Jim Malcolm has a deep appreciation for traditional songs from his homeland, but he’s also fascinated by what happened to music from Scotland when it bounced back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean.
“It’s kind of like Chinese whispers, how the music has moved around and changed a bit,” Malcolm said from his home in Perthshire, a county in central Scotland.
He spoke the day before making his latest trip across the Atlantic. Malcolm is winding down 2019 with a solo tour of the southwestern and southern United States, including a stop in Greensboro. He plays Nov. 15 in the Upstage Cabaret at Triad Stage, presented by Fiddle & Bow Society.
Immigrants brought their songs and instruments with them from Scotland and the rest of the British Isles when they came to the U.S. in centuries past, laying the foundation for American-born music genres such as country and bluegrass. But the Old Country has learned some new tricks from the United States, as well. Malcolm cites the banjo as an example of an instrument that has become common in Celtic music via complex transatlantic origins.
“It’s from Africa originally,” he said. “It’s not a European thing at all, and yet it has now become a quite important instrument even in Scottish music.”
Malcolm has been playing guitar since he was 9 or 10, taking lessons and learning to play solos from Beatles albums. He honed his songwriting skills while attending Edinburgh University, and has worked as a professional musician ever since.
He and his wife, Susie, recently became empty nesters, with their youngest child starting college this fall. He’s going to his father’s alma mater.
“He’s in the same hall of residence that I stayed in about 30 years ago,” Malcolm said.
Malcolm has a long history of solo albums dating back almost a quarter century, as well as a series of albums he made with his rock band, Old Blind Dogs.
“Few would argue he may have the most beautiful traditional male singing voice in Scotland,” Rich Warren wrote for the Midnight Special website.
Two of Malcolm’s albums were recorded live. He is known for his storytelling and knowledge of Scottish history as well as his music. For years, he has portrayed Robert Burns, the 18th century Scottish poet and songwriter who wrote “Auld Lang Syne.”
Malcolm and Susie have conducted annual bus tours of Scotland for the past decade, visiting historic sites and a whisky distillery and staging evening concerts with other musicians. The tours draw a large contingent of American fans.
“We take people around the country and sing all the songs of the areas we visit,” Malcolm said. “It’s kind of like, ‘Oh, there’s Loch Lomond — we’ve got a song about that.’”
Susie has sung backup on Malcolm’s solo albums for years, but they went a step further in 2017, releasing their first duo album, “Spring Will Follow On.” Michael Moll reviewed it for the FolkWorld website: “This is a lovely and relaxed album. The two voices harmonically combine and blend on a fine selection of songs. The majority of tracks are traditional Scottish, and even the two self-penned are based on popular Scottish fiddle tunes and thus have a trad feel.”
They recently recorded a follow-up album, “The Berries,” slated for release next year.
“If I’m doing a concert in Scotland, I always like Susie to come with me and perform,” Malcolm said. “But it just hasn’t been possible in America.”
Until now, with their children all out of the house. They plan to start touring as a duo in 2020, but for now Malcolm is making one last solo trek across the United States.
“This is my last hurrah on my own, and it’s very familiar ground,” he said. “I’ve been doing a show for Fiddle & Bow for a long time, most every other year for a long time. I always really enjoy playing in North Carolina.”