[9 July 2014]
Few musical genres inspire as much loathing as Big Radio Country. Rightly so. Conversely, there are fewer still that inspire an equal portion of blind adoration. When seducing barroom randos when was the last time you heard, “Oh, I like just about everything but smooth jazz?” And how many roulette style dating website profiles proudly proclaim in the ‘interest’ category, “I’m a whiskey shooting, tailgating, Midwest polka mamma!” The concept of identity has long made many American’s nervous and country music may be one of the last artistic outputs to provide a clear sense of that identity. In stark contrast to the more readily exchangeable cosmopolitan genres like hip-hop, rock, or plain old pop allegiance to country has long been synonymous with a personality archetype.
That said the last few decades have not been kind to country music’s character. It is certain sales have been healthy, but there exists a crisis of identity among the genre’s key demographic. How does an artist balance the proud heritage implicit in country music’s subject content against the digital age where the majority of consumption takes place via modern technology? While rock and hip hop have become increasingly urbanized, country music has no option but to tout the rural significance found in its very name. So these days where the only thing separating country from pop is the inclusion of lap guitar, self proclamation, or a somewhat forced southern accent on every single track, where does one find legitimate country music?
The newest members of the Grand Ole Opry, veritable Top 40 Country outsiders Old Crow Medicine Show might be the best place to start. The pure fact that their latest release Remedy is also their first solid country format album gives it an authenticity not often found in Nashville’s crop of up and comers. But before you pigeonhole Remedy alongside all those cliches about country music that immediately spring to mind its important to consider the band’s back-story. OCMS is not your typical country group. Far from it. And Remedy is equidistant removed from your typical country album.
Harken yourself back to the good ol’ days in the ‘90s. The years just prior to the millennium are a dim memory now, but recall the time before the war when we were frivolously rich and the monolith of American culture was just beginning to embrace the weird elements of entertainment that seem so commonplace today. While Andrew Bird and his gin soaked Zoot Suit revivalists the Squirrel Nut Zippers were going platinum mining pre-war jazz, Old Crow Medicine Show was quietly attempting something similar by popularizing, or at the very least modernizing, the string band.
In the late ‘90s most kids with musical ambitions were perfecting power chord anthems, very few were finger picking. For OCMS at that time, playing the Grand Ole Opry meant busking the steps for change outside the theater and one cruise of the radio dial, whether it be in Nashville or any other major city left little reason to believe things would ever change for them. But things did change and not necessarily just in regards to popular music tastes.
First there were the wars. Nothing incites radicalism like conflict. Coming down the years one unbelievable event after the next toppled like so many dominoes, Katrina, the recession, the death of the traditional music industry which seeded the first blossoming of indie, the election of President Barack Obama, and too much more to mention has made the first 14 years of the digital age dark but exciting times. And like a Cubs fan’s anticipation during a pennant possible season the underdog concept of Old Crow Medicine Show has seen a slow but incremental rise to the cusp of glory.
Ketch Secor, front-man, songwriter and fiddler for Old Crow Medicine Show is in a unique position. As a chart topper, Dylan collaborator, main stage festival performer, and so recently minted bonafide member of the Grand Ole Opry, it’s safe to say his busking days are over. But Country Music?! Let’s not mince words here: winning the pennant in the red clay minor leagues of independent music on a wild card entry is one thing, but breaking into the country market means the Big Leagues, the Majors and it seems Secor has set his sights on the whole damn Series.
“We’ve always been interested in country music and proud to play it,” Secor tells PopMatters. Nearing the 15-year mark you tend to get comfortable so we shifted a little bit. We’ve always had a passion for country, and as the newest members of the Grand Ole Opry we have a responsibility to country music. I wanna see it become a sustainable music form that pays homage to the pioneers who made it what it is.”
There comes a brief note of silence colored by a sigh of implication before the pitch of his voice softens and he continues:
“I think most country musicians want to see that too, because it’s an inherited music form. With inheritance you’re always thinking about that. But I think that’s true of Old Crow Medicine Show much more so than anyone in the mainstream of country music. It’s a big concern of ours: What would Roy Acuff think of mainstream country right now? What would Hank Williams think of radio country? So we ask ourselves that question, then go in the studio and try to make it right.”
