Almanac Music: Not Quite Bob – Some You Know … and One You Probably Don’t – Kurt Vile, John Prine, Iris DeMent, Malcolm Holcombe


As I get near the end of this series I keep thinking of glaring omissions that I should have covered.  This piece is about a couple of them with some connection between them.  But as almost an afterthought a friend suggests an artist that completely fits the brief – as well or better than a lot of the others.  The proverbial bolt from the blue.  A gift to NQBage.  With an actual connection to one of the more famous artists on this list.  More famous than him anyway.  Which frankly probably nearly everyone reading this is.  I don’t think he even makes Warhol’s ¼ hour of fame.  Anyway.  Onward.  Let’s set his intro up.


Kurt Vile


The last time I included Kurt Vile it was about Easter.  Essendon still hadn’t revealed the full extent of their terribleness and Scomo had only just taken on his further jobs to add to the hose holding, truck driving, welding, rugger playing and anything that requires a helmet and orange T-shirt tasks he was so adept at.  Or wasn’t as it turns out.


So, Kurt.  He’s here in this one to start me on the path to the mystery man.  And because in April he’d only just released his latest album and I hadn’t heard it and now I have and it’s probably his best to date.  From there, this.



Not for everybody maybe but on the quirkily named (watch my moves) there’s over an hour of languid, loping (spacey?) gems like this.  If you set your playlist to Kurt for a day time passes slowly but easily.


When I wrote about him earlier I left this out.  It’s an EP of 5 John Prine songs  called Speed, Sound, Lonely KV he put out in 2020 at the height of the pandemic.



Another small gem that I knew I needed when I got to John eventually.  On that EP they sing together on ‘How Lucky’.



Note the respect between the old man and the young ‘un.  It’s a sweet rendition of a great song.  So that’s it for Kurt (for now).  Good job, young feller.  Here’s John.


John Prine


So here is the glaring omission in NQB.  This is the 28th one of these and it’s getting on for a year since I started doing them. He’s a stellar and significant contributor to American folk/country songwriting  and performance with multiple albums, hundreds of live gigs on big and small stages, revered by younger artists like Kurt and Jason Isbell and Margo Price and a multitude of others, name checked in biogs of artists as poles apart as Johnny Cash and Roger Waters as being a profound influence.  I could go on.  He’s a giant in a small frame. My excuse?  I missed him.  I don’t own a John Prine album.  Should know his work better but don’t.  An omission if I’d been better at paying attention.  And if my first few albums weren’t by Johnny Winter, Cream and Jimi Hendrix.


First a brief biog.  John Prine was born in Mayfield, Illinois in 1946 making him a near contemporary of Bob.  And, sadly, he died in early April 2020, not long after that appearance with Kurt.  He got Covid.  Diagnosed in late March, dead from complications on 7 April.  In his 73 years he’s brought up in Chicago, is taught guitar by his older brother and hits the stages of Chicago in the late 60s.  He’s spotted by Kris Kristofferson who then gets Jerry Wexler (then label boss at Atlantic) to a gig which leads to his self titled debut in 1971.  The oft used phrase is ‘auspicious debut’.  Probably over used but this wears that tag proudly.



A lot of really good songs and one bona fide classic in ‘Angel From Montgomery’.  Which he performs on stage until late in his life.



So after this he has to lug around a tag he wouldn’t have wanted.  The next Bob Dylan.  It’s lazy shorthand that’s meant to be a compliment but which ignores Prine’s singular voice and tone and styling.  And more homespun country leanings.  If Bob’s songs speak of protest and politics and civil rights and anti-war howls, John Prine’s concerns are more rural, more local.  Melancholy songs of regret and quirky laments, many bearing offbeat, somewhat clunky titles.  ‘Sabu Visits The Big Cities Alone’.



Lots of songs like that, again with the whacky titles.  ‘Let’s Talk Dirty In Hawaiian’.  ‘Linda Goes To Mars’.  And get this.  ‘Come Back To Us Barbara Lewis Hare Krishna Beauregard’.



Try telling anyone that’s a John Prine song you like without looking up the name.  But he’s no novelty act and unlike Bob he never goes electric.  Small settings, him and the guitar or in groupings that sit behind him and his guitar.


Prine releases albums regularly through the 70s and 80s and always manages a few crackers along the way.  In 1986 it’s ‘German Afternoons’ and from there ‘Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness’.



I’ll jump over the 90s for a minute to get to the twilight for Prine.  Like a lot of late career artists he is the subject of tribute albums, collections and homage.  Still releases albums, keeps performing, still active.  In 2010 his label releases a tribute album called Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows featuring covers of his songs by Conor Oberst, The Avett Brothers, Old Crow Medicine Show, My Morning Jacket, Bon Iver and others.  The best and brightest of the young Americana artists on the scene.  A sure sign of the spread of his influence and the regard in which he’s held.  But lest it appear that I’ve cast him in the role of pensioner resting on his laurels in 2018 he releases The Tree of Forgiveness.



