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POP MUSIC | ALBUM REVIEW

Revisiting the Traditions of Folk, Blues in Style

**** ROSCOE HOLCOMB "The High Lonesome Sound" Smithsonian Folkways

March 22, 1998|Robert Hilburn

The most striking aspect of the Village Voice's poll of U.S. pop critics to determine the most important reissue of 1997 is that one boxed set was so respected that it defeated a five-disc package by the great Ray Charles by a margin of almost 2 to 1.

The winning collection was Harry Smith's "Anthology of American Folk Music," a six-disc set of raw, mostly obscure recordings from the late '20s and early '30s that gives listeners a remarkable sample of non-mainstream musical genres--from blues and country to gospel--that serve as the foundation of contemporary pop music.

Now the same label, Smithsonian Folkways, has come up with another reissue that may win top honors in the Voice poll this year.

Roscoe Holcomb's "The High Lonesome Sound" is a one-disc package that conveys so much of the primitive, unspoiled spirit of those '20s and '30s recordings that you'd swear his music, too, dates from generations past. In fact, it was recorded in the '60s and '70s.

For the average pop fan, it's hard on casual listening to know how to classify his style. It's part folk, part blues and part country--though, sadly, Holcomb didn't make enough of a commercial impact during his life to be guaranteed a place in encyclopedias devoted to any of the three fields.

The Kentucky native, who died in the '70s, did, however, make his impact on many of today's most respected musicians. Eric Clapton has called Holcomb his favorite country musician. Bob Dylan invariably cites him as one of his chief influences.

Asked in December about his influences, Dylan mentioned Holcomb, along with Woody Guthrie, the Carter Family and Leadbelly. "They were free spirits who took chances, and I never wished to annul any of that spirit," Dylan said.

Born around 1911, Holcomb grew up in the tiny village of Daisy, Ky., singing in church and playing banjo at local functions. But he never set out to be a professional musician, according to John Cohen's liner notes for the album, whose music is drawn from three Folkways collections.

"Holcomb had a backwoods purity sustained by isolation, and if I hadn't found him and recorded him, he would never have looked outside his home community for listeners," Cohen writes.

In Holcomb's music, there is an absorbing recognition of life's hardships, which the musician saw firsthand in the lumber mills and coal mines of his native state, and which was chronicled in the folk music he heard as a young man.

"He never saw himself as important, and he was neither assertive nor ambitious," Cohen adds. "Yet there was something heroic and transcendent in his singing. It had a power that went straight to the listener's core. His spiritual concern was beautiful and always present, revealed with a sharp, cutting expression of pain."

Like "Anthology," Holcomb's collection is an invaluable glimpse into the rich folk and blues tributary, whose emphasis on individuality and emotion helped fuel the rock 'n' roll revolution.

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to four stars (excellent).

Hear the Music

* Excerpts from "The High Lonesome Sound" and other recent releases are available on The Times' World Wide Web site. Point your browser to: http://www.latimes.com/soundclips

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