Among instruments, the banjo is one of the few considered truly an American original. Roscoe Holcomb’s voice could be considered another. A just-released collection, “An Untamed Sense of Control,” shows just how original he was.
Holcomb’s taut banjo playing and piercing vocals encapsulate the best of the tradition, but go beyond it to form a distinctive sound all his own. With only a few other recordings of Holcomb available on CD (check out 1998’s “High Lonesome Sound”), these 26 cuts chosen from the Smithsonian Folkways collection are an important contribution to the mountain folk style that has all but disappeared from the Appalachian region, an area as famous for mountain folk music as the Mississippi Delta is for blues.
The title comes from a quote from Bob Dylan, who said, “Roscoe Holcomb has a certain untamed sense of control, which makes him one of the best.” These remastered cuts back up Dylan’s praise. Born in 1911, Holcomb first recorded in the late 1950s and later was swept along by the folk music revival of the 1960s. Most of these tunes were originally recorded between 1961 and 1973, during tours of college campuses and folk clubs in New York City and Boston. They are remastered here with superb technical clarity and in-the-room closeness. A handful of the tunes were recorded on Holcomb’s front porch in Daisy, Ky., where he always returned, playing church functions and social dances in the area until his death in 1981.
Holcomb’s sound is lean, stark and haunting. In smoother form, this same sound added tremendously to the soundtrack of “O Brother Where Art Thou?” — the sharp, ragged edges of his voice seem to cut right through you. His particular way of sliding up to high, hard notes and holding them with a raw vibrato inspired the term “high lonesome” — a standard of authenticity in the country and folk music world. His banjo-picking style uses unusual tunings, unrelenting rhythms and jagged, uneven phrases. He finishes a line when he feels like it, not when it’s expected or neatly balanced.
Lacking anything smooth or inviting, Holcomb’s playing and singing is hard to listen to at first. After repeated listening, though, all sorts of complexities and mysteries unfold out of the serrated lines and sharp declamations. He offers an idiosyncratic vision of music as a wild force that can only occasionally be tamed or captured and never fully domesticated.
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