Following Old Crow Medicine Show over the years has been a journey. If you were anything like me, when you first heard their 2004 album O.C.M.S it sounded like music you’d been waiting your whole life for: old-time string music that was raw, punk, and real. It was such a viscerally-enthralling experience that touched on all your nerves, from the rawness of songs like “Tell It To Me” and “Tear It Down”, to the heart and depth of “Wagon Wheel”.
Then somewhere along the line sentiments began to sour a bit. All of a sudden you began to realize the OCMS singers were effecting their voice to sound overly-old and Southern. Authenticity is a common, worn-out subject in music, but in some ways where Old Crow started on the right side of it, they began to creep to the wrong one. Levon Helm was able to sing a song set in the Civil War without faking Southern inflections, why couldn’t Old Crow?
Then come to find out Bob Dylan had a heavy hand in “Wagon Wheel” and you began to hear it being played by a lot of string and bluegrass bands, and then even more of them, and then seemingly every single one until when you were at a live show and that opening riff rang out you immediately leaned over to your music buddy and made the international sign for inducing vomiting.
And then if you looked around, you could find some bands that were doing things similar to OCMS, only better. Bands like .357 String Band and Larry & His Flask were better musicians and songwriters, and brought even more energy.
About the time OCMS’s whole old-time string band bit felt like it had run it’s course, they hired producer Don Was to help them with their last album Tennessee Pusher, hoping to embody a more progressive sound and approach; to mature if you will. As cool of a name as Don Was is, the question was, why do you need Don Was to produce what is supposed to be a bunch of guys on the street corner singing for nickels? And then a few lineup changes and a 2011 hiatus made you wonder just how much their heart was still into this music.
That leads us to their latest album Carry Me Back. This is the boys returning to their roots of being a roots band, though there is still a little progressive Americana here, just like Tennessee Pusher wasn’t completely void of the string band setup. Having admittedly mixed emotions about OCMS going in, I found myself wanting to validate my negative sentiments about the band at first listen. Yep, here comes the first song and their still effecting their voice like Southerners from the late 1800’s, and they still have songs that veer towards the political.
But if Old Crow was attempting to rekindle the magic they captured on their older albums, they did a pretty good job here. It will never be as fresh as it was back then, but it can be just as fun. “Bootlegger’s Boy” is classic OCMS with a great story progression and enthralling music. “Steppin’ Out” with its ragtime approach has an excellent little turn of phrase and might be the best written song on the album. On “Mississippi Saturday Night”, Ketch Secor gets blowing on that harmonica like he will and the chills start rolling up your spine from the speed and recklessness.
Some of the songs you may not want to like at first, you begin to warm up to with consecutive listens, like the heavily Southern-inflected and slightly-political first three songs “Carry me Back to Virgina”, “We Don’t Grow Tobacco”, and “Levi”. “Ain’t It Enough” is the deep, heartfelt song of the collection, whose charm may have mixed results on the audience. The only two songs that seemed like hard sells were “Genevieve”, whose strait-laced vocal performance and approach seemed so out-of-place on this album (though the song itself is fine), and the overly-cornpone “Country Gal”.
Yes, the issues that concern some about Old Crow Medicine Show are still here, and yes, there is still similar versions of this music only better. But that doesn’t mean Old Crow and Carry Me Back aren’t good. Sometimes it takes a more accessible version of your favorite music to engage the masses, and if you’re a true fan of music, you will see this as a societal upgrade. Sure, it may annoy you when some frat boy in a backwards baseball cap yells “Wagon Wheel!” at a cover band, but that’s so much better than a request for the latest Brantley Gilbert song? Little victories people.
Carry Me Back is solid, is a return to what made Old Crow Medicine Show great, has some great songs, a few warts maybe, but is worth your time to explore further.
1 1/2 of 2 guns up.
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