Definitive statement from the whip-smart, uncompromising string band…Since 1998, when old-time music buffs Ketch Secor, Critter Fuqua and Willie Watson first joined forces as travelling buskers, the Old Crow Medicine Show have survived and prospered through a combination of serendipity and resoucefulness. After relocating from upstate New York to the Appalachian village of Boone, N.C., Old Crow caught the ear of Doc Watson while playing in front of a local drugstore, which landed them their first big break – a slot on Doc’s MerleFest in 2000. Soon thereafter, they moved to Nashville, where they were taken under the wing of Marty Stuart, who booked them on the Grand Ole Opry.
What’s great about the new album from Old Crow Medicine Show? Well, everything, really. As they have since they released their debut way back in 2004, their mastery of the idiom is on full display, their songwriting is equal to the great names in American music (think Cash and Nelson), their musicianship is without peer and their energy remains as tight as a drum and as brash as a punk rocker. Witness the title track, “Carry Me Back (To Virginia)”: two-minutes and 40 seconds of two-steppin’ hoedown music, the kind of character song that inspires, at minimum volume, a bit of knee slapping and, at maximum, a full-on reenactment of the Civil War (or maybe Gone With The Wind).
On Carry Me Back, Old Crow Medicine Show rediscovers the mojo they lost on 2008’s dour, self-serious Tennessee Pusher. It’s not that OCMS can’t pull off something weighty (the deeply humanist “I Hear Them All” from 2006’s Big Iron World remains one of their very best singles), but they’re at their best when they chase their bigger ideas with a shot of piss and vinegar. That Carry Me Back includes some of the band’s most riotous performances and their most fully developed, empathetic narratives makes the album both a substantial rebound for the band and an obvious standout in what has been a dire stretch for Americana music.
Old Crow Medicine Show sound like a prewar string band filtered through Uncle Tupelo via Nirvana, and if they aren't bluegrass by any stretch of the imagination, they are every bit as energetic as a breakneck bluegrass combo. They also write most of their material, so while the group's songs sound old and traditional, they are more facsimiles than anything else, with an attention to narrative and lyrical detail that the old string band tunes, which were often made up of lightly linked floating verses drawn from old country blues and fiddle reels, seldom had. It isn't easy straddling two different centuries with one's sound and style, but Old Crow Medicine Show pull it off once again on their fourth studio album, the Ted Hutt-produced Carry Me Back, a ragged, breakneck romp that crackles with more energy than a thrash band on Red Bull.
I imagine there are a lot of folks these days who claim to have witnessed the boys of Old Crow Medicine Show busking on the picturesque sidewalks of Boone, North Carolina, a little over a decade ago. Their ferocious bluegrass pickings and high-lonesome, and praising harmonies undoubtedly turned many heads and ears in the college town, but honestly, in a region so steeped in the rustic bluegrass traditions, there were surely just as many people who paid little mind to the sounds serenading their leisurely strolls down King Street. They say it just takes one to notice though, and one person who did fortuitously notice, was the recently departed Doc Watson, who happened upon Old Crow Medicine’s street performance one day and was so impressed that he signed them up to participate in his annual Merlefest shindig, held in nearby Wilkesboro.
The Nashville group almost imploded making this fourth album, but the bust-ups left no scars on their music. Instead comes a polished set of original songs that stretch their old-timey, southern identity into new shapes. The exuberant bluegrass of Carry Me Back to Virginia carries lyrics that revisit the horrors of the US civil war, while Levi mourns a soldier killed in Iraq, "a country boy who didn't belong in the desert".
Listening to Old Crow Medicine Show (OCMS) is a time-traveling experience. Unlike similar modern day (pseudo) bluegrass bands, like Mumford and Sons and the Avett Brothers, OCMS has an old-time quality in their songs and delivery that easily fools the listener into thinking they’re spinning a group from the ’40s or ’50s. If it weren’t for the production quality of their albums, you could go on believing it.
Old-time stylists make a fiery bid for the spotlight. Ninian Dunnett 2012 Mumford & Sons may be the poster boys for the roots revival of the 2010s, but the Old Crow Medicine Show were a step ahead. The group’s fiery string-band revivalism was a key inspiration to the English folkies (who invited them aboard 2011’s trans-American Railroad Revival Tour), and they were mining the riches of old-time music long before the Londoners unleashed their tweed-cap chic.