Old Crow Medicine Show
"Big Iron World"

(Nettwerk Records 2006) Old Crow Medicine Show - Big Iron World

Perhaps you read about the Manhattan folk music scene of the early 1960s in Bob Dylan's recent memoir, "Chronicles, Volume 1." Or perhaps you are old enough to have experienced it first-hand. If the latter is the case, congratulations on living this long. You're a real trooper.

For the uninitiated, it will suffice to say that the world Dylan inhabited at that time was populated by historically and intellectually minded musicians with an insatiable appetite for murder ballads, Delta blues, hillbilly music, protest songs, and outsider troubadours. If it came after 1940, they typically weren't interested.

Following squarely in this tradition is Old Crow Medicine Show, a band from my home base of Nashville. Like me they aren't actually from here; in fact, they actually formed in, of all places, New York.

"Big Iron World" is their second album. It is rooted squarely in the folk and blues traditions of the 1920s and 30s, with an equally large debt to Dylan. The record is produced by David Rawlings, Gillian Welch's collaborator. This is significant for reasons beyond the mere sound of the recording. In my mind, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings set the current gold standard by which all other third-wave folk revival/hillbilly minstrel acts should be judged. Let's face it -- acts who aren't from the South but pretend to be are generally held to a higher standard. With their remarkable song craft, aching melodies, and lyrical economy, Welch and Rawlings exceed the standards of most critics, or at least this one.

Since Rawlings produced this effort and also appears as a co-writer and guitarist, the bar was set that much higher for this predisposed hater. And so when we start out with a tepid redux of a Coasters number, "Down Home Girl," my inherent skepticism is immediately validated. I check my email, I check my bank balance. Goddammit, my direct deposit hasn't shown up yet.

Then track two, "Cocaine Habit," came on and reeled me back in. This is an old favorite of mine from the Memphis Jug Band, a rabble-rousing junk blues outfit from the 1920s whose influence is apparent throughout "Big Iron World." Underneath "Cocaine Habit" you can hear a big organic beat propelled by bass fiddle, guitar, and stomping feet, with Ketch Socor's folkie shouting and Dylanesque harmonica on top. The updated line "You don't believe cocaine is mighty good/Just ask Karl Rove and Elijah Wood" even makes me laugh on the inside -- it shouldn't work, but it does. By God, these guys really did something right on this one. "New Virginia Creeper," an original double-entendre train song with the killer refrain, "Ride you in my sleeper, I'm the New Virginia Creeper tonight," cements Old Crow's place as the best extant Memphis Jug Band tribute band. And as a MJB tribute band, OCMS can do no wrong.

So it should come as no surprise to those skeptics still among us that the rest of the album features fewer of the MJB proclivities that we have come to know and love over the last 150 words, and more reliance on folk-revival influences. "Union Maid," the Woody Guthrie tune, is played a bit too fast and sung a bit too flat. Despite coal mining's deep presence in my family roots, union songs always fail to send me, and I'm guessing that those of you who have some faint notion of what a union song is would almost unanimously second that sentiment. "God's Got It" is the band's solitary stab at gospel. I don't remember much about it except for a) I didn't like it; and b) Willie Watson, the ostensible vocalist on this one (the liner notes get a big "F," by the way), is probably their best singer.

But despite some less than stellar moments, much of this folkie material is redeeming. In fact, "I Hear Them All," a co-write by Ketch Secor and David Rawlings, is a new peace anthem for another generation struggling with a hopeless war. All the suffering and deception in the world burns to ash in a utopian vision that places all peoples and religions at the table together. I didn't think that someone could write a song like this in 2007 and make such a powerful, visceral statement, but "I Hear Them All" has succeeded. God, I really hate to do this, it's the cheapest critic's trick in the book, but I … can't … RESIST. It's like Dylan and Lennon wrote a song together. There. I need to take a shower now.

Even though this is a somewhat mixed review, I like these guys. Give me their record, and I will gladly play it, skipping through on the first listen for rousing send-ups to that remarkable Jug Band from Memphis. Take me to their show, and I will drink too much and tell the band how great they were after their set, then feel embarrassed about it in the morning. They may have only modest talent in the areas of singing and musicianship, but these guys combine an ardent love for the Memphis Jug Band with a lyrical flair and some David Rawlings co-writes. That combination can make up for a lot of shortcomings.

But can it make up for my shameless Dylan/Lennon comparison? Please, Old Crow, save me from myself.


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