Old Crow Medicine Show is the rare band that has found a way to be all things to all people without ever sacrificing their integrity at the oft-visited altar of universal appeal. Roots-music purists cannot deny the authenticity with which the group revives bluegrass, country, and folk standards while penning originals that reflect the most classic sounds of those styles without seeming imitative. For those who would cringe at being subjected to an enthusiastic witness for the gospel of old-time Americana, however, Old Crow Medicine Show offers hallelujah-inducing hooks (delivered with a hellraiser’s spirit) that pack a considerable punch and pull listeners into each song, creating attachments that go beyond style or preference.
The true genius of Old Crow Medicine Show is in their ability to be subversive yet sensitive. Many of the band’s tunes are put forth with either a devil-may-care attitude, or are given their weight by a cynical, sometimes unlikable narrator. The minute their spirit seems unembracable, though, the group tweaks a chord progression, bends a melody, or twists a phrase to reveal a staggering understanding of love and loss. Collectively, they come across as the roots-music equivalent of the cinematic leading man, the cause of whose brooding exterior is revealed to be a great well of heartbreak.
On their latest, the band continues to exhibit these characteristics, meaning there is nothing terribly revolutionary about Tennessee Pusher, yet that’s not a bad thing. The closer the band stays to their core, the more confident they sound. And, somehow, by staying familiar, Old Crow Medicine Show expresses a liberty that makes them refreshingly relevant. For example, Old Crow Medicine Show stick close to the thematic ground trod by their predecessors, working in many of the same types of songs found on 2006’s excellent Big Iron World. “Methamphetamine” is an autumnal, far less gleeful companion to that album’s “Cocaine Habit”; “Mary’s Kitchen” matches the audacious, would-be-unbearable-if-it-wasn’t-delivered-with-a-wink innuendo of “New Virginia Creeper”.
And, there is no shortage of love-gone-wrong tunes, the best of which this time around is “The Greatest Hustler of All”. A seven-minute travel through heartbreak and humiliation, the ballad deftly likens a particularly wily woman with the most devious of criminals as the narrator sings: “The greatest hustler of all stands about four foot nine / Made to be a moocher / Low down hoochie coocher… / Hustles with the greatest of ease / Fools any boy any time / The greatest hustler in all of this world hustled this heart of mine…”
And, as on previous efforts, nearly every tune here is a winner. The best of the album’s 13 cuts includes “Highway Halo”, a harmonica and organ-driven mid-tempo number with a gliding melody and easy groove. The album features far more rock-style organ than on Big Iron World, a welcome addition that is perhaps reflective of the touch of legendary producer Don Was. No matter whose idea it was to add those flourishes, they only serve to further flesh out the band’s already layered sound.
Another stand-out, “Methamphetamine” tracks the drug’s heartland grip and its ultimately destructive effects with striking realism: “Mama she ain’t hungry no more / She’s waiting for a knock on the trailer door / It’s gonna rock you like a hurricane / It’s gonna rock you till you lose sleep / It’s gonna rock you till you’re out of a job / It’s gonna rock you till you’re out on the street”. Also falling under the category of socially relevant tunes is “Motel in Memphis”, a solemn reflection on the death of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Lest Tennessee Pusher seem all drama and difficult subject matter, the band revisits its freewheeling side on tunes like “Mary’s Kitchen” and the album closer (and first single), the harmonica-led, Dust Bowl folk rave-up “Caroline”.
Tennessee Pusher is one of the better releases of 2008 and further cements Old Crow Medicine Show’s place alongside bands like the Avett Brothers among the leaders of the roots-music revival. The band’s mix of creativity and credibility, serious and strange is yet again a delight to experience.
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