[16 July 2014]
Having bottled lightning on their self-titled 2004 debut, the ragamuffin bunch of buskers known as Old Crow Medicine Show rose to attention with their updated sketch of Bob Dylan’s unfinished “Momma, Rock Me”, now known as the ubiquitous “Wagon Wheel”. Following Darius Rucker’s cover of the song reaching No. 1 on the country charts and garnering the band its first million-selling single in 2013, the group was recently inducted into the Grand Ole Opry. Yet the group as it stands today is not the same cast of misfits that reintroduced traditional string band bluegrass tinted with punk hunger to the mainstream.
Following a hiatus in 2011 that left the band with an uncertain future, the Old Crows returned in 2012 with Carry Me Back, harkening back to their signature sound following a foray into a more rock-oriented approach on 2008’s Tennessee Pusher. Other changes included the departure of founding member Willie Watson, the return of original member Critter Fuqua, the addition of Watson’s replacement Chance McCoy, and Ted Hutt as producer.
This year finds the band and Hutt courting mainstream approval with their fifth studio album, Remedy. Opening with their trademark hillbilly badinage on the one-two punch of “Brushy Mountain Conjugal Trailer” and the frenetic “8 Dogs 8 Banjos”, the wine, whiskey women and guns of earlier releases remain, but more so as articles of foible rather than revelatory ingredients as on the twangy “Firewater”, a cautionary tale of alcoholism.
Walking a fine line between traditional bluegrass and country, Secor noted the band’s new indebtedness to the latter in a recent PopMatters interview: “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.”
The centerpiece of Remedy is the album’s first single, “Sweet Amarillo”. At the urging and direction of Bob Dylan, Old Crow Medicine Show were given a song fragment from 1973’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid session that also produced “Momma, Rock Me”. Under the Crows, the song is a slow Texas waltz sung by Ketch Secor. Filled out with Secor’s fiddle and the band’s vocal harmonies, “Sweet Amarillo” is ready made for radio play. Only casually testing the country waters on Remedy, “Firewater” and the trope-filled patriotic tale, “Dearly Departed Friend”, with its chorus of “Twenty-one guns for 21 years / An American flag’s in the wind / Standing by the grave of a dearly departed friend,” are the album’s only country-tinged songs.
As a whole, Remedy errs on the side of bluegrass. Celebrating their own history, “Doc’s Day” pays homage to the band’s beginning and its benefactor, Doc Watson: “If you want to rock listen to Doc / If you want the girls you better pick like Merle / ‘Cause them high country blues still blow all the women away.” Perhaps playing it too cautious, OCMS’s brand of bluegrass is largely tempered, making songs like the whooping “Tennessee Bound”, cutesy hobo tale “Sweet Home” and the square dance call of “Brave Boys” and its “hey ho” chant palatable to a more centrist audience. Somewhat bloated at 13 songs, Remedy contains a few toss offs. The too obvious future live staple “Shit Creek” borrows and doubles up Simon and Garfunkel’s wordless chorus from “The Boxer”. More a fragment of an idea than a song, the lonesome album closer “The Warden” can only serve as a philosophical counterpoint to opener “Brushy Mountain Conjugal Trailer”.
Having gone from busking on corners to serving as ambassadors for traditional bluegrass, Old Crow Medicine Show galvanized a genre and earned its accolades their way. Now faced with a larger stage, one can’t fault the band for finally reaching for the brass ring they rightly deserve. By smoothing out the rough edges and sanitizing the content that got them to this point, Remedy is a noble stepping stone between Old Crow Medicine Show’s past and future. Not quite the cure for what ails modern country music, Remedy is more a temporary salve meant to sooth multiple demographics of fans old and new.