Old-time stylists make a fiery bid for the spotlight.
Ninian Dunnett 2012
Mumford & Sons may be the poster boys for the roots revival of the 2010s, but the Old Crow Medicine Show were a step ahead. The group’s fiery string-band revivalism was a key inspiration to the English folkies (who invited them aboard 2011’s trans-American Railroad Revival Tour), and they were mining the riches of old-time music long before the Londoners unleashed their tweed-cap chic.
This is a band which has always whipped up a storm on stage, too. They caught their big break busking on the street in North Carolina, and after they were spotted by bluegrass legend Doc Watson they spent much of the 00s working in a loose partnership with Gillian Welsh and David Rawlings, and guesting on Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion radio show.
Tradition can be problematic stuff, though; one man’s serious history is the next’s kitsch hokum. And at first glance, the folk boom seems to have hardened the OCMS’s principles. Carry Me Back shuns anything as new-fangled as electronic instruments or drums, and the exuberant and sometimes frenetic hoedown of self-written songs is grounded by the ding-dong plod of upright bass and a banjo which is strummed (rather than finger-picked, bluegrass-style).
But these string-bandsmen are no purists. Carry Me Back serves up a whole range of styles, from the breakneck square dance of the title track and a tongue-in-cheek steal from Hank Williams’ Hey Good Lookin’ to the country rock sound many will already know from the band’s much-downloaded rummage in Bob Dylan’s offcuts, Wagon Wheel. The vocal harmonies and friendly melodies of new songs like Levi – about an Iraq War casualty – and Ain’t It Enough echo distinguished cross-genre forebears like The Dillards and The Band.
And it’s the achievement of their fourth studio album that this giddy mix hangs together as an endearing whole. Carry Me Back marks a strong bid for overdue recognition – even if its appeal flags prematurely with the sub-Willie Nelson philosophising of the final track.