Old Crow Medicine Show
Old Crow Medicine Show have never been the type of band to shy away from rough-and-tumble subject matter such as drug use and grinding poverty, whether in songs written by group members or in 1920s jug-band numbers they’ve made their own. On the band’s first two Nettwerk albums, O.C.M.S. and Big Iron World which followed their self-released full-lengths Greetings From Wawa and Eutaw emotional engagement with gritty reality was of the band’s greatest assets.
In the past, that has meant hitting a topic like cocaine addiction head-on and whipping it into a rollicking good time with enough reckless energy and good humor to lighten the psychic load a bit (as on “Cocaine Habit” from Big Iron World). For Tennessee Pusher, the band apparently decided that the place to head, if you’re already known for keeping it real and lively, is deeper into your subjects’ pain, even if it means cooling your hot grooves just a little to give the stories more of a sustained, smoldering impact.
For OCMS fiddler and harp player Ketch Secor, guitarist Willie Watson, slide guitarist and banjo player Critter Fuqua (whose presence here is mostly vocal), guitjo player Kevin Hayes, upright bassist Morgan Jahnig, and newly added slide guitarist Gill Landry this is the first album where the dance numbers, of a sort, are the icing on the cake. “Alabama High-Test”, “Humdinger”, “Mary’s Kitchen” and “Caroline” offer energetic, evenly spaced breaks from the more serious business at hand, which is, namely, unfurling haunting narratives. The album cover reflects the somber mood: In place of a young band posing by daylight, there’s an inky dusk, broken only by a weak column of light from an old truck’s headlamps. This is a band heading into dark territory.
At the backbone of Tennessee Pusher which features twelve originals and just one cover are four tracks that lay bare the nerves and sinews of their down-and-out southern subjects. “Methamphetamine” is as potent a song as they have written, a brooding country-rocker that presents harrowing choices: death by either hunger or an all-consuming “hurricane” of a high. It’s also one of frequent collaborator David Rawlings’ only obvious fingerprints here (he co-wrote the song with Secor). Rawlings produced the band’s two previous discs, but OCMS enlisted Don Was for this one. The most noticeable change is the presence of masterful drummer Jim Keltner and Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench, both of whom fall in very naturally with the band’s appealingly loose pulse.
“Motel In Memphis” is a meditation on the long shadow cast by the Martin Luther King assassination; “Crazy Eyes” narrates a mentally ill drug user’s tenuous existence; and the title track is a tragic drama that ebbs and flows hypnotically between two chords. All are deeply affecting.
You can hear the band adjust their sonic muscles to this sort of storytelling. Joining with Tench’s seething Hammond C3 organ, Secor and Landry use harmonica, fiddle and slide guitar to heighten the sense of mournful drama. And during “Methamphetamine” and “Crazy Eyes,” the sharp, keening harmonies of Secor, Watson and Fuqua evoke a rising swell of panic.
Old Crow’s youthful spirit another of the band’s finest points is alive and well in the urgent edge of their harmonies, the aggressiveness of their instrumental interplay, and the open-eyed nature of their storytelling. Balancing out the spikes in emotion are a handful of pleasing, regret-tinged songs: “Highway Halo”, “The Greatest Hustler Of All”, “Next Go ‘Round” and “Evening Sun”.
The album’s lone cover is a perfect fit, a reverential take on Blind Alfred Reed’s “Lift Him Up”. It confirms the generous communal spirit of “We’re All In This Together” (from O.C.M.S.) and “I Hear Them All” (from Big Iron World) but, coming on the heels of songs such as “Methamphetamine”, it does more besides. With Tennessee Pusher, OCMS has given us an album that’s not just emotionally plugged-in; it’s shot through with an empathy that cuts to the quick.