We rarely come across genuine buskers in America – street musicians playing their hearts out in public – let alone tightly-meshed ensembles with keening vocal harmonies, fiddles and banjos. But Old Crow Medicine Show (O.C.M.S.), doing things the old-fashioned way, took their stirring and reassuring music to people where they lived, made friends, opened ears, moved feet and drilled passageways through time.
Today, with a wider musical range than their Appalachian string band origins, O.C.M.S. play more concert halls, festival stages and rock venues than street corners, but a sense of surprise is still very much in play. Old Crow is not the only band playing pre-World War II blues, fiddle tunes, rags, hollers, hokum and jug band music, but they do so with a brazenness born of growing up around AC/DC, Nirvana and Public Enemy. The fiery result equally impresses fussy old-time music scholars; fellow modern day roots musicians and fans that forage on the frontiers of hip.
These five young men from four different states joined forces in New York and lit out gypsy style while still learning their instruments and repertoire. They rambled town-to-town across Canada in a van, playing for food and shelter. They settled for a year in the mountains of North Carolina, where their knowledge of old-time string band music blossomed and their loyalty to one another deepened.
There as well, they enjoyed their most storied lightning strike of good fortune. While playing in front of a pharmacy in Boone, a woman approached them and asked if they'd be there a while; she wanted to fetch her father to hear them. Dad turned out to be folk icon and flatpicking pioneer Doc Watson, who expressed his delight by inviting the band to play MerleFest, his four day-congress of acoustic and roots music.
MerleFest led to an invitation to play street-style in the plaza in front of the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville and eventually the Opry stage itself, where the band earned a rare debut standing ovation. By this time Old Crow had moved to Music City in their battleship Cadillac and moved into a rented house between two highways, where they studied ever-widening circles of early American music and wrote their own new American music. As O.C.M.S. evolved toward a more urban, rollicking jug band sound, more high-profile gigs followed, including opening slots for Dolly Parton and the Del McCoury Band, an invitation to join Marty Stuart and Merle Haggard on a U.S. tour, massive jam fest Bonnaroo and public radio's A Prairie Home Companion.
Once they'd attracted the interest of Nettwerk America , the label that launched the career of Coldplay and is home to Neil Finn and The Be Good Tanyas, O.C.M.S. was more than ready to go; for a year they had been working in the studio with a producer similarly energized by the arcane but vital influences of pre-War music. David Rawlings, duet partner of New Folk standard-bearer Gillian Welch, led the quintet into two of Nashville's most storied studios – RCA's legendary Studio B (good to Elvis, Waylon, Dolly and more) and Woodland Sound Studios, where Will The Circle Be Unbroken had been made in 1972. The resulting self-titled album shares with that influential Circle album (and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band that masterminded it) a wide range of traditional country and blues songs, from the reeling mountain party sound of "Tear It Down" and "Hard To Love" to the juggy stomp of "Tell It to Me" and the mournful Leadbelly-inspired version of "CC Rider."
It was inevitable with such provocative source material, O.C.M.S. would begin writing songs, and the new album features half a dozen by three of the band's members. Critter Fuqua's "Big Time In The Jungle" is an arresting Vietnam War story song (and a true one) that could have come off an overlooked vinyl classic from 1969. "Trials & Troubles" by fiddler/singer Ketch Secor and guitarist/singer Willie Watson is a lyrical stepson of Woody Guthrie, while the chorus' close harmonies evoke the Blue Sky Boys. Watson's remarkably timeless voice also fronts "We're All In This Together," while Secor's swaying "Wagon Wheel" rounds out the album. Both feature three-part harmonies that feel surprisingly like the country material of Neil Young and the Grateful Dead. Throughout, Kevin Hayes lays down an unmistakably original rhythm voice on his 1920s period guitjo, while Morgan Jahnig's upright bass binds and organized the band's sound from below.
O.C.M.S. members have no illusions that they're rediscovering the music of the pre-War era; many of the songs they hold dear aren't being released for the first time but being reissued for the umpteenth time. But by reinterpreting and reintroducing this canonical American music to new generations, they're feeding a deep cultural hunger. Old Crow's assets go far deeper than the songs themselves. It's an unbridled spirit, played live and loud across the nation, in a voice that's entirely their own.
--- from the official Old Crow Medicine Show website