Much of the Americana scene should be criticized for its over-seriousness, its implicit insistence that the only strand of American song worth perpetuating is that of the deathly grim ballad. How easily these mortality-obsessed musicians forget about other types of songs, equally abundant and equally essential to the core of the American musical experience. And how foolish to ignore the reality that faced working musicians 75 or 80 years ago. Even Robert Johnson, Ol’ Last-Fair-Deal-Gone-Down-at-the-Crossroads himself, couldn’t just play them old devil blues if he expected to have an audience. He had to know the popular songs of the day, too. His music had to explore a range of emotions, a range that seems to have eroded in the mindset of many of today’s tradition-based, death-fixated performers.
Do not count Old Crow Medicine Show among the bloodthirsty. In fact, their only concession to that much darker side of traditional song isn’t much of a concession at all, as “My Good Gal” seems for all the world like a sad lost-love ballad until the final twist. While Big Iron World, their second record, is full of exceptionally strong instrumental work, the communication between the strings on this track is really something to behold. It’s also something of an aberration, in that virtually everyone lays down his usual instrument and picks up a guitar, including producer and occasional songwriting collaborator David Rawlings. Critter Fuqua’s slide guitar is especially sweet, and singer Ketch Secor turns in a devastating performance, adding occasional flurries of notes on the harmonica. As the first of many fine originals after the opening trio of covers—and as a chance to quiet things down after a couple of raucous numbers—“My Good Gal” occupies a prime spot on the album, and hits every musical, lyrical and emotional high it needs to. It may very well break your heart, but not because it dwells too long on the death of someone else’s.
While “My Good Gal” is a tour-de-force of interplay, much of Big Iron World forgoes that kind of subtlety and restraint, alternating between slow grooves and a more bracing attack. The latter is all the more impressive considering the lack of a regular drummer, although Gillian Welch picks up the sticks for some of the midtempo numbers. The sequencing gives the album a very natural pulse, and Old Crow Medicine Show are a band of expert players who are always musically together. And yet the songs don’t sound over-rehearsed at all. Instead, they manage to project an off-the-cuff ambience, strengthened no doubt by the vocalists’ natural ease with the material. There’s not a hint of artifice, no sense that what you’re hearing is the posturing of a bunch of city boys.
The leadoff track—and first single—is a cover of “Down Home Girl”, previously recorded by the likes of Alvin Robinson and the Rolling Stones. It’s an inspired pick, a very old-sounding
number that prowls along in an “Ode to Billie Joe”-style swamp rhythm and milks the conflict—while drawing all the appropriate parallels—between sex and religion: “Every time you move like that, girl / I got to get down and pray.” Hmm, what could that mean? That sly wink-and-grin later turns into all-out raunch on “New Virginia Creeper”, a gleeful train-as-phallus metaphor that chugs along with lines like “If you’d like to ride / I’d like to ride you some more”, and “Slide me up your ticket, baby / Climb up on my engine.” It’s “Born to Run” for the hillbilly set!
“Cocaine Habit” (aka “Take a Whiff on Me”) gives a shout out to Karl Rove and Elijah Wood, and while in one sense this dates the performance, it’s also proof of the wisdom in Old Crow Medicine Show’s covers-heavy approach. Where many other groups would feel the need to approach this material with an eye on preserving it, Old Crow Medicine Show intend to make it live and breathe. They don’t leave Traditional/Arranged’s great hit trapped in the distant past. It also shows how they aren’t out to trick anyone into thinking they were transported here from some rickety Appalachian porch. Two birds, one stone, a dash of irreverent humor, and a foot-stomper to boot.
Old Crow Medicine Show have one of the most perfect band names in ages. It conjures up the ghosts of the era from which the band draws inspiration, and strongly hints at a good-time vibe. What’s even better is that Old Crow Medicine Show totally live up to the promise of their moniker: Big Iron World is a rollicking treat for the latent moonshiner in us all, and proves once again that this is a band to watch.