With a career stretching back to 1998, nine albums released, a pretty relentless gig schedule and countless festival appearances, Old Crow Medicine Show has been in the vanguard of developing a 21st Century take on old-time, string band music. The band has been recognised and honoured with induction into the Grand Ole Opry in 2013, and the 2014’s Remedy won the Grammy for Best Folk Album, so a “best of” album might be considered a little overdue. Between 2004 and 2008, the band recorded with Nettwerk Records. They released three albums, Old Crow Medicine Show (2004), often shortened to O.C.M.S., Big Iron World (2006) and Tennessee Pusher (2008) and it’s these albums that Nettwerk has been able to draw on for Best Of, along with an EP track from 2006 and two previously unreleased tracks.
The Nettwerk albums contain some of the band’s most iconic songs and none more so than Best Of’s opening track, Wagon Wheel, the song originally appearing on the first album. Indisputably their most widely recognised song, as a single it has been certified Platinum, it immediately gives the collection the Crow’s unmistakable stamp. Ketch Secor’s fiddle emphasising the swing, the contrasting sparsely picked banjo of Critter Fuqua and Secor’s familiar lead vocal with harmonies from Fuqua and guitarist Willie Watson. There have been innumerable covers of this song, maybe generating repetition fatigue for some, but going back to the original reinforces all that’s good about it.
Secor, Fuqua and Watson are adept on a range of instruments, Secor frequently found on harmonica, and he and Watson can add banjo while Fuqua swaps from banjo to slide and bottleneck guitar. These three along with Morgan Jahnig on upright bass and Kevin Hayes on guitjo (a plucked string instrument in the guitar or banjo family) formed the core of the band at the start of its time with Nettwerk. Gill Landry, playing mainly slide guitar, joined a little later in the Nettwerk period.
O.C.M.S. marks the point at which the band started the move from playing predominantly traditional songs and some covers to writing and recording their own material. The story of Wagon Wheel’s authorship is well known but bears repeating; it’s credited 50/50 to Ketch Secor and Bob Dylan. Secor heard the Rock Me Mama chorus fragment on a Dylan bootleg and decided to write some verses reflecting a pre-band time in his life, at college in New Hampshire and hitchhiking south to home. Lyrics that became doubly fitting years later as the band migrated from busking around upstate New York and Canada down to North Carolina. So how did Secor get a co-authorship agreement from the notoriously protective Dylan? Well, apparently just by having the audacity, or naivety, to ask.
Following on from Wagon Wheel, Tell It To Me, is a traditional swing blues, highlighting Ketch on harmonica rather than fiddle and with lyrics typical of the raft of songs that tread the hazy line between the dangers and pleasures of cocaine. Put together with two other traditional tracks, C C Rider and Fall On My Knees, these songs give a flavour of the years before 2004 when the Crows were still very much a busking band. It’s an aspect of their live performance they’ve never entirely left behind, and these tracks are a reminder of how arresting their street corner gigs could be. C C Rider is inevitably taken at a slower pace, ample opportunity for Ketch to slip in wailing harmonica and Critter to add snatches of bottleneck guitar. Vocal lead is taken by Willie whose voice, in a higher register then Ketch, is ideally suited to the plaintive lyrics. The other two trad songs are fast and energetic, Morgan’s upright bass showing that, in the right hands, that can be all the percussion you need. Fall On My Knees wasn’t included on an album but was a track on 2006’s Down Home Girl, an EP recorded around the same time as Big Iron World.
While their own compositions kept true to traditional rhythms and instruments, the subject matter headed into much more contemporary territory. Critter Faqua wasn’t born at the time of the Vietnam war but the communal memory, maybe communal trauma isn’t too strong a phrase for such an episode, readily passes on to the next generation. His song from the O.C.M.S. album, Big Time in the Jungle, may be less strident but is every bit as heartfelt as those written in the 60s by the likes of Country Joe McDonald. From the same album, Ketch’s I Hear Them All, composed jointly with album producer David Rawlings, also shows a growing awareness that the new genre they’re helping to define, can and should continue the folk song protest tradition.
By 2008, when Tennessee Pusher was recorded, the band’s sound had grown heavier. It’s most clearly heard on Alabama High-Test, but all three tracks taken from that album have Jim Keltner guesting on drums, adding more beef to the sound. This said though, all the previous elements of the band’s sound are firmly in place. Fiddle, banjo and harmonica are still the foundations, Morgan’s upright bass is still essential to the rhythm, and excellent harmonies continue to enrich the vocals.
The two previously unreleased tracks that finish the album provide interest for even the most ardent of the band’s followers, who may well have all three of the original albums. Black Haired Quebecoise takes its inspiration from the times when the band frequently went north into Canada from their New York State base. A classic truck stop girl tale but with a happier ending for the trucker than Little Feat gave him, he lives to drive another day. The lyrics are peppered with snatches of French but whether English or French they’re delivered in the same Southern drawl. A good tale with a good melody, makes you wonder why it hasn’t previously seen the light of day. The tale told in Heart In The Sky isn’t so easy to describe, I’ll leave you to work it out, or maybe not.
The years covered by these recordings were a golden period for Old Crow Medicine Show; they had their first taste of commercial success and, far from stifling their creativity, the tracks on this compilation show that their music both expanded and matured over this time. For anyone who wants to know what fuelled the, now widespread, musical chimaera, “modern old time”, this is essential listening.
Old Crow Medicine Show – “Best Of”
Out on 10th February 2017 via Nettwerk
Best Of Track Listing:
1. Wagon Wheel
2. Tell It To Me
3. Down Home Girl
4. Alabama High-Test
5. Big Time in the Jungle
6. CC Rider
7. Take ‘em Away
9. Fall On My Knees
10. My Good Gal
11. I Hear Them All
13. Black-Haired Québécoise *
14. Heart Up in the Sky *
* previously unreleased