Instead, he turned to the television for inspiration, picking up on a bizarre set of influences that included Flatt and Scruggs, The Lawrence Welk Show, The Grand Ole Opry, Bonanza, The Ted Mack Amateur Hour and "whatever else was really cool." Then, after making a vinyl LP back in '84 or '85 with Stephen Hiller, he "hung around town, around the South, then moved to Nashville on Sept. 2, 1990, made some deals and am back in the hills now."
Despite Nashville not being to his liking, he did stir up enough attention playing around town at places like the Bluebird Cafe to impress Geffen Records -- they offered him a contract. Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello producer Steven Soles produced Holcombe's '96 Geffen debut, A Hundred Lies. Rolling Stone gave the record four stars, and USA Today equated Holcombe with Lucinda Williams and Robert Earl Keen.
But none of that praise was forthcoming in '96. It would take three years for the record to finally be released...on another label. "Geffen was bought out by Seagram's and Universal," Holcombe explains. "And I'm not the only singer-songwriter who was shafted, turned loose, was fired, was unreleased. So, Big Dog eats Little Dog."
Three years later he got a call saying Hip-O Records was going to release it. "Thanks a lot to Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle and a lot of other people who were champions. Somehow Hip-O got wind of it. Maybe because it was part of the umbrella, maybe they decided to go ahead and release it to recoup some money, or maybe because they liked the music, I don't know. Flip a quarter.
"I always call tails, so I get the tail end," says Holcombe.
But by the time the record finally came out, he had left Nashville -- and its ideas on how music should be presented -- far behind. "I ain't much on commercial-formula craftsmanship. So I kinda decided to be a recluse and dissolve myself into whatever words came to mind."
His music, stark images of hardscrabble folk getting through life as best they can -- delivered like John Prine with a hangover -- has been plastered with an "insurgent country" label. "I don't know what that means," he says. "Sounds like something to do with surgery."
These days Holcombe teams up with guitarist-bassist Valorie Miller, on and offstage. The two have toured with Shelby Lynne, as well as opening for Merle Haggard and Wilco. Holcombe says hooking up with Miller has caused some changes in his music. "It's pretty much matured as far as delivering the material and writing new songs.
"I just call it folk music," Holcombe explains. "[It] comes from a well that I'm not sure there's a way to put it except a gift from God."
Holcombe's songwriting formula is simple and direct. "Try not to put too many lines of bullshit in there. Swat a few flies, but try not to beat a dead horse. Try to keep it real."
Malcolm Holcombe, touring in support of his latest CD Another Wisdom, will perform at the Comet Grill on Saturday, May 3. For more details, call 704-371-4300.