Old Crow Medicine Show: For The People

 
I got turned on as a kid by music, and it rattled all through me and it changed me. I think that even though it was a different time - and the times have changed so rapidly since the time that I was seeing Dylan and the Dead and Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen - in this time we can still create that sort of environment, where you can come to a show and leave a whole lot lighter.

-Ketch Secor

 
Photo by: Danny Clinch

Rock and Roll Fantasy, Folk Music Mission

Old Crow Medicine Show by A. Farrington
The Grateful Dead came up more than a few times in our conversation, with Secor calling them "a huge influence on the Old Crow Medicine Show." Although its maybe not the first association to pop up in a lot of folk's minds, latest album Tennessee Pusher (released September 22 on Nettwerk Records) certainly taps that influence more overtly than O.C.M.S. (2004) or Big Iron World (2006) did, although that spirit has always hovered in the songwriting and in how the band looks to the past. Produced by Don Was, who has worked with Dylan, The Rolling Stones and Willie Nelson among countless others, all cuts on Tennessee Pusher are original songs save one, and the addition of (gasp) drums and organ definitely adds some rock strut.

Although they came to the Henson Recording Studios in Hollywood with songs penned, ready to record, Secor explains that the sound of the album "has a lot to do with Don Was, you know, whereas those records we made with Dave Rawlings were more stripped down, more bare like a Gillian Welch record. That's an important step we were able to take and I'm really grateful to Dave for that. But in working with Don I think we were able to go a bit more rock & roll and live out more of our Grateful Dead kind of vibe fantasies."

But this isn't some abandonment of the "old sounds," as Secor is quick to point out. "If you come to our shows, you see that we haven't left anything behind. Rather, we've just absorbed more," Secor says. "We're a lot more schooled than when we were just getting started. We are still playing so much traditional music. We don't have drums or organs on the stage like we do on the record."

"I think we did lose some of the bluegrass conservatism, just like how hot new country was never that accepting of us," Secor mentions. "I think bluegrass is open to us being part of the crowd. We had the number one bluegrass album for 50 weeks with that last album and this one is holding strong at number one too. But I think, if you like Ralph Stanley, or if you like contemporary bluegrass or you're really into Blue Highway, or you're really into The Reno Brothers, you know, there's a kind of 'conservatude' that follows bluegrass music that we are very much not a part of because we are so much wilder and so much wilier. We look like freaks compared to the bluegrass scene. See, there's country people and there's bluegrass people, and they're not often the same. I mean, I like getting down with the good old boys, and I'm grateful that our audiences have them [and] are inclusive of the country boys. So much of the songs that are on the new record are for them. But because we haven't done it with that bluegrass plaintiveness, we've probably lost some of the people that want to hear a great flat pick solo. We're not going to give that to you."

Old Crow Medicine Show by Aaron Farrington
Regardless, a meaty, ragtag thump resonates throughout the record, but with an inclusive, progressive step, an eye turned as much to Workingman's Dead as to the old time/jug band swagger of their earlier records. Most importantly, Tennessee Pusher hits us where we live and breathe - in the mood swings of this uneasy time. It encapsulates moments of drug-fueled darkness ("Methamphetamine"), sighs of regret ("The Greatest Hustler of All," where Watson's vocal delivery crackles with heartache that recalls Jerry Garcia more than a bit) and resonant uplift that still brushes against the bittersweet ("Caroline," the album's closer, ends with Secor singing, "But I'd say you do just fine/ You do just fine, oh Caroline"). The album pulls vivid characters and snapshots out of the forgotten landscape of trailer parks, off-the-map dirt roads and black market economies. Seductive hustlers, addicts, dealers, even a saucy gal with a BBQ joint (or is it?) populate their grainy reel. Casting this lens is, as Secor envisions it, an ethical imperative of the band:

"You really have to walk in the footsteps of the people who make up folk music in order to sing about them, in order to use their bodies as vessels to bring your message across. Authenticity is something that you get through time, through walking down a rocky road, wearing holes in the soles of your shoes. If you walk enough miles and absorb enough of the world around you, then when you go to speak you've got something to say that's bigger than just your body or your mouth or your lexicon. That's what the music of Old Crow is trying to be, something bigger than just the five of us put together, singing and sawing and banging on the banjo. [We are] trying to disturb the sterility and stir it up."

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