Photo: Crackerfarm / Courtesy of All Eyes Media

Old Crow Medicine Show Feel Right at Home on ‘Live at the Ryman’

Old Crow Medicine Show honor history on Live at the Ryman, while continuing to show more interest in new, charged versions of tradition.

Live at the Ryman
Old Crow Medicine Show
Columbia / The Orchard
4 October 2019

Old Crow Medicine Show aren’t known for staid concerts. The group’s raucous update on bluegrass and Appalachian music makes for lively shows, often feeling like the (wagon) wheels are about to come off. Their big break a couple decades ago even came while busking. At some point, making a live record for a label (since 50 Years of Blonde on Blonde only sort of counts) became an inevitability. Heading to the hallowed Ryman Auditorium only made sense. As is often the case with these releases, the new Live at the Ryman album doesn’t collect a single set from the group, but instead draws on performances from 2013 through this year. The sequencing of the tracklist allows for the feel of a show, though. Old Crow Medicine Show’s many performances at the venue left them with a series set of songs to pick from, allowing the compilers to use only top performances.

That approach to the album includes featuring songs from throughout the group’s career, with plenty from the early years. The first cut (after a rousing introduction), “Tell It to Me”, also opened the band’s first noted studio album, 2004’s self-titled. The band plays it with no small amount of energy, an indication of the mood the drives the rest of this disc. Vocalist Ketch Secor matches the joy of playing at the Ryman, wound up and goofy, offering a complete invitation for everyone to join the party. That sort of mindset fits the group’s approach to playing live.

The record doesn’t only fly. As in a good concert, everyone takes a moment here and there to catch their breath. “Take Em Away”, a Critter Fuqua song also from O.C.M.S., slows down to a mid-tempo groove, relying on its endless catchiness. The odd slow track on the disc, “CC Rider” features harmonica legend Lee Oskar. The pacing provides a welcome break and shows a different side of the band, one that can settle into a 100-year-old tune and relax with it.

Old Crow Medicine Show don’t always look so far back. “Brushy Mountain Conjugal Trailer” brings some humor back into the mix (“Methamphetamine” balances the tone). A rambunctious take on “Shout Mountain Music” gives last year’s excellent Volunteer a brief showing. Of course, covering the band’s career makes for a worthy greatest hits sort of set, but an album like this one should find hidden gems. One of those comes with the band’s performance of Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty’s “Louisiana Woman Mississippi Man”. Margo Price duets with Secor, and she provides a typically fantastic partnership. Secor gets into character; always the performer, he digs into “Sixteen Tons”, at least as much.

If Price’s presence provides an unpredicted present, the album’s closing does what you’d expect, just as it should. The group’s biggest hit, “Wagon Wheel”, comes as the disc’s penultimate track, a strong performance, of course, but one essential to capturing the feel of Old Crow on stage. The record then finishes with the traditional “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”, here given some bonus pep and guest appearances by Molly Tuttle and Charlie Worsham, the latter of whom is arguably part of the band by now. The whole group – by now including the audience – thoroughly enjoy themselves. It’s the perfect send-off for a band steeped in tradition but more interested in new, charged versions of old music.

RATING 7 / 10