That’s no time-server watching the clock.  That’s a late career artist, still energised, still vital, still entirely relevant.  Curse the virus.  73 isn’t old I keep telling myself because its nearby.


Back to the 90s.  John Prine is another artist who frequently sang in duets with women.  In 1999 he releases In Spite of Ourselves with all bar the title track being covers of country classics.  Most are collabs with female artists like Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris.  And this one … Iris DeMent.




Iris DeMent


Iris Luella DeMent was born in Paragould, Arkansas in January 1961.  I’d call her a late Christmas present except she was the youngest of 14 so hardly a surprise then.  Family of Pentecostals too so there’s that.  A late bloomer she records her first album in 1992, the heavily gospel inflected Infamous Angel.  On it is the first song she ever wrote several years earlier, ‘Our Town’.



A classic of the kind, simple delivery, her high reedy voice a feature, strummy folksy stuff that the mid-West eats up.  In 1994 she follows with more of the same on My Life, more introspective, churchy songs.  This time dedicated to her father who had passed away a couple of years earlier.  In 1996 with The Way I Should though she’s onto topics like sexual abuse, religion, government policy and the war in Vietnam (despite it being long over).



More elaborate arrangements, heavyweight session musos like Chuck Leavell, Lonnie Mack, Billy Burnette and both Earl and Randy Scruggs as well as star turns from Mark Knopfler and Delbert McClinton, it’s a step up.  Then the John Prine covers album in 1999, a smaller gospel covers album in 2004 and in 2012 another set of originals in Sing The Delta.


Not prolific then but it’s all accomplished without knocking your socks off.  She’s sung duets with Steve Earle and Emmylou Harris and …. Malcolm Holcombe.  Nearly there with my mystery guest.  She wins prizes, has her songs used in films and TV (notably Northern Exposure with ‘Our Town’ and The Leftovers with ‘Let The Mystery Be’) and is honoured as a Trailblazer at the Americana awards in Nashville in 2017.  (Shout out to the travelling Col Ritchie and Brian Wise who are heading there right now.)


And there we’d leave her as a small but important footnote in the NQB canon.  Except for the connection to Malcolm.


Malcolm Holcombe


Who you might ask?  I did.  I first heard about, and therefore heard him, well … last Friday.  He was suggested to me by a work colleague friend of mine (let’s call him TB2) at the tailend of a conversation about work stuff.  Once the boring crap was out of the way we meandered onto music (along with delusions about the Bombers, a shared passion) and I told him about this series and sent him Episode 1 which I did on James McMurtry.  He read it and texted, “I’ll see your James McM and raise you Malcolm Holcombe.”  And suggested a starting point.  Challenge accepted.


Well eff me.  Here are the learnings.  He’s born in Asheville, North Carolina in 1955.  That makes him my age.  But another late bloomer.  Finds himself in Nashville in 1990 (of course), open mic gigs and works as a dishwasher to pay the rent.  Signs with Geffen in 1996 but nothing ever gets released until 1999 when a small indie called Hip-O gets behind A Hundred Lies.



Now that’s a debut!  Or it’s almost one because he did self-release an album in 1994 called A Far Cry From Here but it’s all but disappeared.


Now if John Prine didn’t go electric then Malcom Holcombe never moved away from the simplest of formats.  Him and the guitar in a small room.  Like here.



Or here.



Sparse, intimate, perfect.  Trawling through YouTube gets you quite a lot of that but I find it mesmerising.  He keeps on keeping on too.  A bakers dozen of releases, all worth auditioning.  Here is his Bandcamp link.


All available for less than 10 Benjamins each.


The Iris connection?  In 2017 out comes Come Hell Or High Water.  10 ripper duets with Iris DeMent.



She’s mixed back behind him a bit but he’s so compelling with his gruff growl that I think it would be hard to bring her trill further forward.  As though I’d know about such things!


Then in 2021 an eye (and ear) opener.  Tricks Of The Trade.  In case it’s imagined he can’t play nice with others.  A full band in support, still in good voice, all the Americana song tropes, a beauty.



But I do need to return to TB2s suggested starting point.  Easy to work out why it appealed to him.  It got to me too. A Far Cry From Here.



It had been my intent before last Friday to deal with the glaring omission of Mr Prine.  Which I hope this has done.  Take Malcolm and Iris as the cherries on the cake.  And Kurt as the appetiser for what’s next.


For more of Trevor Blainey on The Footy Almanac click here.


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  1. Colin Ritchie says

    Fantastic work once again Trev, and I just love Iris. Just arrived in Nashville so looking forward to the music.

  2. Trev, what do you know of David Vandervelde? I’m stuck on a song of his called Nothin No. Does his other stuff stand up to it?

  3. Trevor Blainey says

    Don’t know him at all but I’ve just played that on Spotify. if you like him you might like this.

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