OCMS: “50 Years of Blonde on Blonde” and Coming to Terms with “Carry Me Back”

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source: amazon.com

After Old Crow Medicine Show’s triumphant Carry Me Back and the hey-that’s-damn-catchy Remedy (both with ATO Records), I have paced in anticipation, I have salivated, I have hoped and dreamed of the next Old Crow release. And, lo! It cometh!

On April 28, 2017, Old Crow released their first record with Columbia Nashville, 50 Years of Blonde on Blonde. I had hoped to write a full review of the new album but what’s the point? 50 Years of Blonde on Blonde is a live, bluegrass-ish, track-for-track cover of Bob Dylan’s 1966 album, Blonde on Blonde. The zeitgeist of Dylan-cred has haunted Old Crow tracks from “Wagon Wheel” to “Sweet Amarillo.” Old Crow’s frontman, Ketch Secor, even shares co-authoring credits with Dylan for “Wagon Wheel,” making it less of a cover and more like a collaboration with a 25-year gap between writings and recordings. 50 Years of Blonde on Blonde is not “Wagon Wheel” but a forgettable tribute album at best. Do you know what’s more fun than listening to Old Crow’s 50 Years of Blonde on Blonde? Listening to Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde. Old Crow really dialed-it-in on this one. 50 Years of Blonde on Blonde is as interesting as Faith Hill covering “Piece of My Heart” or (dare I say?) Darius Rucker covering “Wagon Wheel.”

Instead, carry me back to 2012 and Old Crow’s Carry Me Back

The album strikes hard and early with a fiery fiddle and percussive guitar strumming. “Carry Me Back to Virginia” is a revisionist’s battle cry, lamenting the hubris of Confederate soldiers and the pain that the American Civil War still inflicts upon the South. Being a proud southerner is a struggle. I love pine country but am so often disappointed by my vociferously hateful, backward-voting neighbors. Torch-bearing, white nationalists have marched on Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the removal of a local monument to Robert E. Lee as recently as four days ago. The battles are no longer declared but the War is still being fought and the South — especially those who promote comradery, equality, and not only tolerance but respect and acceptance — are still trying to come to terms with a history and heritage that can be both grand and shameful.

Old Crow masterfully balances pride and joy with remorse, regret, and longing. “We Don’t Grow Tobacco” and “Half Mile Down” depict tradition as it clashes with modernity on the southern front. Change is constant and change in a rural setting can be devastating for laborers who have found a way to scratch a living from the soil only to have the industry, the market, or the very land on which they depend ripped away in the name of progress. “Bootlegger’s Boy” tells of another way of living, one outside the law. Secor builds his character up as a fun-loving, fast-living moonshiner who ends his run of fortune with one swipe of a razor blade.

The themes span the South but not all are backward-gazing. “Genevieve” is an out-of-love song dedicated to a Creole queen. The goosebump-conjuring ballad, “Levi,” reminds us of the cost of sovereignty and global conflict. More than 40% of America’s enlisted soldiers hail from the southeast. The South disproportionately bears the brunt and burden of our military exploits. “Ain’t it Enough,” like so many Old Crow songs, begs for peace and promotes simple, down-home living. Neither song quite protests war — certainly not so pointedly or poignantly as “Carry Me Back to Virginia” and the album’s finale “Ways of Man” — but they do ask why. Why struggle to make life easy? Why fight with our neighbors? Why not live and love and die at peace? Why send our boys to die in places where they do not belong? Simply, why?

All the while, Old Crow absolutely tears it up. Carry Me Back plays hot, loose, and rowdy like an Old Crow album should but unlike their earlier studio albums — O.C.M.S and Big Iron World especially but even Tennessee Pusher — all of which could be said to have a porch or garage sound, Carry Me Back is when Old Crow really comes into their own musically. For the first time, Old Crow sounds like veteran professionals. Respect.

Carry Me Back does have a whiff or two, “Sewanee Mountain Catfight” for one. The song objectifies women, perpetuates derogatory hillbilly stereotypes, and sexualizes violence. I wouldn’t condone any of that but I’m also not prone to clutching pearls. Finding these topics in song hardly shocks me; art can be crude. Yet, “Sewanee Mountain Catfight” is neither funny nor witty nor necessary nor musically or technically interesting. Still, I don’t fault Old Crow for including the track. Five tracks earlier (in “Mississippi Saturday Night”) Old Crow sings, “ladies in the juke joint, looking for a fight.” Sure, Sewanee Mountain is in Tennessee, which is patently not Mississippi — so, we’re talking different juke joints, different ladies, and different fights — but that line establishes a loose continuity in theme. And being true to their themes is what makes Old Crow so good. Eighteenth-century, mixed-act road shows called “medicine shows” were precursors to the now more familiar vaudeville. Old Crow is vaudeville. Think of Groucho Marx, who got his start on the vaudeville circuit and championed vaudevillian humor on the big screen in films like Duck Soup and Night at the Opera. Stylistically, Marx was quick and relentless. He would deliver joke after joke after joke in quick succession as though to say:

You didn’t like that one? How about this one? No? Well, let’s try this one? You liked that? Great! Let’s try another. I got plenty more.

Marx’s quips come so quickly and so relentlessly that, even if only one out of four lands, the audience is still rolling. That’s how Old Crow delivers their lighter tracks:

Here’s “Mississippi Saturday Night.” You didn’t like that one? How about “Steppin’ Out.” No? Well, let’s try “Country Gal.” You liked that? Great! Let’s try “Sewanee Mountain Catfight.” We got plenty more.

Old Crow hits their stride when they are true to their medicine show moniker, which is why 50 Years of Blonde on Blonde irks me to no end. Some might see 50 Years… as an altruistic tribute. Some might see it more accurately as a cash-grab. I see it as a cred-grab. At best, cred-grabbing comes off as pathetic, like the droves of clueless “country” singers who drop names like “Hank” and “Willie” in songs that sound nothing like anything Hank  Williams or Willie Nelson would sing. At worst, it comes off as desperate, like when Laura Jane Grace (formerly Tom Gabel of Against Me!) sings, “I dreamed Bob Dylan was a friend of mine.” [*Author shakes head, sighs.*] Not to slander Against Me!. I have the utmost respect for what Grace has accomplished onstage and off but Against Me!’s credibility, like Old Crow’s credibility, comes from doing their own thing and doing it well. So many other artists are keeping the spirit of Dylan’s heyday alive without bludgeoning listeners with shallow references and uninteresting tributes. If you dig Dylan but want something contemporary, check out the Felice Brothers’ 2008 album, (aptly titled) The Felice Brothers, and leave 50 Years… alone.

In all, Carry Me Back is a triumph, a proud though occasionally apologetic and often thoughtful celebration of southern heritage and the southern condition. The album ends with a contemplative guitar waltz, “Ways of Man.” That rusty drawl crooning over sad chords, just try not to think Willie Nelson and what country music once was. “Ways of Man” is “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” meets “Ain’t It Enough.” This is Old Crow’s credibility in a song, carrying legacy onward, forward.

*Featured image source: Wikimedia.org

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