Sociologists could no doubt have a field day analyzing the collective impulse behind the “return to the roots” Americana movement. Celebrating old-timey acoustic music, string bands have actually made the banjo cool – no mean feat in an age of overproduced and computer-generated, sampled sound.
Together since 1998, Old Crow Medicine Show (OCMS to the initiated) have established a reputation as one of the best of the new breed, with spirited performances and ragged-but-righteous harmonies applied to songs that sound – tired though the cliché may be – utterly timeless.
Carry Me Back, the band’s fourth outing (and first since 2008’s critically acclaimed Tennessee Pusher), is an utterly superb collection that shows just how powerfully infectious and relevant “old time” music remains today. An all-original collection, the songs are sturdy and honest, whether lamenting the passing of a way of life (“We Don’t Grow Tobacco”) or ruminating on – quite literally – the meaning of life (“Ain’t It Enough”) with genuine wisdom.
There’s also the period-perfect title tune, a rollicking account of Civil War-era hardship (lots of blood and death), and the utterly delightful “Country Gal,” a clever and irresistibly catchy twist on Hank Williams’ immortal “Hey Good Lookin’” (just try not to smile at how well they work it in!). “Half Mile Down” is a classic story-song about a home town that’s now on the bottom of a man-made lake, while both the impossibly fast “Mississippi Saturday Night” and “Sewanee Mountain Catfight” are romping bluegrass workouts, though the former benefits from train-rhythm harmonica (an instrument curiously absent from the standard bluegrass instrumental lineup). Equally upbeat are tunes like ”Bootlegger’s Boy” and “Steppin’ Out,” both tunes sounding as though they themselves are far older than the band members could possibly be, while the plaintive, folky “Genevieve” and the wistful “Ways Of Man” – the latter in particular – show the band’s reflective side.
Stringband music – acoustic instrumentation sans drums – relies heavily on energy (not to mention compelling material) to maintain interest. Guitars, fiddle, banjo, mandolin, and standup bass provide the core of the backing here, along with Kevin Hayes’ “guit-jo” – a six-string banjo with a uniquely percussive tonal quality – and wheezy harmonica here and there. There’s a raucous, loose feel to proceedings, yet craft and care are equally evident – arrangements are tightly-woven wonders that are exuberant, but impeccably performed.
Sure, it’s all rather old-fashioned and decidedly low-tech, but it’s performed with unrelenting enthusiasm and heartfelt honesty – it’s not a misguided trip down memory lane, but rather, in the words of blues guitarist Kid Ramos, “unfinished business.” Fashions may have changed, trends come and gone, but music as genuine and real, as concerned with the eternal verities of life and love, hardship and hurt, and the sweet, if elusive promise of a better world, will never be entirely out of style. OCMS aren’t simply repeating or rehashing the past. They’re adding to and expanding upon a musical genre that remains vital and relevant.
Indeed, in a musical landscape driven more and more by commerce and performed more and more by computer, music like this – music by and for real people, targeting stark truth yet propelled by irrepressible energy and an infectious beat – is all the more important and necessary. This is wonderful stuff, very highly recommended!