One doesn’t need to be a fan of Old Crow Medicine Show to be won over by Secor. Chatting with him from his base of operation in Nashville felt more like drinking with grandpa when grandma’s away than recording the pointed agenda of a musician just trying to sell some records. There’s a familiarity there. The stories are all well known from the years of myth building, but to hear it issuing forth directly from the source without benefit of disclaimer and interjected by Secors’s self effacing humor and homely turns of phrase makes the discussion into something personal. Make no mistake about it, Secor isn’t afraid of speaking his mind. When asked about the bizarre ambition to record a country album when their traditional platform has worked so well for Old Crow Medicine Show, Secor answers:
“Were singing the same songs on Remedy we’ve sung about for the past 15 years. We sing about loose women, high water blues, cops and robbers, drug busts, prison riots and banjos. And we’re doing it with the same instrumentation.”
It’s clear Secor has no doubts about who he is or what he’s doing. Old Crow Medicine Show wants to save country music. Purist have been decrying the state of the genre for years. But save it from what? Well, from the irrelevancy it seems larger bound towards. In short, to save it from becoming just another bland form of digest and excrete pop music. The title Remedy wasn’t chosen at random. Despite Secor’s humorous idioms peppered by sports metaphors there’s a sharp intelligence behind the southern drawl. Equally, as the prototypical underdog outlier the usual game of endorsing every industrioso connected to the music business goes right out the window.
“You know, when you’re not on a TV or the radio your fans have to work a little bit harder. Mainstream country personalities and pop artists are ubiquitous. You don’t really gotta work to like ‘em, in fact you gotta work to dislike ‘em because they’re everywhere. For us though, the fans gotta put a little effort into it. You can’t get our record at Wal-mart, you gotta go down to your local independent record shop and buy it, you gotta come out and see us play.
“We’re not beholden to anybody. It’s a great place to be. It’s something very few people in mainstream country can claim. Every band on the radio is beholden to every choice of the record company, every boardroom meeting. But with us, we came up on the curb, and that’s always gonna be a part of us. Main street runs right down the middle of Old Crow Medicine Show, and were still very much able to do with one mic wherever we’re put down.”
Amen, Mr. Secor: the time is ripe for someone to save country music from itself. Before country held all those ‘60s long haul truck driving, fist fighting, hard drinking implications the term was merely an amalgamation of inherently disparate musical styles including folk, religious, blues, and traditional. It was what people listened to and played in the corners of America far removed from the jazz epicenters of East Coast cities. The major problem with modern Big Country Radio is it’s whitewashed, monotone, it lacks diversity, conviction and substance.
Also, most heavy rotation songs are just plain unbelievable. That’s not meant the narrative of a hayseed cowboy cheating on his loyal hearted woman isn’t believable, but in the sense the premanufactured authenticity of the country rebel is laughable. When a genre that prides itself on the rugged individuality of its proponents’ character is massaged from the cradle by the multi-billion grossing industry of Nashville the grass roots American persona begins to resemble astro-turf.
When Kanye West spit, “Man killing’s some wack shit / Oh I forgot, ‘cept when niggas is rapping / Do you know what it feel like when people are passing?” on “Everything I Am”, off of Graduation the message struck a chord with the fanbase of a similarly bloated musical behemoth. Likewise for rock n’ roll as exampled by the Arcade Fire’s smash breakthrough Funeral. The single “Wake Up” couldn’t be more explicit in urging its audience to turn away from the glut of absorb and forget rock anthems to embrace an option with a bit more substance. In both cases, the individual artists forged substantive careers. So why can hip-hop and rock revitalize and rejuvenate themselves every decade or so while radio country is still stuck back in the nineties churning out the same bland 4x4 balladry as popularized by no talent ass clowns like Billy Ray Cyrus and Shania Twain?
In both examples the driving force behind the evolution of genre came from an outsider. And that’s not to say country music doesn’t have a thriving outsider community. Canadian Corb Lund may be the perfect example of how to do modern country well outside Nashville City limits. There’s another young man from Woodlands Texas by the name of Hayes Carll who might be the best living country songwriter, period. It’s doubtful whether either mentioned musician will ever get regular radio play, but both do well to illustrate the point Big Radio Country isn’t the end all be all of the genre. Indeed, in little pockets spread across the deep south, Texas, the mid and far west there exist vibrant, isolated scenes producing country music fit for the name. Now more than ever, an outsider is needed to shake up Nashville’s predictable product. So what makes Old Crow Medicine Show think they’re fit for the ticket?
