They’ve been on the go for fifteen years now and their boundless energy shows no signs of dissipating. The Old Crow Medicine Show (OCMS) describe their fourth studio LP Carry Me Back as the “a new stretch of road in the timeless journey of a rambling string band”. Recorded at the now legendary Sound Emporium Studios in Nashville it marks another milestone in their bluegrass odyssey as they serve up a stew of fever-pitch, foot-stomping musical mayhem which grabs you, spins you round and leaves you breathless from the first furious fiddle to the last pumping double-bass.
With song titles such as We Don’t Grow Tobacco, Bootlegger’s Boy and Sewanee Mountain Catfight the subject matter will not surprise anyone familiar with their work but by staying true to their roots they demonstrate just how good they are at producing songs that fit the genre and answer the brief perfectly. It is just this calibre of output that saw OCMS fulfill a residency at The Grand Ole Opry in Nashville some years back and now sees them playing all over the world alongside the likes of Mumford & Sons.
Carry Me Back opens with the song Carry Me Back To Virginia which is a breathless tale of a Confederate footman in the American Civil War whose blood gets spilt and who longs to be buried in his home State. OCMS set their stall out early with this stomping square-dance of a tune. The music is frenetic as the story of fighting alongside Robert E Lee unfolds with an almost country-punk attitude. What a gripping start to the album this is! Phew!
After such an incendiary opener it is a relief to drop the tempo somewhat for We Don’t Grow Tobacco. This lazy drawl of a song beautifully evokes the feeling of a hot summer’s afternoon in The Deep South. The subject, however, is less attractive as the chorus laments the hardship and loss of work brought by these changing times. “I sure am sad to say, I lived to see this day. We don’t grow tobacco round here no more”.
By the time we get to Mississippi Saturday Night the tempo has been amped right back up again as this song storms along like a runaway railway car. The lyrics tell a vast number of mini stories – stories of convicted murderers who have seen the light, ladies in gin-joints itching for a fight, illicit meetings and general drunken debauchery – all delivered with Dylan-esque detail. Again, you will be hard-pushed to stop your toe from tapping along with this frantic recording as Ketch Secor’s harmonica leads the charge with his typical vigour.
Sewanee Mountain Catfight is another whirling-dervish of a tune which whips up a storm as they tell the story of a seedy den of drinking and gambling down on the Tennessee Line. This is the Old Crow’s answer to Fight Club – bluegrass style!! The blood, hair and teeth fly as the crowd wails its approval in the background before the cops bust in…and join in the gambling. The song is played at an awesome pace and the comedy of the situation is delivered with style.
Carry Me Back is well-packed with such break-neck speedsters but where the performance is at its warmest is on a couple of the more tender and reflective tracks.
The standout of these is Levi, a heartfelt song about a country boy sent to the desert of Iraq and shot down before his time. This is a modern song played in a traditional old bluegrass style. The chorus gives an opportunity for the OCMS boys to break out the vocal harmonies which provide their signature sound. Levi is based on actual events and it is sung and played with a genuine sense of sorrow and loss. “Levi, Lord they shot him down, Ten thousand miles from a Southern town”.
The album closes with an interestingly reserved track called Ways of Man. Jim Lauderdale guests on vocals alongside Ketch Secor on this Willie Nelson-style slow country waltz. It is a somber and introspective way to conclude an album which is, up to this point, exuberant. The song is well-written and beautifully performed but, quite frankly, leaves you wanting more of the madcap, fiery bluegrass that we all know Old Crow Medicine Show do so well. As the adage goes, “always leave ‘em wanting more” – perhaps this is a truly wise choice of final song.
Carry Me Home is another superb album from possibly the best exponents of this style of rootsy bluegrass music. The song writing is eloquent, the stories are captivating and entertaining, the quality of musicianship is unquestionable and the performance is warm and endearing. There is depth and complexity to this album which maybe eluded them on their previous releases and which displays a maturity to suit their style. OCMS will be in the UK in 2013 and whether you have seen them before or not I would recommend that you do yourself a favour, take a deep, deep breath and go catch their live show. I know you will thank me later!
Review by: Craig Walker
Wed, 30 January 2013 – Dublin, Ireland @ Vicar Street
Thu, 31 January 2013 – Mandela Hall, Belfast
Mandela Hall QUB Students Union, University Road, Belfast, BT7 1NF (Tickets and details)
Fri, 1 February 2013 – Barrowland Ballroom, Glasgow
Sat, 2 February 2013 – HMV Ritz, Manchester
Mon, 4 February 2013 – O2 Shepherds Bush Empire, London