OLD CROW MEDICINE SHOW: Strengthens the Chain

The title track of Old Crow Medicine Show’s new album, Tennessee Pusher, is the story of an Appalachian outlaw on the move, peddling contraband and trying to keep one step ahead of the law. It’s a story as old as “Kentucky Moonshiner,” but this young string band has updated the narrative for a new century. This bootlegger isn’t selling clear liquid in a mason jar but rather dried weeds in a Ziploc bag.The title track of Old Crow Medicine Show‘s new album, Tennessee Pusher, is the story of an Appalachian outlaw on the move, peddling contraband and trying to keep one step ahead of the law. It’s a story as old as “Kentucky Moonshiner,” but this young string band has updated the narrative for a new century. This bootlegger isn’t selling clear liquid in a mason jar but rather dried weeds in a Ziploc bag.

The song begins with a fiddle and dobro crying like owls and dogs in the night as Ketch Secor sings, “Out on the lonely highway, I’m riding your way. Tell your mama to bar the cabin door.” Secor has assumed the persona of the pusher man; last night he made a thousand dollars on a drug deal “in the holler,” but he also saw his girlfriend snuggling up with the county deputy. Before long guns are pulled and blood is spilled, as if Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road” had met Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff.”

Old Crow Medicine Show, it turns out, isn’t reviving mountain string-band music out of some nostalgia for a time when America was more innocent. These musicians are resurrecting this old sound because it’s as relevant to our violent and complicated times as it was to the violent and complicated 1920s. By employing hollow wooden instruments, these players emphasize not the changes in American culture but rather its continuity.

“I enjoy writing songs that could have been written before [my time],” Secor says. “When I feel like I’m tapping into a deep vein in the body of American music, it gives me strength as a writer, like I’m dipping my pen into a deep ink well. That’s the folk music tradition. Like Pete Seeger said, ‘Everyone’s a link in the chain.’ It’s a strong chain, so rely on it. It stretches from Huddie Ledbetter to the Old Crow Medicine Show. It took Roscoe Holcomb’s ‘Moonshiner’ and Clarence Ashley’s ‘Little Sadie’ to make Tennessee Pusher possible, but it also took X’s ‘Johnny Hit and Run Pauline.’ I believe it takes all those great songs in the past to make your song even a little bit good. ”

It takes songs like Chuck Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business” too. The echo of that song can be heard in the new album’s first cut, “Alabama High-Test,” another bootlegger number, this time about a man carrying a half pound of dope up I-65 until the spinning blue lights chase him down a Tennessee dirt road. The instrumentation is Secor on fiddle, Willie Watson on acoustic guitar, Kevin Hayes on guitjo (a banjo body with a guitar neck), Gill Landry on resophonic guitar and Morgan Jahnig on upright bass. The story borrows from a dozen folk songs, but the rhythm borrows from Berry’s rock and roll propulsion, a fitting feel for a song about interstate highways.

“In the past few records we were more involved in the music of the 1920s and ‘30s,” Secor acknowledges, “but since we’ve grown up, we’ve taken a wider look at the full swath of American music. Before we were very strict about being an old-time string band, even though we started out with folk-revival music and owed a lot to Bob Dylan and Neil Young. But now we want to cop from everywhere and we want to cop from the best and no one’s better than Chuck Berry.

“We realized that the guys who led the string bands in the ‘20s, guys like Charlie Poole and Gid Tanner, were borrowing from everywhere, especially from black jazz. If ‘Alabama High-Test’ can wed Gid Tanner and Chuck Berry, that’s a good couple. That’s a couple I want to meet in a song. Tanner’s musical upbringing wasn’t all that different from Berry’s.”

The movement of young string bands has been gathering momentum for much of this decade, but it remains to be seen if any of these bands can break through to a broader pop audience. Some big-name producers apparently think so. The Flecktones’ Béla Fleck produced The Duhks in 2005; Bill Frisell’s Lee Townsend produced Crooked Still’s Shaken by a Low Sound in 2006; Gillian Welch’s partner David Rawlings produced Old Crow Medicine Show in 2006; Hot Rize’s Tim O’Brien produced The Duhks’ Migrations in 2006; the BoDeans’ Jim Scott produced King Wilkie’s Low Country Suite in 2007; Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones produced Uncle Earl’s Waterloo, Tennessee in 2007; and Don Was of Was (Not Was) produced Tennessee Pusher.

