Official music page and soapbox of Matt Snell

Tuesday 3 May 2011

Blues and Old-Time Artists I Admire: Roscoe Holcomb

To some, Roscoe Holcomb sounds like an emissary from another world. Everyone else finds him unbearably shrill. I'm going to assume that, like me, you belong in the first category, and give Roscoe a little feature here on Bang & Jangle.

From Daisy, Kentucky, Roscoe Holcomb spent much of his life working in coal mines. He had not even recorded his music until John Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers met him on a music-collection expedition to Appalachia in 1959. Cohen coined the term "high and lonesome" to describe Holcomb's vocals, which are piercing and unmistakable. Appropriately enough, Holcomb was featured in Cohen's documentary "The High Lonesome Sound," and the film contains some beautiful images of rural Kentucky as well as arresting music.

Roscoe has his own style of banjo picking that sets him apart, too. He uses a two-finger up-picking style with picks, but it is not your typical Earl Scruggs bluegrass sound. The rhythm is distinctive, and his playing on the whole has a bluesier feel. He was admired by Bob Dylan, the Stanley Brothers, and others, all of whom responded to Roscoe's uniquely personal take on traditional material. The compilation "An Untamed Sense of Control," apart from the stupid title, is an excellent place to start if the Holcomb sound gets into your bones. He's no slouch on the guitar either, and his a capella work can turn your hair white.

Roscoe Holcomb died in 1981, so we'll have to make due with recordings like this one. Maybe I just miss Mexico sometimes, but this song has the power to liquefy me:

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