Album Review – Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Volunteer”

photo: Danny Clinch

Old Crow Medicine Show has done something a little bit remarkable here that not many are talking about. Released on a very busy week for new records, Volunteer is a celebration of the string band’s 20th year of bringing the busking spirit to roots music and bluegrass, and quietly defying all odds to become a bona fide legacy band in country music with mainstream reach and a Grand Ole Opry membership. You may not hear them on the radio, but it’s hard to move around Nashville and not hear or see the music or influence of Old Crow Medicine Show. They’re Nashville’s house band, and beloved across town, and across tastes.

Old Crow’s longevity and success as an unplugged string band in the most commercial era of country is remarkable. But the fact they’re still around and doing well is not what’s remarkable about Volunteer. In a time when political strife has never made the business of making music more tense—especially music with a distinctly Southern flavor—Old Crow Medicine Show has steeled themselves and decided to to delve right into what some consider controversial subject matter, and subject matter many are fleeing from in such a touchy environment. Perhaps it’s both to prove a point, and to help preserve elements of Southern and country music culture that often go unfortunately misunderstood and are being torn asunder. But it makes Volunteer a very interesting discussion point beyond the entertainment value of the album, which in itself is quite high.

We’ve known the political alignment of Old Crow Medicine Show for a long time. Whether it was the anti-war tilt of “Big Time in the Jungle” off of their breakout album O.C.M.S., or the stirring “Motel in Memphis” off of 2008’s Tennessee Pusher, or the line “If you’re not a right-winger, then we’ll all have a humdinger” off that same album which raised some eyebrows itself. Old Crow’s last record was a live cover album of Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, and who is more famous for getting political in his music than ol’ Robert Zimmerman?

But Volunteer is not a political album, it’s just an album that is unafraid to broach certain subjects and use vernacular that is quickly becoming taboo in today’s society, often under false pretenses. Just recently Dolly Parton was forced to change the name of a dinner theater presentation from “Dixie Stampede” to just “Stampede” after catching heat from the politically correct crowd. Civil War monuments in the South are being deconstructed on a daily basis, and anything that may be construed as praise for the Confederacy is under assault, fair or otherwise.

And here is Old Crow Medicine Show cutting a song called “Dixie Avenue,” and following it up with “Look Away” and it’s very palpable homage to the de facto Confederate National Anthem. I’m not trying to get Old Crow Medicine Show in trouble here. These odes and words are an indelible part of Southern culture and stir the spirit in not just Southerners, but anyone who hears their ancient melodies and is susceptible to the sense of heartache that pervades the Southern experience. It’s a shame they’ve gone unfairly impugned. Abraham Lincoln was a fan of the old tune “Dixie,” and its importance and historical beauty has been unfortunately misunderstood.

What’s great about Old Crow Medicine Show is that they’re able to broach such subject matter because they’re on record as enlightened and responsible musicians, and won’t be accused of racism. They feel a sense of responsibility as revivalists and preservationists to keep the flame burning of old Southern music modes, and are in a perfect position to do so.

That’s also why The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” the Joan Baez cover of the song, songs by Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash, and others were so important and emotionally stirring, and what is so misunderstood by young media who believe anything Southern or something that includes the word “Dixie” is synonymous or sympathy for slavery. Of course there are still racist elements throughout Southern culture worthy of being stamped out. But it should never be at the expense of all Southern culture, or Southern history, lest it becomes doomed to repeat itself.

And this isn’t where Volunteer ceases to take strong stances. The song “Shout Mountain Music” talks about the “smokies” coming to stamp out the style of music of mountain people, and later upholding the authentic sound when they make it to “Nashville town.” It’s about resisting the gentrifying nature of modern corporate music and Nashville’s industrial complex. “Shout Mountain Music” is basically a country music protest song, and one Old Crow Medicine Show can sing about with authority as a band that has stuck to their guns for so long, and found unexpected success.

You are pleasantly surprised at just how good and entertaining Volunteer is, though probably shouldn’t be. At around the 20 year mark of a band, that’s about the time when the sound begins to get tired. The new car smell has long worn off, and they’re not old enough yet to be mythological. But the key to Old Crow Medicine Show has always been their enthusiasm for the music brought from the hard work mentality of the busking world, trying to impress and endear for your ragged and crumpled dollar.

Beyond the surprising Southern inflections of Volunteer, there are songs like “Homecoming” about the difficulties of being a road musician, the wisdom about the nature of truth in “Old Hickory,” an excellent instrumental row in “Elzick’s Farewell,” and finally your chance to hear the Old Crow sound with steel guitar in the reflective and appropriate ending spot for a 20-year journey that hopes for 20 more, “Whirlwind.”

With so much attention being paid to the latest up-and-comers from East Nashville, and the legends getting long in the tooth, bands rounding the 20 year pole don’t always get their fair due. Volunteer from Old Crow Medicine Show proves why you should never overlook these middle career artists or their albums, because Old Crow just released one of the most entertaining and culturally important records in 2018.

1 3/4 Guns Up (8/10)

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Purchase Old Crow Medicine Show’s Volunteer