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Upon listening to the lonely drone of Roscoe Holcomb's voice, first time round, it was one of those musical moments when I had to stop and immerse myself in what I was listening to. It was perhaps the most sad and lonesome vocal I'd ever listened to, and you get lots of those in country, folk, gospel and blues music, in particular, which this Appalachian music legend more or less fits into one way or another from Hank Williams to Nick Drake, Karen Dalton to Tammy Wynette to Billie Holiday, Mahalia Jackson, Janis Joplin and so on - those voices that you feel are intimately talking to you rather than singing due to the extraordinary emotions or sense of loneliness they pour into their vocals.
Roscoe Holcomb was not only competent as a fiddler, guitarist and harp player but also an excellent banjoist. However, the tracks that almost always stop me in my tracks are those where perhaps his most famous instrument is the star: his voice. His voice was the inspiration behind the term 'high lonesome sound' which is now a prevalent description amongst bluegrass music. It really shines on the songs he sang a cappella. The tracks which are accompanied by music are purely Holcomb on those instruments.
That first introduction to his soaring falsetto that so amazed me that I mentioned earlier, is one of the acapella tracks included here: 'I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow'. It was lonesome, haunting and the way he bends his notes and held his phrasing made it all the more eery. It reminded me of an old, lonely man standing at the top of a mountain calling out to the deserted, distant valley below him; that being the Appalachian Mountains in the eastern region of North America, where, derived by British and Irish folk music as well as African blues, the genre was born.
'An Untamed Sense of Control', I assume, took its title from Bob Dylan's description of Holcomb's voice. It features 26 tracks in all and a nice sepia image of Mr. Holcomb on its cover, holding a banjo. Some tracks on it are instrumentals, and fine ones at that, including a version of 'Milk Cow Blues' and a harp only track called 'Barbara Allan Blues'. Some are less than two minutes long. The longest is just over six minutes. Some are distinctly folk with a very traditional English feel whereas others, such as 'Mississippi Heavy Water Blues' or 'Sitting on Top of the World', you'd imagine Big Bill Broonzy or Robert Johnson playing. They say white guys cannot sing the blues - listen to some of the blues tracks here and they'd change their mind (although there are of course other examples). This man demonstrates his emotions and troubles as good as anyone through his music.
Holcomb's voice may be an acquired taste, like most voices of this genre can be. It does sound like a pre-Bob Dylan Bob Dylan at times, which some find grating but you can see, or rather hear, where Mr. Zimmerman perhaps took some his vocal inspiration, since he is a big fan, as is ole Slowhand Eric Clapton, who has called him his favourite 'country artist'.
Holcomb spontaneously and often consistently soars into a piercing falsetto which may go through some people, and his phrasing is often drawn out and strained. It's not what you'd call a great voice by glossy, modern standards, but it is a great voice by old fashioned, raw emotional standards. I happen to be one of the few people - I think - who like Bob Dylan's voice and enjoy a large range of vocals including those with a twang so I love Holcomb's a lot. It is very much like rock 'n' roll - spontaneous, raw, imperfect, exciting, makes you listen. There are times that Holcomb's voice emotionally wails and warbles almost unapologetically uncontrollably with a rich, emotional intensity - it is intimate and personal, which I love; it's very much like camp-fire stuff. What is impressive is that there is no other voice harmonising, there is no band. This is one man and his instruments.
If you think you may not take to his voice, however, there is still a good reason to listen and enjoy this artist at work. Firstly because it highlights the history of old-time music in the USA and part of the impact British and Irish folk along with African blues music had on local American music, and also because Holcomb was an excellent guitarist and banjo player. In the same way you might want to concentrate on Dylan's lyrics and not his singing, it's worth listening to this to enjoy the historical aspect and particularly its musical output, if not the yearning, rough vocals. Holcomb deployed plenty of brilliant banjo playing styles and if you wanted to learn the instrument, he'd be one of the first teachers you'd approach. Sadly I cannot play banjo, but maybe one day!
These recordings were recorded everywhere from live concerts to his front porch to New York City during the '60s and '70s when he was older, playing live due to the '60s folk revival and emotionally low, although they have a distinctly older flavour in terms of genre and recording quality, perhaps because we are so used to clear, electric recordings during this period. These songs sound more raw, more stripped down and more plaintive. There are absolutely no sound effects here so it is not a polished recording, it's not psychedelia or contrived or perfect: it's real emotion from a world weary artist. It never feels like a studio recording - it really has a rural, front porch feel. It depends on what you hear personally: some hear an emotional, weary voice, whilst apparently other people hear a sound like a constantly moaning foghorn. It is probably worth testing first - I'd recommend listening to 'I am a Man of Constant Sorrow' somewhere first and if you like that version, vocally, you'll like this. An acquired taste but if you like it, you'll love it, especially if you love old country, blues or folk music, and particularly if you love banjos - it won't get any better than this!
Recently I reviewed an album by Dock Boggs, who was probably the hardest, meanest banjo player ever to live. Another man held in high regard but from neighbouring Kentucky is Roscoe Holcomb, an Appalachian folk musician that wasn't recorded until later in life and spent most of his life as a miner and farmer.
An Untamed Sense of Control was released by Smithsonian Folkways, one of my favourite record labels - the best there is when it comes to folk and relics of a different age. The album compiles songs recorded in the 60s and early 70s. If you've never heard Appalachian folk music before then you might be unaware that it combines 'black music' and 'country' like nothing prior to it in the US.
Like Boggs - Holcomb plays some fast and intricate tunes on his banjo, a mixture of traditional songs and some blues numbers too, he's great and is not just limited to the banjo either but despite being equally accomplished with a fiddle, guitar or harmonica, it's mostly his voice that he's known for.
Raw, powerful and very high pitch, his voice gave birth to the phrase "high lonesome sound" and depending on your point of view, it either sounds like he's unintentionally chopped his balls off with an axe or is beautifully raw and unprocessed.
Most songs on the album are fairly short, whilst 2-3 minutes tends to be the average there are numerous tracks that are barely over a minute long, it also has its fair share of instrumental tracks.
The much plaudited version of "I am a man of constant sorrow" seems to get a bit too much attention, I favour some of the more instrumental numbers like "Knife Guitar" and the fiddle track "Rock Island Prison", "Born and Raised in Covington", a song of great story telling much like "Combs Hotel Burned Down"
I have to say that however talented the guy is, I do struggle to listen to one whole album due to the whaling nature of the vocals. Fans of US country music or old folk music might find a large dose more bearable. Bob Dylan obviously did but I guess it's not quite my thing.