The surest way someplace isn't always a straight line. Malcolm Holcombe will tell you that. An anachronistic songwriter, he sounds like he's fresh from the mountain with a creaking twang and the raspy growl of a murder ballad come to life. The musician has a down-home vernacular and a carpe diem attitude that comes out in vibrant songs honest as a deathbed confession.
But for all his self-evident talent, his path wasn't a short one, and it didn't lead through Nashville, Tenn., except as a detour. Not that he's complaining. Holcombe makes music because he has to.
"If we wanted a get-rich-quick scheme, we'd go ahead and start running for office," he said. "Men and women have always been telling tall tales, painting on cave walls and leaving a mark. It's something we all do. It's a way of celebrating, a way of communicating."
The 54-year-old singer recently emerged as an alt-country revelation, and is touring to support his fifth album, September's "For the Mission Baby." The acclaim he's now receiving might have come earlier if his Geffen debut had turned out. Feted by artists like Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle, Holcombe signed a major contract in 1996 after several years of kicking around Nashville.
But after paying for everything and even shipping promotional copies of the album, Geffen shelved the project, which was eventually released in 1996 on a subsidiary under the title "A Hundred Lies." Disillusioned, Holcombe spent the intervening time sinking into a substance-fueled torpor as the demons he channels into his songs ran free, and his legend for unpredictable behavior grew.
Eventually, he bolted and returned to North Carolina, where he sobered up, found a wife, and picked up the pieces of his career. After a couple of independent releases, his fourth album, 2007's "Gamblin House," garnered plenty of attention as one of the best Americana albums of the year.
"For the Mission Baby" picks up the political threads that ran through "House" and weaves them tighter, from Hurricane Katrina allegory "Doncha Miss That Water" and the backwoods stomp of fat-cat ode "Bigtime Blues" to "Someone Left Behind," which notes, "There's one who does the hurtin' / Two who'll feel the pain / One who takes the train / Another takes the blame."
"The land of milk and honey has turned into capitalism gone awry," Holcombe said. "I don't make no bones about it because I can attest to that on my own. It's something I can sink my teeth into with my own family here in North Carolina."
Although he struggled for a long time to earn the attention finally coming his way, he wouldn't alter the experience. The dark times forged the man he is today. Sometimes, you have to go through the mud to finally come clean.
"I wouldn't change a thing. Because we're all just little specks of a mosaic, and every little piece of the mud, the rain and the sunshine " every bit of that makes us who we are in this breath, this pulse and this moment," he said. "The past is gone. Hopefully, I can learn from my mistakes, and history doesn't repeat itself."
Holcombe's latest was recorded in just a few days with producer Ray Kennedy (Steve Earle, Todd Snider) and a cast of talented musicians, including bluegrass legend Tim O'Brien.
"He said 'You think too much,'" Holcombe said with a laugh. "So I take that to heart."
The album sounds as if it's piped in from another time, both ageless and yet oddly contemporary, with a dark foreboding that channels the tenor of these days.
Despite the positive reviews and his career's sudden upward trajectory, Holcombe's careful not to get ahead of himself. He wraps himself in humility like a coat to shield him from the change in seasons.
"It's such a self-driven, egotistical, arrogant, self-serving world, whether you're playing music or you're just on the shopping channel network, so I don't like to think about that stuff much," he said. "I've heard people say you're only as good as your last show, or your last record. But you know, I ain't trying to reinvent the wheel. I'm just trying to keep from being tripped or tripping myself. It goes back to choices. It's all about choices and change."
Malcolm Holcombe performs at 8 p.m. Wednesday at The Blue Door, 2805 N. McKinley. "Chris Parker