By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
The one '00s band that I've heard pull that trick off are the five sometimes–Teddy Boy–attired hillbilly-blues cats in Old Crow Medicine Show. O.C.M.S., their not-quite-self-titled 2004 not-quite-a-debut, opened with four killers they're unlikely ever to match: The two speediest concerned cocaine, the groggiest was a drunken Depression poverty blues, and the one original among them was a Vietnam-draft yarn verging on delinquent greaser rockabilly. But Old Crow couldn't sustain such energy through the album: The single was a mediocre rendition of a mediocre Dylan song, and the sluggish "C.C. Rider" left me hoping somebody would teach them about Mitch Ryder.
Two Nettwerk albums later, and for Tennessee Pusher, who's in their corner but Don Was—whose second Was (Not Was) LP Mitch sang on 25 years ago! Old Crow, meanwhile, are still preoccupied, not always in a recreational way, with drugs. That's the subject of the opening subterranean homesick blues-talker "Alabama High-Test" and occupationally hazardous title cut "Tennessee Pusher," not to mention "Methamphetamine," which tackles a hinterlands scourge that more mainstream Nashville is still scared to touch. And, oh yeah, there's also "Humdinger," a commendably quasi-crazed Holy Modal Rounders attempt featuring naked body-surfing on a river of beer. Plus an MLK assassination conspiracy involving the CIA, a rolling-on-the-riverboat closer that alludes to the 1934 St. Louis Cardinals, plenty of explicit faux-Dylan myth-making, and plenty more train-whistle harmonica.
Sounds promising on paper, I know, and my inclination is to blame the low-impact outcome on Was's parched production—either that or maybe somebody was worried about offending the delicate sensibilities of Garrison Keillor. All five Old Crows sing, and more than with the Duhks or DTB, you catch all the words. But these guys don't have the melodies or the pipes to pull off the Workingman's Dead they frequently seem to be aiming for, and the music has mellowed immeasurably since those wild-haired opening cuts on O.C.M.S. So when Old Crow Medicine Show say that right-wingers and folk singers aren't invited to their humdinger, I'm confused—because like their roots-rock brethren and sistren, if they're not the former, they're still certainly the latter, no matter how hard they try to brand themselves as a whole new thing.
Old Crow Medicine Show play Webster Hall September 26-27