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Feedback with Greg von Teig: Old Crow Medicine Show’s Volunteer Review

 

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.

 

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Feedback with Greg von Teig: Four Introductory Folk Punk Albums

 

There is an ideological commonality between Pete Seeger and The Sex Pistols that occurred to me instantly the first time I heard someone sell a band to me as “folk punk.” Folk music was, prior to the eruption of popular music in the 20th century, defined as music by the people, contrasted with classical music which was written for the aristocracy. Punk was born out of a resentment for a musical aristocracy that was forming. As Jethro Tull and Pink Floyd wrote music for the intelligentsia, Johnny Ramone and Joe Strummer began to formulate a sound that appealed to people who didn’t want to think. The political similarities were immediately evident to me. What is “All You Fascists Bound To Lose” but Woody Guthrie’s version of The Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks **** Off”? Wasn’t it Leadbelly who fought the law and the law won (three times, no less)? The marriage between the two genres is far from seamless. An entire punk song is about as long as a single verse of a folk song, and you’ll never see Joan Baez playing a Gibson. But these differences can be overcome and have been.

This list aims to capture the recent folk punk scene, with a very orthodox definition of folk punk. I’m not including things like Mallory’s To The Hollow Night which is an excellent album that isn’t quite folk but isn’t punk enough to fit this definition of “folk punk.” Nor does it include things like The Dreadnoughts’ “Polka’s Not Dead,” which is very good Celtic/Klezmer punk, but is too electric to qualify for this definition of “folk punk.” Lastly, it is not a history of folk punk. Tho it includes some landmarks of folk punk history, I’m not trying to give a comprehensive list of the greatest folk punk albums ever. So, in chronological order…

People Who Can Eat People Are The Luckiest People by AJJ

This was my introduction to folk punk and it changed my fifteen year old world. Coming out of a “music is dead” phase where I only listened to Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, People Who Can Eat People… showed me that new things were still happening and genre fusion was the future. Never before had I heard such intense and frenetic strums on an acoustic guitar or a mandolin. The shear breadth of instruments called on for this album is breathtaking. Never before or since have I heard such ornate arrangements come out of an album that I don’t hesitate to call punk.

People Who Can Eat People… has a great strength in its variety. Although always elaborate in it’s instrumentation, AJJ mixes it up from frenetic strums on “Rejoice” or “Randy’s House,” which guitarist Sean Bonnette 10 years later says is too damn fast, to the slower numbers like “A Song Dedicated To Stormy The Rabbit” and “Personal Space Invader,” which are slow enough to let the listener take a breath but not so slow as to lose the momentum the album relies on. It’s certainly the folkiest of the albums on this list, and is the best for people coming from a Pete Seeger background. I think this album really influenced Old Crow Medicine Show, too, but that’s just by comparing the music, not based on anything I’ve read.

Essential Tracks: “Rejoice,” “Brave as a Noun/Survival Song,” “Personal Space Invader”

Available here.

Live the Dream by Ramshackle Glory

Pat “The Bunny” Schneeweiss is probably the most significant figure in modern folk punk. Although he is now retired from punk and music, his work as Johnny Hobo, Wingnut Dishwasher’s Union, this band, and his solo work are some of the most celebrated music in the genre. Live The Dream is the album Pat made as he was getting sober, as he makes clear in “First Song Part 2” when he sings “took the needle out of my arm about a year ago today.” The upbeat power anthems “Vampires are Poseurs” and “More About Alcoholism” are balanced by the sometimes painful and intimate ballads like “We Are All Compost in Training” and “Never Coming Home.”

The lyrics and the music are equally amazing on this album. The words are proof that punk can be poetry when it wants to. Pat’s exploration of addiction as it manifests in suicidal tendencies (“so I’m ready to die/but I’m not willing to watch you watch me die here in our bed” in “Never Coming Home”), the damage done to those around the addict (“I’ve done you so much wrong I can’t believe/you would still talk to me/and I spread so much bullsh*t I can’t believe that anyone around me can breathe” in “First Song Part 2”) and the quest for meaning (“won’t you tell me we want something more than just more beer and if that ain’t true/won’t you lie to me tonight” in “From Here To Utopia”) coupled with ornate folk arrangements utilizing everything from the banjo and violin to a full horn section create an emotional punch so powerful some people with similar histories can’t handle it. Live The Dream is not only a classic but became an essential sensation that made it a landmark in folk punk history, so significant it even has a parody cover album, Live The Meme by Sadgirl Collective.

Essential Tracks: “From Here Till Utopia,” “Vampires Are Poseurs,” “Your Heart Is A Muscle The Size of Your Fist”

Available on Bandcamp.

Rouge Taxidermy by Days N Daze

Days n Daze is hardly new, but they feel it. They began releasing albums in 2008 but the low production value made them difficult for many to listen to. I, who regularly put on field recordings from the Lomax archives, didn’t have this problem, but their popularity took off when they got in a proper studio and their genius became more readily accessible. Whitney Flynn has one of the finest voices in folk punk, able to croon sweetly on tracks like “Blue Jay” and screech a metal scream on tracks like “Rockabilly Impending Deathfuture,” well complimented by Jesse Sendejas’ hoarse and gravely vocals. Primarily utilizing guitar and mandolin with washboard, trumpet, and gutbucket as secondary instruments, Days n Daze is kind of like if a poor bluegrass band from the 30s started doing crack.

Days N Daze is almost a caricature of folk punk. “Bugs in the kitchen and mold in the sink/chugging down the whisky you’ll never stop to think/what’ll we do tomorrow” perfectly summarizes the impoverished but hedonistic lives so many folk punkers lead. I’d be amiss to represent today’s folk punk without an album with songs about train hopping and shooting dope, but it’s accompanied with an energy and artistic integrity unmatched in the crust punk subgenre of folk punk.

Essential Tracks: “Misanthropic Drunken Loner,” “Day Gaunts,” “Goodbye Lulu”

Available on Bandcamp.

Regicide by We The Heathens

We The Heathens is the newest folk punk band I really love. A string trio (violin, guitar, and mandolin), they’re a different kind of folk punk, they can get real quiet in their arrangement and real sweet in their melodies, with songs like Radio and Laundry Day able to leave you feeling calmer than when you put it on. But if you’re questioning their punk credentials, just turn to “Failure To All Justice To None” or “Earth Infanticide” to hear their gruff gravely voices really screech.

Regicide was their sophomore album and I was really split on whether to use it or their third album The Blood Behind The Dam, but I went with this because it’s proven the test of time more. They like to sample spoken word, this album opens with JR Oppenheimer (I think) speaking about the dangers of the atomic bomb, another way that We The Heathens stands out from other folk punk. Overall, Regicide is just a great exploration of where folk punk could be going and hopefully will go soon.

Essential Tracks: “Earth Infanticide,” “When It’s Gone,” “33 Shots”

Available through Bandcamp https://wetheheathens.bandcamp.com/album/regicide

 

Greg von Teig is a musician and author living in Brighton, Massachusetts. His expertise is classic rock, folk punk, and the blues.