REVIEW: Old Crow Medicine Show – ‘Volunteer’

There can be no better introduction to the immense back catalogue of recorded Grand Ole Opry performances than Old Crow Medicine Show’s various appearances. Check out ‘Tennessee Bound’, ‘Carry Me Back to Virginia’ or their duet with Darius on ‘Wagon Wheel’. Great country music highlights.

They play with a passion. They play acoustically and they have a great front man, Ketch Secor, who helped to form the band in the late nineties with Critter Fuqual.

They have come a long way since they began performing open mics in Virginia and busking outside pharmacy’s in North Carolina. ‘Volunteer’ is their sixth studio album and their first containing new original material for their major label benefactors, Columbia Records.

They actually debuted on the label a year ago with a tribute to Bob Dylan’s ‘Blonde on Blonde’, but for ‘Volunteer’, Dave Cobb was enlisted and a booking was made at RCA’s legendary Studio A in Nashville. It probably helps to have a studio budget. The end result is an album that Old Crow fans will savour.

Whilst there has been tinkering here and there, an occasional non-acoustic instrument and, according to Ketch, “less old time acoustic music and more rockin’ sounds”, it’s pretty much standard OCMS.

They have always been a band that has to be seen as well as heard. The opener ‘Flicker and Shine’ is a high-tempo foot-stomper with fiddles. It’s the first single release and perfectly epitomizes the vibe and energy that the band have built their reputation upon. It’s an Old Crow hoedown and I get the impression that Mr Cobb may have said “ok lads, let’s see what you can do before we get started”.

‘A World Away’ winds the tempo back just a little. Described as a homage to immigrants, it’s harmonica-driven and tells a story of the guy who is standing at the gate with a suitcase but is still a world away from getting past the gates.

Dave Cobb’s influence is prevalent on ‘Child of The Mississippi’. It doesn’t and couldn’t get more southern than this. It’s hardcore Dixie. Starting with acoustic guitar and building with banjos and bass, this would make a great theme song to a movie.

‘Look Away’ is a highlight; Secor’s tribute to the American South. There are times when Old Crow studio-recorded songs entirely mirror their live performances. ‘Look Away’ however has the depth and instrumentation that an accomplished producer brings to the project. Dave Cobb, take a bow.

You won’t be sitting down too long. ‘Shout Mountain Music’ returns to the bluegrass roots that we know and love. They came to a fancy recording studio in Nashville with a mega producer but sang a song that includes the lyrics “I ain’t gonna change my sound when I get to Nashville town shouting mountain music all night long”. Love it.

‘Homecoming Party’ is hands down the best track on the album. It’s criminally short, fading at just under three minutes, but those three minutes are pretty majestic. A simple tale about returning home from a tour and trying to readjust to home life should feel sad and melancholic, but Old Crow don’t really do sad and melancholic.

‘Elzicks Farewell’ is a straightforward, very fast bluegrass instrumental that could be replicated in an Irish bar before the show ends with ‘Whirlwind’. Pedal steel, Secor’s voice and a light ballad. Trust me, a formidable combination. It’s a song that’s been performed live for at least six years but has finally made its way on to a record.

The album comes in at eleven tracks and the experience is short but very sweet. The combination of the major label and the prized producer may have inspired a change of direction, but that’s not what Old Crow Medicine Show are about.

Ketch Secor recently said “we were not the ones who were going to sell the millions of records and sell out arenas but we could be a part of that success and also affect those bigger artists’ ability to spread this message to their listeners”. That sounds exactly like a certain Mr Stapleton pre-‘Traveler’ days.

There’s nothing radical about Cobb’s production. He’s tinkered here and there and they sound better for it, but this is a band who have been performing at the Ryman Auditorium and the Grand Ole Opry for 18 years. They were mentored by Marty Stuart and became official Opry members in 2013. They won’t compromise their signature sound, and Old Crow fans love them for their style, energy and traditionalism.

The guys are embarking on an extensive North American tour this year to support the release of the album. Sad from our perspective not to see UK or European dates announced yet. They would be an awesome addition to our summer festivals, or, dare I say next year’s C2C line-up.

Graham Wharton