Take only one glance at the cover of O.C.M.S., the debut album from Old Crow Medicine Show, and you’d be forgiven for thinking the band was comprised of bit players from Johnny Knoxville’s Jackass troupe—skinny guys with messy hair sporting ratty T-shirts, sunglasses, and Converse sneakers. Take a closer look and you’ll discover these same hip guys toting their instruments: upright bass, fiddle, banjo. Surely, then, these guys play tongue-in-cheek bluegrass covers of rock ‘n’ roll songs, à la Hayseed Dixie. Nope. Old Crow Medicine Show may look irreverent, but they have old souls.
These guys—fiddler Ketch Secor, guitjoist Kevin Hayes, upright bassist Morgan Jahnig, guitarist Willie Watson, and banjoist Critter Fuqua—have definitely got the back porch vibe down cold. Their knowledge was earned the hard way—through incessant van touring and a stint in North Carolina, where they soaked up the culture and wound up playing the roots music mecca MerleFest when Doc Watson’s daughter happened to stumble across them playing in front of a pharmacy. It sounds more like a story fit for the Soggy Bottom Boys than a quintet of 21st century upstarts, but when you’re old school, you earn your stripes the old school way.
But the look and the story (legend?) of O.C.M.S. would all be for naught if their album wasn’t so sharp. The band scored their biggest coup when they joined up with producer David Rawlings, best known for his work with New Folk leading light—and fellow old soul—Gillian Welch. Welch pops up in a few places on O.C.M.S., (wo)manning the drum kit, but her and Rawlings’s mere presence casts a sepia tone over the album—surely a move the Old Crow guys planned.
Rawlings-as-producer keeps things simple—it is a string band album, after all—and his laissez-faire approach allows the listener to appreciate the interplay between fiddle, guitjo, bass, guitar, and banjo on tunes like “Trials and Troubles” and “We’re All in This Together”. On a string band album, capturing the musicians’ sense of community and camaraderie is as important—if not more important—than the songs themselves. On that front, Old Crow succeed admirably—the fun these guys are having playing together is pouring through the speakers and they sound like they know they are plugging directly into the music and mood of their forebears, both literal and figurative. (It’s apropos, maybe, that much of O.C.M.S. was recorded at Woodland Sound Studios, where the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band made Will the Circle Be Unbroken some 30-odd years ago.)
But mood aside, O.C.M.S. bring the tunes, too. Much has been made of the band’s punk leanings, but I don’t hear it. Sure, they’ve got some barn-burning rave-ups in “Tear It Down”, “Hard to Love”, and “Hard to Tell”, but it’s nothing you wouldn’t hear on, say, an album released on Bloodshot Records. If they’re being pushed as a punk old-time string band, someone’s marketing department is going about this band all wrong. If anything, a light should be shone on the band’s “authenticity” (for lack of a better word) in recreating old songs—five of O.C.M.S.‘s 11 tracks are traditional tunes—and, more impressively, their ability to pen new tunes that sound about 70 years old. Most of the writing duties are handled by Fuqua and Secor (with some contributions from Watson), but who woulda guessed a young guy like Fuqua could write a line like “My wife died hungry while I was plowing land” from “Take ‘Em Away”?
Not only playing but internalizing old-time string band music and introducing it to 21st century audiences while still remaining true to the genre’s roots will prove to be Old Crow Medicine Show’s lasting musical contribution.