Holcomb's voice wails so high that it can give you goose bumps. His banjo picking bounces and jigs all around his vocals. As he says in a quotation from the liner notes, "I always make the music try to speak as nigh as I can as the words that I say. I try an' make it speak what I do." Haunting and harrowing.
This is the big kahuna. It's been cited as one of the reasons for the folk music craze of the '60s. It stands today as an awesome living artifact of our musical heritage. The six CDs in this collection can keep you busy the rest of your life. The boxed set includes a replica of Smith's original "liner notes" with his description of each of the 84 songs and notes on the recordings, artists and other references. The meticulous discography is a road map to a fuller understanding and appreciation for many types of American folk music. You can get lost in this.
This isn't bluegrass. It doesn't have the speed and howl. It lacks the bile and vinegar of hillbilly and honky-tonk music. Bill and Earl Bolick call these "serious songs." Plaintive harmonies and simple guitar and mandolin accompaniment belie the complexity of how these songs are delivered. No one else I've heard sounds like the Blue Sky Boys.
Thanks to Brian Lewis from Williamsburg for writing in with some suggestions. Mr. Lewis recommends aspiring folkies check out the recently remastered release of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and "The Bristol Sessions," the 1927 RCA Victor recordings done in Bristol, Tenn. This latter recording was responsible for the "discovery" of many early luminaries including The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. "Will the Circle " features the Dirt boys accompanied by some of the true heavies of old time music: Roy Acuff, Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson, just to name a few. Fine suggestions indeed. Keep those cards and letters coming music fans.