Roscoe Holcomb An Untamed Sense Of Control

Although a contemporary of such influential Appalachian musicians as Dock Boggs and Frank Hutchison, Holcomb never received similar dues, mostly because he didn’t record until being "discovered” by folk revivalists in the 1950s. But once taken from his old Kentucky home and thrust upon a national stage, it was clear that he possessed a missing link between folk balladry, blues, and the modern pairing of the two — bluegrass. This album, with its title taken from a description of Holcomb’s music by Bob Dylan, encompasses his prime recording years up to the early 1970s, with several tracks derived from spontaneous performances at small social gatherings and on his front porch. While not as violently intense as Boggs, Holcomb’s banjo and guitar playing are equally relentless. Likewise, his vocals mark the songs like rusted out cars along the side of a highway, without ever wavering. I guess that’s what Dylan was getting at with his description, something he obviously took note of, as anyone who owns his first album can attest to. It’s explained that Holcomb only ever learned one song from a recording, the Stanley Brothers’ "Man Of Constant Sorrow,” and he was embarrassed to record it himself for that reason. Every other song he learned through an oral tradition, and most of the time it is fascinating to hear how Holcomb twists standards like "Willow Garden” and "Frankie & Johnny” into his own beat-up creations. At over 70 minutes, the album does ultimately become a chore to get through in one sitting, but for fans of old time music the reward of journeying back to Holcomb’s vanished world for that brief time will be worth the effort. (Smithsonian Folkways)