The answer might have something to do with Old Crow’s recent induction into the Grand Ole Opry. No other popular form of music has an equivalent. It is without peer in terms of inner-genre importance. One part venue and two parts church admittance to the Opry is the official crowning of country music nobility. Combine that with a distanced collaboration with the Howard Hughes of pop music, Bob Dylan, and a massive fan base built up over a decade and a half of ceaseless touring and one senses Old Crow Medicine Show has the clout to change the system from within.
“I think its a bit like having the jailers keys, I’d like to see the shackles pulled, the bars bent, the gates swung wide open,” Secor notes.
Perhaps we’re getting ahead of ourselves here though because one can’t expect an industry shake up, a revolution or renaissance with a complicit market demographic. It’s just entertainment right? The country music industry does well for itself and the fans are generally happy, right? Does Jason Aldine need anymore of a message than guns, girls, and God Bless America? Well, as Antone Newcombe once said, “The only thing in the middle of the road is dead animals and dumb fucking Americans.”
As harsh as that sentiment may be, there is some nugget of truth in it and it’s best not to be either. As opposed to rock, pop, or hip hop the demographic that endorses country music tends to be well past the 18-25 market targeted by youth media conglomerates. Middle aged suburbanites crave security, so much so it doesn’t really make sense to break away from industry’s designs for Big Radio Country. Like McDonald’s or Wal-Mart top 40 country offers a uniform product. Some people find comfort in this.
It’s a big iron world beset by violence, greed and malice and country music is not the best medium at rationalizing this fact. Look at the state of the nation: an entire generation of young men and women have come up knowing only war and poverty, our liberties diminish with each technological advance and the land of the free incarcerates more people per capita than even the harshest of dictatorships. Our government is a house divided and our culture is enslaved by corporations. Big Radio Country offers escape in the fact you don’t have to think about any of this.
One can reasonably sing along, drink too much and dance to Taylor Swift or [insert another generic country artist here] safe with the knowledge the empire won’t entirely crumble until the next generation, or maybe the one after. But you are safe for the moment. This is our country, shouldn’t the music that bears its name represent even a faction of these less than cheery aspects?
In the last few minutes of our conversation, Secor touched on this in discussing a song on Remedy. “Dearly Departed Friend” follows an Old Crow tradition of sticking up for the little guy. In this instance the song narrates a soldier’s return from war. In his own words:
“The [wars] should weigh heavily on everybody’s conscience. Our names are written on every bomb that’s dropped. We had a powerful image come to us in a letter. It was our bumper sticker on the side of a bomb on a helicopter. We love the men and women who serve, but we hate the war. But you know, every band, every man, woman and child in America has their bumper sticker on the bomb too. We just don’t see it. It’s a 25 year war, that’s the first problem. Its been going on for so long and it’s hard to tell where it’s being fought. That marginal line isn’t so black and white in this war.
But that particular song isn’t about the war. It’s a song about coming home, especially to a town like Spartanburg. It’s a homecoming song. Where you been tossed around the desert you come home to the hill and you’re burying your buddy, and you put him in the ground and tamp the dirt down and then what do you do? You look around Spartanburg and what do you see? You see nothing but traffic, and flattop asphalt with steam rising on it, strip malls, chain restaurants, motor mile stretching out in every direction, swimming pools in every back yard and someone on a lawnmower in front of each house. That’s your welcome home. So I think of this song as some kind of Purple Heart that I hope will be heard by those who’ve made that sacrifice, especially the folks who come home and try to lead lives after the war.
Songs like that have been sung for a long time and they contain an important sentiment for people to commiserate with. Think about your high school class. There’s ten of those kids you graduated with that went and joined. And in a town like Newbury what else were you going to do? I’m just a dude strumming a guitar here. There’s real people out there doing the hard and heavy lifting.”
It is this facet that separates Old Crow Medicine Show from other standing members of the Grand Ole Opry and Big Radio Country stars in general. Heritage and history are more than lip service themes on Remedy, and if the road to success Old Crow has forged so far is any indication of their ability to make country music relevant again, then they are in the best possible position to do it. If not them, then who? Exciting things will soon happen in this genre, the time is ripe for it.
A multiple university drop out Ray is probably still drunk, feverishly writing the Great American Novel on his laptop while squinting into the weak rays of the morning sun in an obscure country, happy his heart still beats if only to satisfy his legions of loyal followers.