Diagnosed with cancer in 2022, alongside regular collaborator Jared Tyler Holcombe resolved to knock his 18th and potentially swan song album into shape as quickly as possible. However, while the material has been stripped back and simply arranged, Bits & Pieces never sounds a like a rush job.
Very much a folk blues album in terms of its sound (those early Dylan and Waits comparisons duly trotted out), is offers the now familiar Holcombe observation of and insights into the good, the bad and the ugly that constitute the struggles of everyday folk living on today’s work, something politically pungent, sometimes playful. On the one hand there’s something like the Guthrie-esque call and holler ‘I’ve Been There’ where he sings how “you can change my mind when I’m poor and hungry you can rob me blind with a suit and tie” or picked album closer ‘Bring To Fly’ where “The hypocrites of poisoned concrete grow taller in their clay feet the hypocrites of poisoned concrete grow taller in their clay feet/the one room shacks of my childhood now just mem’ries of the wildwood”. Likewise the dobro-flavoured Texicali swayer ‘Another Sweet Deal’ with its snapshot of modern snake oil salesmen (“I sit on my ass and move money around/I talk double fast and roll back outta town”) and the politically cynical desert dry ‘Rubbin’ Elbows’ with its vote-chasers “rubbin’ elbows kissin’ babies/ snubbin’ poor folks/ lovin’ favors”.
And on the other hand, there’s ‘Happy Wonderland’ that cautions “you gotta butter your bread on the right side don’t whistle at the women ’round here/that corn fed bible belt mama’s gotta skillet made for your head” and “you can play with matches in your pocket but the downside’s gonna get hot”.
It opens in lively if lyrically dark form with the fingerpicked title track (“makin’ ends meet alone/loose ends to the bone burnin’ ashes in my lungs”) and the drawled, slower, strummed but no less upbeat ‘Fill Those Shoes’ (“people get murdered for no reason/some give up their lives so others keep breathin’”), though least there’s a shaft of light here (“I seen lives torn apart/I been there still comin’ to/now I believe you’re the only one to fill those worn out shoes”).
The bluegrassy ‘Hard Luck City’ (“I never listened to you you never listened to me/ ev’rybody got in my way thumbin’ down an ol’ highway bullet proof and wastin’ away in hard luck city”) and the dappled acoustic blues ‘The Wind Doesn’t Know You’ (“it’s an ev’ryday battle wakin’ up in the mornin’ with the rattle and the hustles of the cars and the warnin’ of the pressure ev’ry measure of the clock tickin’ forward”) deliver exactly what their titles suggest. Which brings things to the centrepiece that is ‘Conscience Of Man’ with its defiance of the forces tearing the country apart (“your love for blood and guns and money ain’t gonna steal away my country/ Kennedy, Dr.King and Lincoln gave us tongues to pray and sing”) and a reminder of our commonality (“Jesus loves all the little children all the children of this world red, yellow, black and white they are precious in his sight”).
Elsewhere, other highlights include the reflective optimistic semi-talking blues ‘Ev’ry Soul Is Here’
“I remember when
the kids were young stayin’ up all nite
hangin down at the bar drinkin coffee awhile
this town’s gotta grudge but it makes no matter
as a matter a fact dead brain cells scatter
time stretches a hand up over the years
love comes back around some way or ‘nuther
now they took away the pictures and the tables and chairs
not a dime on the floor not a sound in the air
but there’s an empty ol’ buildin’ full o’ ghosts I swear
swappin’ songs ev’ry nite ev’ry soul is there”.
alongside the downcast ‘Eye Of A Needle’ (“there’s an eye of a needle for a golden camel/I suffered a quarter for a telephone call ain’t nobody home/I was stuck to ramble panhandlin’ daylight branded for a fall”).
His lyrics can be enigmatic and oblique (“blood bleedin’ in your stomach/saline flowin’ in your veins/I know the grace of God’s among us but the doctors turned away”), but you always feel the heart of what he’s talking about.
Drinking, depression and now cancer, Holcombe’s survived them all. “I will not hide from the words of justice/I will not join the cries of liars/I will not keep my heart from climbing from the dust I swallowed behind”, he sings. Long may he climb.
Artist’s website: www.malcomholcombe.com
‘Fill Those Shoes’ – official video: