Volunteer features Old Crow Medicine Show at their most boisterous. The band, which started out busking with hard and fast covers of early 20th century country and folk songs and followed that with years of hardscrabble touring around North America, has always been a high-energy live act. That hasn’t changed over the years even as their lineup has. But their albums haven’t always captured their infectious energy. Sometimes that’s been by design. This time around, working with producer Dave Cobb (who’s done albums for Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, and Zac Brown Band), Old Crow mostly goes loud and fast, and even on the songs when they don’t they still sound big.
Appropriately the album begins with the high-speed bluegrass rave-up
“Flicker and Shine”, an ode to being on the road with your bandmates. Anchored by a speedy fiddle melody from Ketch Secor, the whole band joins in on the chorus vocals singing, “All together / We fall together / We ride together / We’re wild together” and variations on this theme. It’s a great party anthem but there’s not much to it beyond the fiddle and the chorus so the band wisely finishes the song out in just under two and a half minutes. This is also the case with Volunteer’s other two full speed tracks. “Shout Mountain Music” and “Elzick’s Farewell” are each short and to the point. The former comes right in the middle of the album and features the defiant refrain, “I ain’t gonna change my sound / When I get to Nashville town / Gonna shout my mountain music all night long.” This song features some good, quick solos from the mandolin and banjo as well as Secor’s fiddle. “Elzick’s Farewell” is the album’s penultimate song, a two-minute bluegrass instrumental with a swirling fiddle melody and fast picking from everybody else. Save bassist Morgan Jahnig, of course, who, with OCMS lacking a drummer, holds down the quarter note pulse for all of these fast songs.
Elsewhere on the album the band focuses on melody, at times approaching country pop. “A World Away”, with its shuffle beat, tropical guitars, and catchy chorus harmonies, makes Secor’s lament that he can’t get into the upper-class party sound positively sunny. The bouncy, electric guitar-driven
“Dixie Avenue” is Secor and band co-founder Critter Fuqua’s love letter to their long career of playing music together. Lyrically, it’s cast as a love story between a young, happy couple that stays happy together even as they age and raise a family. Just as catchy but less poppy is “The Good Stuff”, a honky-tonk ode to top shelf alcohol. The vocals are a bit slurred, the music swings just a little unevenly, and the piano definitely increases the old time saloon feel of the song.
When OCMS slows down on
Volunteer, the songs are packed with emotion. At the top of the list are the two near the end of the album. “Whirlwind” closes the record on a wistful, easygoing feel, with prominent pedal steel guitar and an oh-so sweet vocal performance from Secor. Similar to “Dixie Avenue” the song seems to be about the band’s long career together but disguised as a song about a couple in love. They drift from town to town, lose more than they win, go dancing when they can, and return to the refrain, “Oh, babe, it’s sure been a whirlwind / A twirling twister touching down on the ground / In a dozen little sleepy towns.” “Homecoming Party”, in contrast, is explicitly about coming home from a tour and feeling exhausted and antisocial. Instead of being happy to be home, Secor (in character) worries about things around the house that need fixing, is apprehensive about seeing his kids, and hopes against hope that his wife will be happy to see him in the morning. It’s a great, sad song with a deceptively easygoing feel and it discusses a rarely covered topic among decades of bands recording songs about the road.
“Child of the Mississippi” lopes along with snare drum and tambourine providing the song’s backbone as Secor names a bunch of locations along the river and tells the story of a boy whose mother died and father abandoned him at 13 to live and work on the river. It’s a song that feels lived-in, stretching past the five-minute mark with an extended jam after a very effective false ending. “Look Away” is a country piano ballad with prominent pedal steel guitar and fiddle that recasts the line “Look away, Dixie land” in a somewhat different, but still positive, context than the southern standard from the 1800’s.
Volunteer is a strong album from start to finish. Dave Cobb hasn’t done anything radical with the band’s sound, but opening them up to using a bit of electric guitar, piano, and pedal steel gives the record a slightly different feel. Mostly, though, this is Old Crow Medicine Show staying right in their wheelhouse and putting out great songs. There isn’t a single clunker among these 11 songs, which makes the record an easy, fun listen from start to finish even as the mood changes considerably from track to track.