Roscoe Holcomb

One of the true treasures of Appalachian music and eerie singer of "the high, lonesome sound."

Roscoe Holcomb (born Roscoe Halcomb) 1911 in Daisy, KY, USA, d. February 1, 1981 in Leatherwood, KY. Although for his first 60 years he rarely strayed far beyond the bounds of the small town in which he was born, Holcomb became very highly regarded in the world of traditional Appalachian folk music. Indeed, it might well be that his decision to remain in this one place was a factor that not only determined his obscurity but also his eventual importance. Although it was inevitable that he heard music on radio and records and that played by itinerant musicians, Holcomb's singing and playing of the banjo remained largely unsullied by outside influences. Fortunately, he was recorded in the late 50s by musicologist John Cohen, and his raw, untutored but passionately involved style became a yardstick by which the authenticity of Appalachian music may be measured. Holcomb was persuaded to tour and in the three years starting 1961 he appeared at the University of Chicago Folk Festival, the Berkeley Folk Festival and the UCLA Folk Festival. He also toured Europe, including visiting the UK. He attracted the attention of Bob Dylan and it is his description of Holcomb's vocal sound as 'an untamed sense of control' that provides the title to an album that includes songs performed in concert in Massachusetts and others that were recorded in New York City. Holcomb's playing and especially his singing, a high, keening and sometimes even jaggedly grating vocal sound, might well be described as an acquired taste but the artist's sincerity and open disregard for any aspect of commercialism is impressive.

A coal miner, construction laborer and farmer for much of his life, Holcomb was not recorded until 1958, after which his career as a professional musician was bolstered by the folk revival in the 1960s. Holcomb gave his last live performance in 1978. Due to what he described as injuries he sustained during his long career as a laborer, Holcomb was eventually unable to work for more than short periods, and his later income came primarily from his music. Suffering from asthma and emphysema as a result of working in coal mines, he died in a nursing home in 1981, at the age of 68. Holcomb is buried at the Arch Halcomb Cemetery in Leatherwood, Kentucky. His tombstone bears his given name of Halcomb rather than Holcomb.

In addition to albums that reissue all of his recordings, Holcomb is one of many singers who may be seen on a 2004 DVD release by Vestapol Video, Shady Grove: Old Time Music From North Carolina, Kentucky And Virginia, on which he sings 'Pretty Polly', 'Old Smokey' and 'Black-Eyed Susie'. 

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By Richie Unterberger
One of the most noted Appalachian old-time musicians, banjo player and singer Roscoe Holcomb spent most of his life in the small town of Daisy, KY, and was one of the most authentic exponents of American mountain folk music. Indeed, he never had any professional ambitions but become a recording artist and participant in the folk revival circuit after being recorded for the first time in the late '50s. Holcomb's style is stark, epitomizing the keening, at times pained vocals associated with Appalachian music, with a repertoire stuffed with traditional songs that had passed among generations, as well as some songs that he likely learned from early country records. Folk musician and archivist John Cohen coined the term "high lonesome sound" to describe Holcomb's music, and the phrase has since passed into common usage to describe bluegrass and Appalachian music as a whole. He cut several albums for Folkways and made some concert appearances on the college/festival scene throughout the 1960s and 1970s, giving his last show in 1978.