Old Crow Medicine Show is a bit of an institution in Americana at this point. Forming in 1998, the first album of this Tennessee string band gained traction with the unlikely hit “Wagon Wheel,” an adaptation of an outtake from Bob Dylan’s soundtrack for the movie Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Employing vivid imagery about a man fleeing New England to meet his girlfriend in Raleigh, “Wagon Wheel” is filled with musical clichés but many listeners weren’t accustomed to the older style so it was a novelty to their ears. OCMS’s debut O.C.M.S. album was given a huge boost because of the success of this single, though “Wagon Wheel” is hardly typical of that album. Since then the group has been waving the banner of old time bluegrass with more success than just about anyone else in that style.
Listening to 2018’s Volunteer the question I asked myself over and over again was “has OCMS turned into a parody of themselves?” “I ain’t gonna change my sound when I get to Nashville town” Ketch Secor cries on “Shout Mountain Music” and I guess he really means it. It doesn’t feel like there’s been any significant change in their sound since 2004. Which is rather impressive when you consider the variety of producers they’ve worked with. From the punk oriented Ted Hutt (Gaslight Anthem, Dropkick Murphies) to the Americana super star producer Dave Cobb (Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton), Old Crow Medicine Show keeps the same rootsy bluegrass sound I always call as if Days n Daze didn’t do enough drugs.
I shouldn’t shame Old Crow Medicine show for doing something well and sticking to it. Angus Young famously said “people say AC/DC made 12 albums that all sound exactly the same, but that’s not true – we’ve made 13 albums” and I’ve always admired that about AC/DC. And I said in March that Dorothy’s 28 Days in the Valley was an unwelcome departure from the blues rock she was so perfectly executing before, and that Brian Fallon should have stuck to the Painkillers sound on Sleepwalkers. So why is Old Crow Medicine Show in hot water for sticking to doing something they do well?
Well, as I explained at the beginning of my 28 Days in the Valley review, there’s a question of how saturated a group’s discography with a single sound. There’s a difference between a departure on the second album and a departure on the sixth (not including the out of print albums). I’ve lamented that we didn’t get more albums from Bruce Springsteen in the style of his 1973 albums Greetings from Asbury Park and The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle (I understand the importance to his career of the shift to a more commercial sound on Born to Run, a sound which I also adore, but there’s only so many times I can listen to “Rosalita” before I start to wish there was more like it). Then there’s the additional question of how saturated the global discography is with a single sound. Dorothy’s ROCKISDEAD was a one of a kind album, much like Springsteen’s E Street Shuffle (Brian Fallon’s Painkillers was less unique which is why I was less harsh on Sleepwalkers for not succeeding it in stylistic terms). The world needed more albums like that which is why it can be disappointing that they weren’t made. Old Crow Medicine Show is one of those revival bands. The kind of band that mirrors old styles without adding a new spin. There’s a huge number of bands that did what OCMS is doing now 40, 50, 60 years ago. How much more of that Bill Monroe style do we really need?
Maybe I’m being too harsh dismissing Volunteer as a recycling of the first five albums. It was on this album that they introduced electric guitars and the slide guitar. The rhythm and arrangement on “Look Away” is much more like “Wild Horses” by The Rolling Stones than any of the classic country/bluegrass acts. Still, Ketch Secor finds himself going back to the same old lyrical tropes of getting blitzed and having a party and just enough Confederate nostalgia to make you uncomfortable but not enough to make you give up on the music, while the frantic, frenetic jug band rips through classic bluegrass riffs at the speed of amphetamines. It leaves me wondering if they are even capable of doing anything else.
Greg von Teig is a musician and author living in Brighton, Massachusetts. His expertise is classic rock, folk punk, and the blues.