Old Crow Medicine Show – Hot Stuff
Scores and scores of twentysomethings were gyrating (but also, you noticed, singing the words), filling the orchestra pit at the apron of the hallowed Ryman Auditorium stage. The same thing was going on in the aisles, upstairs and down, and way up behind the upper seats in the Confederate Gallery.
The people in the pit, like the cats on the stage, surely knew how to shake that thing. Eddie Stubbs, the rightly legendary WSM record spinner, frequent album annotator, and accomplished fiddler, an immensely knowledgeable man with a knowing love of American music (and the bearer of an endearing, doleful demeanor), had introduced this band to the sold-out house — as he does all of the acts who play these summer “Bluegrass at the Ryman” shows — with exceptional enthusiasm.
“They have respect for what’s come before, and they’ve added their own twist,” Eddie said. “I know of no other group who’s made the sound of roots music so cool to young people.”
In any case, the many seventysomething blue-haired ladies who attend the series looking for traditional bluegrass didn’t seem to mind the raucous, less gentlemanly tones of pre-bluegrass old-time music with a rock attack — though they weren’t, unsurprisingly, part of the near-moshing.
Careful with words, Eddie didn’t call what was being played “bluegrass,” since it was not. But there was that lingering accolade “cool” in there — as would have been most appropriate and expected anytime in the last 25 years or so: a cool band, playing cool music, making it cool, keeping it cool, for the cool. The word’s very embedding in everyday talk as essentially equal to “positive” tells you a lot about what was held positive through all those years.
The young audience filling the Ryman was neither restrained nor distanced, nor responding to this updated, high-energy old-time music with self-conscious irony or self-congratulations for insider or outsider cleverness. For that matter, neither were the five guys who make up Old Crow Medicine Show, up there onstage.
“Coolness” was hardly the theme.
We are coming out of a long era marked by its pursuit of the cool, by its distanced, self-protective, thoroughly ironic point of view. In its place comes, of all things, warmth, a music and approach to life that’s hot, direct, engaged, that dares even to be openly warm-hearted. It’s not easy to spot a generational shift, but the sights and sounds marking this one seem unmistakable.
Ketch Secor — fiddler, harmonica player, singer and songwriter for Old Crow — puts it this way: “I’m totally uninterested in the kind of attitude that’s about trying to skirt around the things that are uncomfortable to talk about or that people would rather just go away. That’s great fuel for that Big Iron World.”
Big Iron World is both the title of the band’s new album, released August 29 on Nettwerk, and a metaphor for what they see themselves dealing with in their music: sonically, personally, politically even. It would be hard to find recent precedents for what’s been going on with this band. They make an intense audience connection that has, very quietly, very gradually, led to more than 110,000 copies sold of their self-titled 2004 disc in the U.S. alone. Those are numbers rarely associated with any kind of down-home acoustic music.
This sort of response is also contributing to the revival of interest in full-tilt emotional soul singers of the ’60s. Artists such as Bettye LaVette and Solomon Burke are being rediscovered and reappreciated as riveting survivors and models from a previous era of direct, emotionally hot, uninhibited music. It’s seen as well in the success of different but similarly acoustic roots bands such as the Duhks, who mix old-time know-how with world-music influences and a rock-like attack, increasingly informed by heated soul and gospel sounds.
It’s not difficult to mark other moments in the American roots-music chain when something like this shift took place. David Wondrich’s much-discussed 2003 book Stomp And Swerve: American Music Gets Hot, 1843-1924 traces the rising trend. Charlie Poole and Jimmie Rodgers, key players both, made country music hot, rhythmic and body-aware in the late ’20s; not for nothing during his brief on-record collaborations with the Carter Family did Rodgers have them join him in “There’ll Be A Hot Time In The Old Town Tonight” — to get even, perhaps, for cutting the only outright religious song he ever recorded in support of their tendencies.
And then there was Elvis.
The twentysomething roots music audience’s close identification with the Old Crow Medicine Show quintet is not the hard-edged, nearly explosive band-audience relationship of the punk rock era. (Nobody will be gobbing this band.) The Old Crows, sharp as they can be, are fundamentally just too good-natured for that. But this is not the more ethereal, wavy-gravy, allegedly ecstatic identification of the post-Dead jambands that we’re talking about, either. The Old Crows are about roots music that will “wake me; shake me,” while, along the way, telling hard, direct stories the audience is willing to hear — not about numbing you out.
And they know it.
Secor, if not exactly the frontman in a band with multi-instrumentalists, multiple writers, and three, maybe four, lead singers, is most frequently chosen to speak for all of them. He had much to say about that audience connection when I sat down with him in late July at Gillian Welch and David Rawlings’ Acony Records/Woodland Studio site in East Nashville.
(Rawlings has produced Old Crow’s last two discs, in addition to serving as the band’s filigree guitarist and sometime song collaborator. He’s toured with them a bit and frequently sits in on live dates close to Nashville, as he and Gillian both did at that raucous Ryman show. She was the drummer.)