BY DAVE ALLEN The fellas in Old Crow Medicine Show might look like shaggy hipsters, but they’re steeped in Appalachian string-band tradition and exude down-home soul. The band’s latest, Tennessee Pusher, strays only slightly from their roots as the boys holler and yearn about the seedier side of Appalachia.
The sound of the band’s all-strings lineup – fiddle, double bass, slide guitar, and a banjo/guitar hybrid called a guitjo – is thinned out slightly on Pusher. Where it previously packed a fervid intensity, with plenty of hard-pickin’ and double bass-thumping so heavy you’d swear they had a drummer, there’s now more space for the three-part harmonies to bloom. The tempos are dialed back as well: more slow-burners than barn-burners, with Ketch Secor’s fiddle singing out over the muscular but understated strumming of guitjo player Kevin Hayes and guitarist Willie Watson. The keening harmonies by Secor, Hayes, Watson and Critter Fuqua are at their best on “Next Go Round” and “Methamphetamine,” a track where the band breaks out of the strings-only mold with touches of organ and some light drumset playing. Instead of being a needle-across-the-record moment, it’s pleasant and natural.
That track, along with “Alabama High Test” and “Humdinger,” shows best what OCMS bring to modern bluegrass: a dose of sex, drugs and rock and roll, and songs that aren’t set in some big rock candy mountain utopia. “Methamphetamine,” in particular, addresses the scourge of present-day rural life: “Well it’s a war out there and it’s fought by poor white men / From the Plateau to the falls of the Cumberland.” With a catalog of creative debauchery in “Humdinger” (“naked horseshoes”? I’m in), the band has a laugh at moralists — “Unless you’re a right-winger / We’ll all have a humdinger” — and the album’s hardest-driving track, “Mary’s Kitchen,” has the added bonus of being laced with double-entendre: “Come on in to Mary’s Kitchen / If you want your sausage ground.”
Though most tracks remain gripping even at moderate tempos, there’s one low point: the saccharine “Hotel in Memphis” proves that the best musical memorials of MLK still belong to a certain Irish rock band. Still, OCMS brings the same impressive chops to both the raunchy tunes and glowing, old-timey numbers like “Evening Sun,” and that mix of crafty and cocksure should appeal to listeners of all kinds, even ones who have never set foot in Dixie.
OLD CROW MEDICINE SHOW: Wagon Wheel
PREVIOUSLY: Old Crow Medicine Show is a quintet of handsome cowboy-hatted tall drink-a-waters from Nashville, Tenn., who look like they stepped off the screen of MTV’s Jackass and onto the streets of El Paso, Texas. Old Crow Medicine Show plays a Whitman’s sampler of prewar string-band Americana with a conviction and authenticity far beyond their tender years. They shuffle onstage in sunglasses and glazed smiles, smelling like the centerfold of High Times, clutching banjos, fiddles and an upright bass. After a couple foggy-mountain breakdowns and a country weeper cover of Neil Young’s “Four Strong Winds,” they tear into “John Henry Was a Steel-Drivin’ Man” and make it sound like the night they drove ol’ Dixie down. MORE