Thursday, January 09, 2014

Roscoe Holcomb - An Untamed Sense of Control

I first discovered Roscoe on a documentary on Appalachian music, as I recall, and was struck by his version of "I Wish I Was a Single Girl Again" that I had previously known only by the Blood on the Saddle version but have since learned was a traditional song that many covered. Holcomb's strident, reedy voice and banjo picking really stayed with me and I finally picked up this CD and wow! Everything here is done in his particular style, with his keening singing voice taken from the Old Regular Baptist tradition, which Bob Dylan described as having "an untamed sense of control". From Daisy, Kentucky, Holcomb was a fine banjo and guitar picker as well as fiddler and harmonica player (the latter two his lesser strengths, at least as far as these recordings show - though still interesting and compelling).

John Cohen "discovered" Roscoe on a field recording trip and befriended the man, recording him throughout the years, helping him get shows in the 60's folk revival and sometimes accompanying him on guitar. Cohen gives extensive liner notes to this CD, along with some classic photos and information on all of the songs - where they were recorded (from studios to live shows to Holcomb's front porch!), when and often the background of the tune.

I associate his work mostly with bluegrass, though it is really a mix of bluegrass, gospel, folk, blues and local Appalachian sounds. Cohen coined the term "high, lonesome sound" to describe Holcomb and it is a fitting description. While I don't believe that any of these songs are considered "originals", Roscoe's interpretations are sometimes so unique that you don't realize that he is singing a popular tune. You will hear his influence in lots of later singers, though - Bob Dylan especially comes to mind right away in "Across the Rocky Mountain", whose melody Dylan "borrowed" a time or two.

I love his banjo playing on tunes like the afore-mentioned "I Wish I Was a Single Girl Again", the traditional "Little Maggie" (sounding quite different than other versions I have), the frantic "Black Eye Suzie" and "Coal Creek", among many others, though he is also quite adept at guitar, as well, from finger-picking to slide work (with a pocket knife - he even calls a tune "Knife Guitar"). His acapella songs are also quite powerful ("Born and Raised in Covington" and "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow", similar to the Stanley Brothers take that was popularized in O Brother Where Art Thou). His harmonica work is fine, though maybe not exceptional ("Barbara Allen Blues") and, at the time that it was recorded, his fiddle skills were a bit shakey ("Rock Island Prison") but showed that he probably could bow well when he was younger.

I truly love the early, gritty, real-sounding traditional music that is the basis for bluegrass, folk and (real) country and Roscoe is a terrific example of this style. It makes me very happy that I can continue to discover fantastic gems like this and hope that I will find more for years to come. One of my new faves!