Some singers have an old soul, but Malcolm Holcombe’s has always felt downright primordial. Across the ages, he has developed a rugged state of grace that’s all his own. Such gifted players as Greg Leisz, Jerry Scheff and Stuart Duncan appeared on his last two records, but decorating Holcombe’s sinewy, fiercely spirited music is putting a bandana on a bulldog.
I Never Heard You Knockin’ is just voice and guitar, and it showcases Holcombe at his best. In this stripped-down setting, a couple songs (“Kiss Me When I’m Sleepin’” and “This Town Knows Me”) almost reach the point where directness becomes menace. And perhaps only in Holcombe’s world would a song with the title “For The Love Of A Good Woman” also feature the recurring line “dying in my grave that I dug myself.”
Surfacing throughout is his trademark vocal tic, a line-punctuating sound that splits the difference between a dog-tired sigh and a contented growl in the same way that his guitar playing splits the difference between folk-music melodic and country-blues percussive.
But to focus solely on the tough is to miss the tender and the spiritual. Those two sides come together on the gentle “Mama Told Me So” (“Jesus loves me, this I know/’Cause my Mama told me so”). Childhood images of Radio Flyers and country hams break through hasty-pudding fog on “Early Mornin’”, an example of nostalgia done right, with Holcombe’s voice sounding like it’s been curing in the smokehouse alongside that ham.
The lovely, album-closing title track reminds us how our great loves tend to sneak up and find us: “I never heard you knockin’ because you called my name out loud.”