An Untamed Sense of Control

Roscoe Holcomb, who died in 1981, was the purest exponent of Kentucky banjo playing.

Roscoe Holcomb, who died in 1981, was the purest exponent of Kentucky banjo playing. A dazzling picker with a glass-cutting voice, he is heard in a number of formats on this sequel to Smithsonian Folkways' 1998 compilation, The High Lonesome Sound. These 26 solo performances (several of them previously unissued) feature Holcomb on his principal instrument but also on guitar, fiddle, and harmonica; there are also some thrilling a cappella performances, including a jaw-dropping "Man of Constant Sorrow." The album title, drawn from Bob Dylan's characterization of Holcomb's musicianship, gives a fair estimation of this remarkable performer's gifts, which combined rare instrumental facility with heart-punching emotional impact. Listeners whose interest was piqued by the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack will find this retrospective to be a revelatory trip into the harrowing heart of Kentucky mountain music.—CM