Old Crow Medicine Show – Making the ghosts walk faster
That, as is regularly claimed, members of the generation weaned on Public Enemy and Nirvana necessarily bring some new urgency or power to early 20th-century roots music may or may not hold water. But musicians born in 1978 or 1980 surely do have as much right — and even the need, as singer-fiddler-songwriter Ketch Secor puts it — to take their own stab at updating the traditional.
For the five young men of the Old Crow Medicine Show, the first recordings of the New Lost City Ramblers, the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, Canned Heat, the Lovin’ Spoonful, Dylan and The Band in the basement, or the Grateful Dead, for that matter, are as much historical artifacts as the recordings of Gid Tanner & the Skillet Lickers and the Mississippi Sheiks and Lead Belly and Uncle Dave Macon were for those old-time/good-time revivalists of an earlier generation.
The time gap from 1965 to 2004 is the same as 1925 to 1964. Yet the members of Old Crow show not the slightest sense of having gotten into “the Dionysian end” of acoustic music “late,” of being limited to recapitulating rides already taken (expressed by Bobby Bare Jr. in his complaint to Hendrix and Pete Townshend about late admission to rocking and rolling in his song “Dig Down”).
As the Old Crow boys put it, and as their music shows in its knowingness and abandon as they “dig down,” they simply take the earlier turns as one more bit of useful information on how they might take their own — even to the point of working up their own new twangy Vietnam War ballad (“Big Time In The Jungle”) — and just move on, with a notable sense of mission and commitment to making new contributions.
When No Depression first reported on this band in the summer of 2001, they were based in mountainous Boone, North Carolina, a historically hospitable home for old-timey string-band music. They were known best for their adventures busking the streets of small-town America and Canada, living gig to gig, hand to mouth, playing an often raucous combination of old-time country, blues and jug-band jive.
Since then, much has occurred.
Heading into 2004, the Old Crow Medicine Show has relocated to Nashville, Tennessee, no less. You could say that they’re still playing on the street, as they recently had one more gig on the streets of New York City — but this time they were singing and picking the mountain reel “Hard To Love” in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, riding the new float from the Peeps marshmallow company.
After playing and traveling together going on six years, core members of the Old Crows recall junior high school in 1992 and are still in their early 20s. But they’re also increasingly experienced. They’ve been signed by Nettwerk America, the label of the Be Good Tanyas, Oh Susanna and Neil Finn, and will see their first official studio-made CD, self-titled, released on January 27, following three purely DIY discs of old songs, updates, and a few self-penned tunes in the same acoustic mode.
The five musicians, raised from different corners of the United States, came together in Ithaca, New York, in 1996 and hit the road. They were spotted playing on the street by the Doc Watson family, then featured at Merlefest, where they were seen by Sally Williams of the Grand Ole Opry and booked for an Opryland Plaza outdoor show, followed by their notable debut on the Opry itself.
Next, Marty Stuart caught them at the Nashville-area Uncle Dave Macon Days festival. He added Old Crow to his Electric Barnyard old-fashioned country variety package show bus tour along with Merle Haggard, Connie Smith and BR5-49. They’ve been called on to open for everyone from Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton to Ricky Skaggs and Del McCoury to Junior Brown and Robert Earl Keen. People seem to take to them, and not just that varied array of country heavyweights.
When the band, which honed their live skills in hundreds of spontaneous street-corner hoedowns and instantly booked saloon and coffeehouse gigs, walked out on the stage of the old Ryman Auditorium for their first Opry appearance in 2001, they were, as Secor recalls, feeling the presence of Hank Williams and the late 1940s everywhere, even “throwing up in the trash cans backstage.” And like Hank, when they performed their first number, they received a rare first-time-out standing ovation, and a call for an encore.
The band’s strong point continues to be crowd-pleasing live shows, which have evolved from the very loose “numbers and jokes” sort of model suggested by the “Medicine Show” in their name to more effectively raucous affairs, thanks to the more disciplined attack and musical skills picked up along the way by members who were initially largely self-taught.
The style of their current show is captured on their web-sold Old Crow Medicine Show Live disc recorded at Nashville’s bluegrass home the Station Inn last April. Most of the album is in the band’s high-energy, fiddle-driven, breakneck-speed twang mode; Ricky Skaggs described it as “Dock Boggs on steroids.” But in a sign of the band’s increased broadening of their modern retro sounds of choice, the handful of originals on the live disc, including Ketch Secor’s “Can’t Get Right Blues” and guitarist-singer Wille Watson’s “Trouble That I’m In”, are in a party time jug-band blues mode.
