This week, the rugged country-blues troubadour Malcolm Holcombe performs in Canada for the first time. The North Carolinian, whose latest album To Drink the Rain speaks to wandering, worrying and the sweeter skies of home, spoke to us from the road.
Your song One Man Singin’ has a line about a soul of a singer’s voice being “familiar to the marrow,” with an ability to turn hearts loose from heads and stopping the pain in people’s chest, if just for a second. Does that describe what you do?
I try to give ’em my show as best as I can, and to come across with as much truth and honesty as I can muster up. If you’re going to eat a peanut butter sandwich, just go ahead and put both hands on there and just chow down.
Are you referring to what you put across emotionally, or are we talking showmanship?
I’m not really good at showmanship. A lot of that’s theatre and a lot of that’s fake. I just try and be myself. Dylan said that he’s more Bob Dylan on stage when he’s singing his song. I’ll just go ahead and steal that quote.
You’re known for telling stories though, aren’t you?
I don’t do dog tricks, but I can tell stories and try to form a relationship with the audience. If I can get someone to tap their feet or laugh or take their mind off their troubles, I’m doing okay.
And what do you get out of the deal?
There’s a poison in this world, where people are consumed with themselves. I check my motives, my hands and my thoughts all the time – 24/7. If I can give back a little something, the rest of it’ll shake out down the line, and it ain’t gonna be on this planet.
To get back to showmanship, do you have any thoughts on someone like Tom Waits, who puts on a bit of an act on stage?
He’s got a shtick. But he’s a real thoughtful, soulful writer, and he has a lot of compassion, a lot of intuition and he’s able to spin a tale that comes across the palm of his hand as being as real as rain.
Do you buy into the notion that when artists like yourself, or Townes Van Zandt or Steve Earle, go through hard times, that somehow your art is more authentic?
When I was drunk and trying to write a song on paper, and when I sobered up I couldn’t read what I wrote, that was a drag. Being influenced by chemicals just fogged my vision.
How do you account for your rising career fortunes now, at age 56?
I don’t know. I think if you hang around the barbershop long enough, you get a haircut. I’m sure you’ve heard that one.
Yes, from you. You’ve said that in other interviews.
[Laughs]Yeah, man, I’ve got to learn some new Canadian expressions. I’ve never stepped foot in Canada. At least I don’t remember it.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Malcolm Holcombe plays Toronto’s Rivoli on Nov. 2 and Hamilton’s This Ain’t Hollywood, Nov. 3.