Roscoe Holcomb - vocals, guitar, banjo
Though "high and lonesome" has been popularly applied to many purveyors of bluegrass and folk, one listen to Roscoe Holcomb and there's no mistaking how this sound got its name. With a voice that whines like a hungry hound one moment and cracks like lightning the next, Roscoe delivered authentic Appalachian music to folk audiences around the world after his discovery in 1959.
Unlike many of his contemporaries during the folk revival of the '60s, Roscoe Holcomb was not a professional performer when he was plucked off of his porch in eastern Kentucky to record for the Folkways imprint; his only public performances until then were probably on that porch, or as part of his local church congregation. This unspoiled upbringing is evident both in his choice of songs and their execution. Holcomb was adept on guitar and banjo, but could just as easily wring frightening emotion from his repertoire of ballads and hymns with only his voice. Bob Dylan called it, "a certain untamed sense of control, which makes him one of the best."
This 1963 appearance at Los Angeles' Ash Grove is an outstanding document of just what Dylan meant. The set list is an excellent survey of southern musical styles: The modality in "Little Bessie" indicates both Celtic and African influences, while follow-up "Coney Isle" clearly possesses a more sophisticated chord accompaniment that could very well be rooted in ragtime. The most unique element throughout, however, remains Holcomb's tenor, trembling and reedy, yet still confident that it is the perfect instrument for the songs.
Holcomb would record only sporadically throughout his career, as fame was no great appeal to him, but the albums he did make are widely considered the greatest examples of Appalachian music available. Humble though his lifestyle may have been, his sound was rich and complex, and will always be remembered by scholars and fans alike.
Written by Alan Bershaw