Something to Crow About
We’re big fans of Nashville’s Old Crow Medicine Show, who are part old-time string band, part bluegrass group, part alt-country punks and completely awesome. And their latest album “Tennessee Pusher” continues to push the boundaries of their sound, thanks in no small part to Don Was being at the helm. Despite the predominance of acoustic instruments — guitars, harmonicas, banjos, violin — the band manages to sound more contemporary this time out, abandoning a bit of tradition for a bent on the future.
The album opens with an uptempo blues number about drugs called “Alabama High-Test” that could have been culled from Dylan’s early catalog, particularly with its rapid-fire vocal phrasing, And “Methamphetamine,” one of “Tennessee’s” standout tracks, tackles similar territory with its warning chorus: “It’s gonna have you beggin’ pretty please / It’s gonna rock you ’til you’re down on your knees.”
Most of the rest of the album is filled with songs about traditional folk topics: women, hardship and even a murder ballad. “Run and tell somebody,” Ketch Secor urges on “Motel in Memphis,” a moody, murky track with dueling violins. “There’s blood on the riverside / If you were there you’d swear it was more than a man who died.”
And then of course there are the traveling songs, a favorite subject for generations of troubadours. “Highway Halo” is a modern pop progression drenched in three-part harmonies and anchored by the Hammond organ of studio vet/Heartbreaker Benmont Tench. “Going where it suits my soul / Can’t you hear my big wheels roll,” Secore sings as he travels down the highway. “You can light up the darkest road / With a beam of eternal glow.” And later, on “Evening Sun,” Willie Watson takes the lead vocal on a song about riding the rails. “There’s a thousand constellations,” he sings. “In that brilliant beaming sky / But the earth is just one station / On that lonesome starry line.”
The album closes with an inspirational version of “Lift Him Up” by Blind Alfred Reed, rearranged here as ballad, and underscored by Reed’s own tragic death by starvation in 1956.
Though the album is devoid of any real barn burners (think “Wagon Wheel” from the band’s debut or “I Hear Them All” from 2006’s “Big Iron World), the expanded sound fits nicely on the band, though one can only hope they don’t dovetail too far into modern territory. It’s nice however to see the band’s songwriting take on new elements and to hear electric organ underneath their traditional sound.
Longtime fans shouldn’t be disappointed in “Tennessee Pusher,” and the album’s slightly more accessible sound may well recruit a new batch of folk or neo-country fans to their foot-stomping songs and skillful harmonies. Thus far it seems OCMS can do no wrong — and that’s something to crow about.