20 Years Ago: Old Crow Medicine Show Releases Landmark “O.C.M.S.”

Over the last 20 years, there are a few specific albums you can select out of the crowd and give credit for critically reshaping country music into what it is today, and specifically for re-instituting the roots of the country genre back into the music, ultimately leading to the roots revolution that is sweeping country from the underground to the mainstream today.

One of those albums happened to be released 20 years ago today, February 24th, 2004. It was Old Crow Medicine Show’s self-titled album, often referred to as O.C.M.S. No matter what you think about Old Crow Medicine Show in 2024, their busking style of string music, or the album’s signature track—the omnipresent and often polarizing “Wagon Wheel”—there is no doubt that this album opened up an appetite of appeal into some of the oldest incarnations of country music, especially in younger audiences.

In many respects, O.C.M.S. picked up where the soundtrack for the 2000 movie O Brother Where Art Thou left off. But where the O Brother soundtrack found its appeal mostly through more traditional styles of bluegrass, there was something much more raw, real, almost punk about the Old Crow experience. They even looked like a punk band, and they brought that same frenetic energy to the music. But the key to their infectious sound is that these young guys also sounded very very old.

Part of what led to the uncanny success of O.C.M.S. was the stellar lineup that Old Crow Medicine Show fielded at the time. Of course you had Ketch Secor, who sang the landmark songs on the album “Tell It To Me” and “Wagon Wheel.” But pulling equal duty singing lead was Secor’s middle school buddy from Harrisonburg, Virginia, Chris “Critter” Fuqua. You also had Willie Watson originally from Watkins Glen, New York singing and writing songs. Watson met Ketch Secor while Ketch was attending Ithaca College. Along with Critter, they formed the nucleus of what became Old Crow Medicine Show.

From the beginning, Old Crow was fundamentally a busking band, meaning they were worried more about performance and showmanship to try and earn a ragged dollar from passers by as opposed to perfecting tight arrangements. This is what impressed Doc Watson when he heard the group performing outside of the Boone Drug pharmacy in Boone, North Carolina, earning the music legend’s ringing and weighty endorsement.

They later impressed David Rawlings and Gillian Welch, with Rawlings later agreeing to produce O.C.M.S., and Welch playing some drum tracks to the record. Marty Stuart was also an early believer, and opened a door for them at the Grand Ole Opry and other country music institutions.

It was capturing that busking attitude and spirit in the studio that made the tracks of O.C.M.S. so compelling. Songs like “Tell It To Me” and “Tear It Down” may have been traditionals, but Old Crow re-introduced them to the world and made them feel fresh and relevant. Ma Rainey wrote “CC Rider” in the 1920’s, but Willie Watson and O.C.M.S. is where many first heard the song. The affected voices of Secor and Watson trying to sound old is fair to scrutinize, but the results were hard to argue with.

Many of the original songs on the album would help establish Old Crow Medicine Show as a band willing to champion certain causes through their music. The Vietnam War was long over by 2004, but “Big Time In the Jungle” showed how Critter Fuqua could use anachronism to fit the band’s original songs right beside traditional material to make the experience feel seamless. The same goes for the muted songs “Take ‘Em Away” and “We’re All in This Together,” which ultimately became two of the most popular songs from the album.

And no matter how anyone may feel about “Wagon Wheel”—which became so reviled by some venue owners, they hung sings forbidding bands to play it—it got there due to the overwhelming pull the melody and story has upon listeners. “Wagon Wheel” is now unarguably a standard of the great American songbook. Inspired by a scribble of a song lifted from a Bob Dylan bootleg by Ketch Secor, eventually Dylan would get proper credit, and it would give Dylan and Secor a credit on one of the most recognize and beloved (and reviled) songs of the last two decades.

Similar to “Wagon Wheel,” the idea of the busking roots band would also become ubiquitous to the point of annoyance a few years after the O.C.M.S. release. Nearly every college town had coffee shops and clubs plastered with gig posters of post grads in fedora hats and suspenders playing acoustic instruments. Eventually this led to the rise of Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers who would top the Billboard charts with acoustic roots music.

The popularity of old-time music sparked by O.C.M.S. became so hot in fact, by 2010 it was experiencing major oversaturation and burn out, and was being made fun of throughout popular culture. Some bands continued to emerge like The Dead South from Canada, but they were the exceptions. Meanwhile, Old Crow Medicine Show persevered and survived in part by adding a bit more electric and alt-country influences to subsequent albums. They would become Grand Ole Opry members in 2013, and these days, Old Crow Medicine Show is considered a country music institution.

Now that the most popular stripped-down roots music is so earnest, stern, and sincere, a busking style Vaudevillian-inspired string band may seem a bit hokey. Ketch Secor is now Old Crow’s last original member. But make no mistake about it, here 20 years later, O.C.M.S. holds up and then some, and can be put on cover to cover and enjoyed immensely.

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O.C.M.S. also featured Morgan Jahnig on upright bass, and Kevin Hayes on banjo.

Purchase O.C.M.S.

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