to that Portrait album all the time”, and asks if Williams played a couple of his more popular songs in a recent concert. He also speaks fondly of Les Paul and, later, of Keith Richards: “He’s rock and roll all day long, ain’t he?”

Recently Warren Haynes, another musician native to western North Carolina, has mentioned Malcolm’s name in interviews. Typically, Holcombe was unaware of this, but filled with praise for Haynes.

“He’s a real gentleman. I’m glad to call him a friend”, he says. “He taught me how to bend a string on a guitar.”

Chances are that Another Black Hole will not be mentioned at Grammy time, but it is a strong addition to an ever-strengthening catalogue of music made by a humble craftsman in western North Carolina. “It is Malcolm’s perception of the world that make his songs hit you like a gunpowder blast. His gruff and tough delivery is a primordial power full of grit, spit and anthropomorphic expression”, says Ray Kennedy. Trends come and go. What is real is the ground beneath our feet, the sky above us, the struggle to earn a living. These are Malcolm Holcombe’s timeless subjects and the spin he puts on them makes our journey here more bearable.

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The making of Another Black Hole:

MALCOLM HOLCOMBE – Another Black Hole (Gypsy Eyes Music)

Another Black HoleHaving released The RCA Sessions retrospective re-recordings last year, Holcombe makes a swift return with a 10 song set of brand new material, recorded in Nashville with regular collaborators Jared Tyler (dobro, baritone guitar, banjo, mandolin), Dave Roe (bass), Ken Coomer (drums), swamp legend Tony Joe White (electric guitar), drumitar inventor Future Man and Drea Merritt (harmony). The voice is sounding increasingly gummy these days, the ‘sh’ of the sibilances making you wonder whether he might need a set of dentures, but that just compounds the lived in quality of his singing and songwriting.

‘Sweet Georgia’ kicks things off with banjo and string bass riding a relaxed rolling rhythm that’s rather in contrast lyrics about small town darkness, parental abandonment and cheap thin walls with cobweb corners. That edge also seeps into the swamp blues ‘Another Black Hole’, White’s slide guitar underscoring the air of menace and life in the city’s underbelly. However, while ‘To Get By’ continues the theme of scraping by and making do, musically – and in Holcombe’s phrasing – it comes over like one of Guy Clark’s good time strums. On the other hand, it’s early Kristofferson who comes to mind with ‘Heidelberg Blues’ where wartime images of bombs and ruins are at odds with the fact that the town was never targeted by air raids, though memories of the many souls who “will never know springtime once again” does remind that it was from here that many hundreds of Jews were sent to concentration camps.

With the line about “California wanna be’s feedin’ the famine in my backyard”, the loping, throaty semi-spoken ‘Don’t Play Around’ returns us to America’s urban recession and inequality and things don’t much lighten up on the rest of the album, either. The choppy “Someone Missing” talks of volatile relationships and “the bumpy ride way outta of town”, the strut-rocking blues ‘Papermill Man’ delineates a life of the daily grind for “a dollar a day” as you ask “do you live to eat, do you eat to live” while the “damn Vanderbilts hold the keys to the city” and the spoken, acoustic picked ‘September’ talks of loss and how “the hearts of the dead leave you empty”.

It ends on, if anything, even darker notes. ‘Leavin’ Anna’ (which references Cormac McCarthy, just as ‘Don’t Play Around’ name checked Larry McMurtry) recalls the Great Depression where working men “travelled where the money was good” at the cost of not having “a soul I can call a friend when darkness settles in” before ending on images of floods and drownings. And, finally, comes ‘Way Behind’, a song of loss (“a precious tiny hand holdin’ on and turnin’ cold”), guilt (“the neighbors all remember the fancy funeral homes I never set foot in to comfort anyone”) and the need for mercy and redemption “when shadows follow clouds too heavy with my tears.” Don’t come here looking for “happy go lucky”, as he says on the title track, that ain’t his “set o’ wheels”; but if you want raw hurt and blackened despair then this is your ride along.

Mike Davies

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Another Black Hole – promo video:

Malcolm Holcombe’s Pitiful Blues is released on the 4 August

Malcolm Holcombe - 'Pitiful Blues' - cover (300dpi)Born and raised in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, Malcolm Holcombe is recognized as a folk/Americana performer of international stature, and an uncommonly unique guitarist/vocalist about whom Rolling Stone said, “Haunted country, acoustic blues and rugged folk all meet [here].” Previewed during his recent European tour, his keenly awaited tenth album Pitiful Blues will be released on August 4.

“I have been working with Malcolm Holcombe for going on 15 years. Malcolm exemplifies “being in the moment” in the studio – cutting everything live; himself, his guitar and vocals, with live musicians. During the past few records we have made together, whether in North Carolina, Nashville, or Austin, Malcolm would send the musicians demos of the tunes that he had recorded solo in his backyard studio. Ofttimes, I would comment on how good these recordings sounded on their own – just one simple mic capturing Malcolm, his guitar, and the rhythm of his foot on the floor – purely. Last November, after a few years of hearing the demos, I suggested we try making a record around these live recordings. This experimental process of his backyard studio recordings have resulted in this latest album: Pitiful Blues. In producing this project, I wanted to accentuate Malcolm’s simple, raw process that would make this record stand out from the other albums he’s done, and to convey ‘more’ of Malcolm himself, live in his backyard studio. I have had to rethink much of what I thought I knew about recording with this album. By most recording standards, our procedure might be considered lo-fi. Yet sometimes the simple sound of one microphone, a guitar, and a singer of songs, can speak and sound more true than the sound of more sophisticated studios and recordings. It is indeed my honor to be a part of this album, and most importantly Malcolm’s music. It’s my hope that the listener will be deeply moved by the sound of the Carolina hills radiating out of Malcolm’s stories and songs: ‘pure-D’ Malcolm Holcombe.” Jared Tyler (co-producer)

Malcolm Holcombe ( 2014 (3) - photo by Federico Sponza)Acclaim for Malcolm Holcombe
“..stripped-down Americana at its best… Like all great storytellers he knows how to wring every ounce of emotion from his material” Acoustic magazine

“Listen to a Holcombe song and what you’re getting is personality in spades, a narrative so gritty with the noise of tough living that it rarely dips below the red on the authenticity meter.” BBC Music

Malcolm Holcombe ( 2014 (2) - photo by Federico Sponza)“They threw away the mould when they made Malcolm Holcombe. In short, he doesn’t just sing songs, he lives them.” The Herald

“Comparing Malcolm Holcombe with the likes of John Prine, Chris Smither, JJ Cale, Levon Helm or even Tom Waits is entirely justifiable. As a performing artist and songwriter, Malcolm Holcombe is an authentic country-blues bard.” Irish Examiner

“Malcolm Holcombe…stands out like a beacon in an industry full of shiny young things. He is an individual and a one-off and the World is a better place for having him in it.” No Depression

“If you look in the dictionary under authentic Americana, the first thing you’ll see is Malcolm Holcombe’s name. His inner strength shines through the songs, which have a redemptive power and the feel and emotional punch that money can’t buy. ” R2

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Artist’s website: www.malcolmholcombe.com