It’s not exactly fair to call Old Crow Medicine Show office ‘underdog favorites,’ anymore. While its doubtful they’ll register on the 18-25 demographic’s radar, as the newest members of the Grand Ole Opry and after going platinum on co-credits with the Howard Hughes of pop music, Mr. Bob Dylan, OCMS no longer really qualifies for the ‘underdog’ status.
With their latest release Remedy its not hard to understand why. For 15 years now, string band revivalist OCMS has been creating soulful, depression era-tinged, southern inspired sing-alongs. Touring internationally and given high profile stage time, OCMS paid their dues the old fashioned way, by playing their music live every chance they could get. This is a group discovered on the street, (No, literally on the street, King St. in Boone Nc to be exact.) who without benefit of major labels, radio/video rotation, television appearances, or unwarranted indie buzz OCMS created a veritable musical empire. As far as cultural phenomenae goes, in lock step with the music they play this type of success belongs to another age.
So after going the hard way about success do the boys of Old Crow rest on their laurels and play the safe card by relying on a formula that’s worked so well? Not a chance. You see, OCMS has gone country with the latest addition to their discography.
What an odd choice. Still their position as an outsider success means OCMS isn’t beholden to the Nashville Country/Western Industrial complex. Its high time country music took a good look at itself. If any group can shake up the predictably stale atmosphere of country music Old Crow Medicine Show is it.
Remedy doesn’t contain that tired cliché of self-affirmation by calling itself country. But from the opening track one senses all the elements of a long haul 18 wheeler masterpiece. OCMS wastes no time by jumping directly into a prison ballad, “Brushy Mountain Conjugal Trailer.” Complete with lap guitar, banjo and harmonica the narrative is lighthearted in face of the protagonist’s execution focusing on that last ride in the klink’s rhombus room rather than a pardon from the governor. There’s a sinister humor to it, and with the second track’s biting fiddle intro momentum is brought to a full steam head.
Of course what good is a country album with a road ballad? Enter “Sweet Amarillo” and OCMS’s second collaboration with Bobby D. You’re doubtlessly familiar with “Wagon Wheel” by now. The half pirated lyrics by a 17 year old Ketch Secor was a university favorite, a panty dropper used to great effect by dorm room Lotharios that seeped over time into mainstream consciousness. And it’s a great song, massively over-played but a great song. (*More about that later.) When Darius Rucker broke into the country genre it was “Wagon Wheel” that secured his acceptance by the monotone middle class, suburban fanbase. Can lighting strike twice for “Sweet Amarillo”? Like the Postal Service before them, the wearied traveling song was created without any face to face interaction between Dylan and OCMS. It’s a fine track where the country western ambition surfaces. If OCMS were to be featured on a Nashville Big Radio Country station this track would surely be chosen to represent the new direction.
And on and on, Remedy is a distanced departure from past OCMS works. The BPM’s are kicked up a bit, and there’s a humorous take on the country platform. OCMS is at liberty to speak their minds, so it’s no surprise past themes like drug abuse, loose women, prison and poverty are featured on the new album. At liberty, one song from Remedy stands out in glaring contrast to the Nashville canon of acceptable material. “Dearly Departed Friend” addresses the effects of coming home after the war. To be certain it is not a song about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but on listening one can’t help but sense a desperation. This will do Old Crow no favors with the Nashville elite.
What a juicy topic too! Isn’t it funny how much culture was inspired by WW dos and Vietnam, yet to look at the two longest wars in American history we find our entertainers are conspicuously silent. Doesn’t anybody care about the truth anymore? Hayes Carll said that’s what songs are for, to put the narrow scope of public vision onto aspects of society effecting everyone. About the only country dissidence that springs to mind is when the Dixie Chicks spoke out about the wars at a concert in Texas. A shitstorm of vitriolic hate followed. If you’re gonna play in dixie, there better be a fiddle in the band and if you’re gonna play county Old Crow better stick to the quiet lip service of ‘Support the Troops.’ But God hates a coward, and luckily OCMS employ a full time carpenter to specially tailor all their chairs to accommodate their massive balls of steel.
The name of this recent album wasn’t a coincidence. Remedy hopes to fix a broken system and from first to last one catches a glimpse of country’s past glory as well as a path into the future to save a predictable genre from the suffocating weight of homogenization. Premanufactured country rebels, teenpop southern accented princesses, and industry standard cowboy boot wearing personalities take note: your days are fucking numbered.
* In an interview with Ketch Secor, fiddler, singer and primary song-writer for Old Crow Medicine Show last week I asked him that very question.
Raymond Lee: Are you as damned sick of “Wagon Wheel” by now as I am?
Ketch Secor: [Laughter] Yeah, but it’s like being sick of a hand full of aces.
I imagine he’s laughing all the way to the bank on this one.