The last year has been a turbulent one for perennial everyman group Old Crow Medicine Show. Their career, especially with the most recent release, Carry Me Back has seen more success than the members could ever have dreamed of, but this has come at cost.
Exactly a year ago this month it seemed as if there would be no more OCMS with the quiet announcement on their website that the group was on hiatus. Shows were canceled, and up into 2012 there was little word from the band on whether there would continue to be a band. But then a strange thing happened. Critter Fuqua, an original founding member rejoined the group from the certain obscurity of solo projects. Fair enough, but as touring resumed another longtime member was conspicuously absent. An additional quiet post notified fans via their website OCMS would be parting ways with Willy Watson. Bands break up and lose members all the time. This is nothing new, but to consider Mr. Watson was not only the lead singer but also wrote a near majority of the groups material. It leaves one to wonder what the hell exactly happened–a listen to the new album only furthers this confusion.
Politics are politics, whether they be on a national agenda between two diametrically opposed political candidates in an election year or within the confines of a band discovered by chance busking outside a drugstore, who only became minorly famous through half-pirated Dylan lyrics. In either instance, it will be years before the dust settles and the truth surfaces on the reality of the situation. What is apparent at the moment, is the stink created within the fan base by the separation with Willy Watson. To OCMS devotees, this is the equivalent of the Beatles quietly parting ways with John Lennon. Sure McCartney, see Ketch Secor, can and does write good songs, but there is an undeniable aspect of imagination and soul that lies securely outside his abilities. A listen to Carry Me Back reveals this.
Taken as a whole, the album is a fine piece of work. It really is. There is nothing about the project done in poor taste or without thought, but then again, there’s nothing about the record to pull you into the joy and pathos of past OCMS albums. Take for instance the track “Levi.” It’s narrative piece that follows the life and death of the protagonist from boyhood to an early death bleeding out in the sand of Iraq. Its a decent song by its own merits, but then take it and compare it to similar themes found in “Methamphetamine,” off of Tennessee Pusher. The former is a straight forward critique of the war, and it shouldn’t go without mention that that protagonist wasn’t some flight of fancy, rather is based on a real soldier who was really shot to death during Operation Iraqi Freedom. See the chorus:
“Levi, Lord they shot him down/
10,000 miles from a southern town.”
This is fine and well, if not adroitly direct. Now compare it to a line from “Methamphetamine,” a subversive explanation concerning the draw of such stimulants to the nations impoverished.
“Cos when it’s either a mine or the Kentucky National Guard
I’d rather sell him a line than be dying in the coal yards.”
The song containing the second line is comparable to Nabokov’s Lolita. It neither asks you to condone or understand a sinister act, but it does go a great length to paint the extenuating factors most will never glimpse. The first instance off the latest album doesn’t require much thought and though it tugs at the heart strings because of real world implications, it merely has a decent message–“war is a horrible thing”–combined with the potential for mass appeal.
Perhaps mass appeal is the design behind Carry Me Back. The album is certainly the groups best selling, placing on more than the sorely overlooked Bluegrass charts unlike past albums. It is also interesting to note its release through Dave Mathews‘ own ATO label as opposed to Nettwerk which had carried the group the entirety of its career.
On Carry Me Back, the highs aren’t as ecstatic as we have come to expect from classic OCMS, and neither are the lows so bone crushing. There are a number of sing alongs, a tune or two such as openers “Carry Me Back,” and “We Don’t Grow Tobacco,” that are fine enough by their own merits, but the album as a whole suffers for inspiration, especially the latter half. For long time listeners, Willy Watson’s high lonesome vocals are sorely missed.
With all the recent changes, the bigger label and greater exposure, the quiet shifting of positions within the group screams to imply a power struggle. Its hard to listen to the album and not get some sense of a political atmosphere. There remains a definite sense of the everyman struggle, and a signature prewar sound that has become the band’s hallmark, but much like a campaign spiraling out of control as election day nears Carry Me Back seems like its trying too hard to sell itself to too many people.