Creating a wild party mood may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the guitarist who signed on as producer of the first Old Crow studio album — David Rawlings, the skilled, singularly inventive instrumentalist partner to the determinedly sober-sided, time-bending artist Gillian Welch. But Rawlings and the Old Crow boys found a lot of common ground.
“Dave and the members of our band seem to like the same kind of music, have the same heroes in the tapestry of the musical landscape, even enjoy the same stories about them,” Secor says. “Both he and our band recognize where we fit into roots music, how we can add our little link in the chain that goes so far back. We all feel that our task is reassembly and reanimation, not duplication — to breathe life into this again, to make the ghosts walk around a little faster and larger.”
They took on that heady task in places where musical ghosts loom large. In between his own busy recording and touring schedule, Rawlings brought the band into two fabled Music City studios, with a gap of quite a few months in between: first RCA’s Studio B, home to Elvis, Waylon and Dolly, then to East Nashville’s Woodland Sound Studio, site of the original Nitty Gritty Dirt band Circle sessions, saved from oblivion and currently owned by Rawlings and Welch.
This was a potentially challenging new situation for a band unused to such a recording routine — or even working under supervision. The surprise, as it turned out, was the loose atmosphere Rawlings worked to sustain.
As Watson recalls, “David would say, ‘Don’t practice that; don’t work it out! We’ll just do a take. I don’t even want to hear it before you record it.’ I’d always assumed that it would be different, but he wanted us not to think about it, or work so hard; just to relax.”
Nevertheless, the band (which once featured, by default, four self-made banjo players) approached the record differently, playing with more specialized, assigned roles now. Critter Fuqua takes the banjo and resonator guitar parts, Secor the lead fiddle and harmonica, Watson the guitar, Morgan Jahnig the upright bass, and Kevin Hayes the “guitjo” (a six-string banjo not heard much since its use as a vaudeville-era rhythm instrument). Secor and Watson divide most of the lead singing, which veers now from shouts to whispers, and even harmony vocals in a 1930s-era brother-act “ragged but right” mode.
Original songwriting comes more to the fore on the new disc. Selections by Secor, Watson and Fuqua show a strong level of comfort with the country and blues forms they inhabit. And in turning to the old song bags for new material, being another generation removed from the 1920s and ’30s sources seems to allow Old Crow to sidestep some of the self-consciousness with which that look back was done in the 1960s folk revival.
Surely enough, these boys didn’t take to busking on the road as a way to “walk where Woody walked,” nor did they pretend to be field hands. There’s no trace of romantic intentions in the stories of their own early days — only of trying to find a way to keep playing, to pay for food and strings, and to slowly build what Secor calls “a camaraderie between us that is close to unbreakable.”
Old Crow also is distanced from what in the ’60s was still daring, idealistic and even political in mixing up white and black roots music as so-called “folk” — which leaves their music charmingly unconflicted about these matters. There are no blatant worries or conflicts about whether or how young middle-class white boys “should” sing Memphis Jug Band and Charlie Poole material.
On the other hand, the new album’s largely Lead Belly-derived version of the chestnut “C.C. Rider” — which has, of course, been recorded in hundreds of different styles and versions over the decades — brings back suppressed sounds of minstrelsy, with early 20th-century southern black inflections and minstrel show harmonies, that probably would have been avoided in recent decades (and may not be universally greeted as an exciting step forward by all even now). A nod toward an alternative Old Crow future is detectable in the final track, Secor’s “Wagon Wheel”, a perfectly catchy and perfectly contemporary country-rock ballad in the mode of Lowell George’s “Willin'”.
It may be inevitable that these boys get asked the 1965 question all over again, too, and pressed to consider going electric as the next big thing. More than one of them has been in full-tilt punk bands before, and rural electrification is not unknown to them. But they don’t see any pressure to go that route now.
“It’s true that some would like to see that,” Secor acknowledges, “but I don’t think it’s going to happen. The infrastructure is not built for that now, for what we do, electric or not. It’s built for music that’s the ‘soundtrack to your life’ product. And ours is built to melt through the shrink wrap!”