Was had produced Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Willie Nelson and Bonnie Raitt, but last year he was looking for a project farther off the beaten track. When a friend recommended Old Crow Medicine Show, Was drove down to San Diego to check out the young band. He was impressed enough that he flew out to Nashville in January to see if they had enough original material for an album. They did. In fact, they’d been honing their new songs all winter at the Grand Ole Opry. So in the spring they flew to Hollywood to record the album that became Tennessee Pusher. It was a chance for the band to make a musical as well as a business breakthrough.

“It was about rising to the opportunity,” Secor admits. “There was an eclipse the night before we went into the studio, and it felt that things were lining up in a similar way after my 10 years with this band and my 30 years on earth. Our motivation for singing and playing isn’t defined by a checklist; it’s such a natural thing that it’s helpful to have someone in the room who has their eyes closed and is just listening. When the producer guy has his eyes rolled back in his head, it’s a good sign that we’re tapped in deep. Our band has a funny way of making people who are brought into this fold feel like they’re really young and just got into music.”

Was brought in Little Village’s Jim Keltner to play drums on eight tracks and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ Benmont Tench to play keyboards on four. Keltner and Tench play with a subtlety that reinforces the thump and overtones of the youngsters without betraying Old Crow‘s identity as a string band. When these L.A. session pros add swirling Garth Hudson-like organ and economical Levon Helm-like drumming behind Secor’s harmonica on “Highway Halo,” a song about a prostitute named Lily Kimball, the results sound like the Bob Dylan & the Band in 1974.

Dylan has been a touchstone for Secor, ever since the latter started playing harmonica in a rack as a 12-year-old. In fact, the Old Crow song that has gotten the most airplay has been “Wagon Wheel,” an outtake from Dylan’s sessions for the Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid soundtrack. Dylan and the band (including Keltner) fell apart halfway through the number and never returned to it.

“That session produced some great songs, like ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door,'” Secor claims, “and this could have been another one, but it never got finished. So I decided to finish it. Dylan claims he didn’t write it, that he got it from Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup, and Crudup says he got it from Big Bill Broonzy. This is the folk-music chain in action; I’m glad when I can add the next link in that chain. Dylan was such a helpful road map to all the deep musical places in America. Once I found them, I didn’t need Dylan as much, but I remain deeply indebted to him.”

Old Crow Medicine Show intends to support Tennessee Pusher with some heavy touring this fall and winter. Founding member Critter Fuqua, who contributes vocal harmonies to the new disc but no picking, will not be with them. Taking his place will be new member Gill Landry, a guitarist that the band first met while busking in New Orleans during the 2001 Mardi Gras. This year, however, they won’t be standing on a corner, passing a hat.

“Some of your career decisions aren’t about dollars and cents,” Secor points out. “Sometimes you have to take less money to make more money down the line. You have to rent out a big theater in Minneapolis to prove to people you can play a big theater, to let them know you’ve arrived, even if you have to take a hit and make less money than you would have if you went back to that little place again. Those decisions are starting to pay off for us.

“But just because the stages are a little larger and the bus is a little shinier doesn’t mean that you’re not still down there in the dust with the people, because that’s where this music comes from. You may sleep in a motel room 20 floors up, but once you start playing the banjo, it’s still an old slave instrument from Africa. You can’t play it without hearing the strike of the cat-o-nine tails in every chord.”

Though Old Crow Medicine Show is now based in Nashville, they still write songs about the people they knew when they lived up in the mountains: the meth cookers, barbeque chefs, bike gangs, chain gangs, hungry babies, street whores, train tramps, truck drivers, ex-lovers and panhandlers. Old Crow tries to document these lives without romanticizing them. When Secor sings “Methamphetamine,” he may explain the reasons for taking up the trade (“When it’s either the mine or the Kentucky National Guard, I’d rather sell him a line”) but he’s also blunt about the damage done (“It’s gonna rock you ‘til you’re out on the street”).

“When you stop at a truck stop in Bowling Green at 4 a.m.,” Secor says, “you’re going to meet half the people on this record standing in line in front of you. If you don’t see them, you’ve got your eyes shut. The people who live in those Cumberland Mountains are dear to me. Our band greatly benefited from being able to briefly participate in their society. So I wanted to shine a light on them in their dark hollow. I didn’t want to go new age on them, though; I didn’t want to go Great Society on them either.

“That crystal meth has changed a lot of things in those mountains. In terms of what people need to get out of their three-room trailers, government isn’t trickling down; big business isn’t trickling down, and the meth isn’t helping. A lot of the people on this record are now in prison. I hope this record will be heard by prisoners all around the country. I think it is good music for people who are incarcerated or who are bound up one way or the other-people like Lily Kimball and all the prostitutes of Memphis. This gal she needs some wings, and a good song can make that happen.”