With the upcoming release of their new album, Carry Me Back, it looks like Old Crow Medicine Show have retaken the mantle of American roots music superstars, and they’re doing so by going back to their roots as a tough-as-nails old-timey stringband. After 2008’s disappointing Tennessee Pusher, and after a hiatus from touring over band members leaving and returning, it’s about damn time! The only downside to the new album is that it doesn’t really reflect the current lineup of the group. Since Carry Me Back was recorded, founding members Critter Fuqua and Ketch Secor have been reunited after years of separation. Founding member Willie Watson has parted ways with the group, as has mandolinist Cory Younts, and though you won’t hear him on this album, old-time fiddle prodigy Chance McCoy has now joined the band. But so what? We’ll be happy when a newer album comes out with the current lineup, of course, but this one will tide us over nicely until then.
Newer member, songwriter Gill Landry, remains on Carry Me Back, and on the new album has more of a hand in the songwriting, which is good news. Landry was an amazing signing for the group, though it went largely unnoticed by national press. Originally Cajun, Landry should be well known to any roots music fan in the Northwest from his solo work and his work with the legendary street performing jugband The Kitchen Syncopators. Their last album, Underwood, now sadly out of print, is one of my favorite roots music releases of the past decade. Hands down. It’s that good. Check out this interview by Chris Mateer of No Depression to get a better idea of who Gill Landry is. On the new album, Gill takes on the beautiful and rather sad song “Genevieve,” and I believe brings in a Syncopators song, “Steppin’ Out.” Anyways, I’m not clear on all the politics behind these changes, but it sure looks to me like Old Crow’s circling the wagons and focusing inwards on what they do best: punked-out stringband music.
On Carry Me Back, the group sounds more acoustic than ever, focusing on the hordes of banjo, guit-jos, and banjo-what-have-yous that gives them much of their rhythmic punch. Ketch Secor’s rough-as-fuck fiddling is back, which was always one of my favorite parts of the band. In truth, this album is seriously folkie. It sounds like a 21-st century version of Woody Guthrie’s vision, all hopped up on populist pride and pissed-off that times they aren’t a-changin’. “Half Mile Down” sounds like a 70s folk stringband, but the lyrics rage against flooded valleys from government dams. “We Don’t Grow Tobacco,” one of the best tracks on the album, sounds like a drunken barroom brawl and focuses its energy on out-of-work farmers. “I will chop that wicked weed/til my hands and fingers bleed/Workin’ like a mule/maybe more… And I sure am sad to say/We don’t grow tobacco ’round here no more.” But it’s not all working-class politics. Old Crow Medicine Show cut their teeth on slice-of-life Southern folk songs and there’s plenty of that too, from the title track “Carry Me Back” which sounds like an Appalachian old-time song to “Steppin’ Out,” which could have just as easily been recorded by the Memphis Jug Band back in the day. On other bands, this kind of Southern nostalgia would come off as a bit forced, but the beauty of Old Crow Medicine Show is that they’re having too much goddamn fun to care, and their infectious joy in their own music swings the listener along with them. It’s good to have you back, boys!
Here they are performing “Steppin’ Out,” filmed at the historic Sound Emporium Studios in Nashville, where the band recorded Carry Me Back: