Old Crow Medicine Show - Remedy
Record Label: ATO
Release Date: July 1, 2014
Its hard to write about bluegrass outfit Old Crow Medicine Show (OCMS) without getting flowery in praise. After all this is the band that made banjos, fiddles, dobros and mandolins cool again. A half decade before Mumford and Sons made Americana music the crossover genre it is today, a ragtag group of Appalachian hippies took a sound and made it snap, crackle and pop.
In doing so they courted the attention of Bob Dylan, who asked them to finish a song he had yet to complete. That song, “Wagon Wheel,” now made ubiquitous by country crossover artist Darius Rucker, has ensured that OCMS will have a splendid retirement, whenever it is these hillbillies decide to call it a career. For now though, the band is back at work, crafting first-rate bluegrass that is equal parts engaging, ebullient and sprite. On their ninth album, their second since founder Critter Fuqua rejoined the band, they play fast and loose, with a wanton abandon they haven't displayed in years.
Once again they’ve resurrected a Dylan tune (“Sweet Amarillo”) and that song is one of many apex moments on a disc that is in two words: absolutely delightful. The first of of those winning moments is the album’s opener “Brushy Mountain Conjugal Trailer,” a Secor tune that’s a frenetic, freewheeling, free-spirited good time. Laden by dobro and harmonica, it’s an ageless track from a band that truly has mastered the art of bluegrass. That sense of warped speed enthusiasm returns on one of the year’s finest cuts “8 Dogs, 8 Banjos,” a hip-shaking, beer-swilling stomper with all the charisma and charm that has made OCMS the juggernaut act draw they’ve come to be.
And then there’s the Dylan tune. “Sweet Amarillo” is a sweetly affecting, deeply hypnotic Cajun-style gem. Laced with accordion and even some Dylan-esque vocals, “Sweet Amarillo” is an absolute masterpiece and a sincere credit to both OCMS and King Dylan himself. The disc dips on “Mean Enough World,” easily the lesser track of the lot but one that serves as a serviceable bridge to the album’s towering ballad and one of OCMS’s best in quite a few years: "Dearly Departed Friend." Written by Secor about a soldier who has trouble readjusting to home life it’s a tender, touching and deeply poignant paean to our military and anyone whose been altered by the passing of a loved one. Founder Fuqua enters the frame on “Firewater,” a sweet and amiable cut that points at just how good nature and warm this band truly is. Honestly, how can anyone dislike this band? Even when they’re not at their best (“Firewater” is an example) they’re still pretty darn infectious. The lightning quick pacing returns on “Brave Boys,” and “Shit Creek” both of which are sterling examples of just how effortless this band churns out its craft.
One word that often gets thrown about OCMS is their commitment to playing old-time mountain music and nowhere is that more visible than on the harmonica-laden “Doc’s Day.” Written by Critter Fuqua, the song is an homage to Doc Watson, the bluegrass pioneer who discovered the band while they were busking on the streets of Boone, NC. There’s little about the song that feels rooted in the present day and it’s that sense of history that makes Old Crow such a formidable musical outfit. That sense of history matches the band’s penchant for resurrecting old songs and that is on full display on both “Tennessee Bound,” and “Sweet Home.” The former is a song originally written by Kentucky banjo player Lily Mae Ledford and given new life by OCMS while the latter extends a tune originally performed by seminal heroes The Skillet Lickers.
If Remedy has any issues it’s that only 20 percent of the album has ballads. Those ballads however are absolutely dazzling. Nowhere is that more abundant than on the album’s conclusion “The Warden,” a beautifully understated prison ballad that allows the song’s funereal arrangement and its tender lyrics to do much of the heavy lifting.
If OCMS has one giant asset it’s the band’s dexterity. With Old Crow, no one person is more important than the other. In addition to each band member playing at least three instruments, at least all of them share songwriting duties. “The Warden” was co-written by banjo player Gil Landry and singer-songwriter Felix Hatfield, while founder Fuqua penned “Firewater” and “Doc’s Day.” Similarly, founder Secor penned “Brushy Mountain” and “Dearly Departed Friend.” Granted there are bands that allow each member to contribute but the distribution of wealth is part of what makes OCMS so darn compelling.
Fifteen years into a career that begun as buskers on the streets of Boone, NC, Old Crow Medicine Show truly have it made. They’ve been inducted into the Grand Ole Opry, they’re the featured subject of on award-winning film, they’re reaping the royalties of a song certified platinum by the RIAA, and they play to sold out audiences on a nightly basis. At this point, the only question that remains is: how long can they keep it going? As long as they keep crafting albums as fresh, loose and fun as Remedy, chances are they’ll keep this truck roaring for another two decades. For that we should all be grateful.