oldcrowbw2With Tennessee Pusher, left-of-center bluegrass-slash-rock band Old Crow Medicine Show has a new album iconic and idiosyncratic enough to be both mainstream and misunderstood. If justice were to prevail, this gem of a record would be in line to earn a Country Album of the Year award.  But it won’t and you get the feeling Old Crow’s Ketch Secor doesn’t care.

“When I listen to country radio, I listen to it because I like to know what we are up against and who is setting the trends we are here to buck,” says Secor, the chief songwriter and frontman for a band that doesn’t seem to give a crap about pomp or glitz. As Secor talks, it’s evident he wants real, tangible, greasy, smoky, oozing vitality in his music, whether out of the five band members he tours with, or from speakers that play the music of others.

“I believe in the power of music – to console, comfort, heal and to bring joy.” Says Secor, on the phone from Nashville as the band gears up for a tour that will take it across the United States again and then to Australia for the first time. The band hits Indy for a show at the Vogue January 31, for the fourth stop of the tour

The record debuted at #7 on the Billboard Country Music album charts with scarcely any mainstream radio help.

And here’s why it is a great album: It is full of hook-laden, embraceable harmonies and genuine rock and roll attitude from a bunch of guys who have cloaked it all in classic country instrumentation. Unique yet familiar. An oddly compelling record that reveals itself with multiple listens, as great albums do. Well-crafted and inspirational songs about mortality (“Evening Sun”, “Next Go ‘Round”) mixed with boozy party songs (“Alabama High-Test” – an ode to moonshine, and “Humdinger” – a Crow retro-sounding cut about a cop-free party).

There are also distinct reminders of influences that blow through their music. Listen closely and hear moments that echo The Beatles, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Kristofferson, Springsteen, Skynyrd, and Neil Young.

Playing music together since 1998, Old Crow Medicine Show was started by Harrisonburg, Virginia junior high buddies Secor and Critter Fuqua. They went to New York state, met friends Willie Watson and Ben Gould, and recorded a record (1998’s Trans:mission) in Critter’s bedroom, so they would have something to sell when they went on the road. Since then, the current lineup of Secor, Fuqua, Watson, traveled hard – crisscrossing the country, playing thousands of shows.

“People are going to get a high energy, pulse-racing, foot-stomping show,” Secor says of the band’s concert. “Sometimes it feels like a little bit of a camp meeting, like a little proselytizing is going on, in a snake handling, strychnine drinking way. Though I’m not saying were are going to drink strychnine on stage, and I don’t want to encourage anyone else to either. But if you are seeing us for the first time, I do hope you have tomorrow off from work.”

Secor, intelligent and forthcoming in an interview, is strident about his quest to carry American music forward.

“Regionality in music is one of the most important factors we have today,” he says, as I hear a dog bark in the Nashville background. “I like a sense of place in music. I really like artists who come from somewhere. Listen to John Cougar and you know the guy’s from the Hoosier state. There’s a backdrop to all the language in his songs. There is a rusty truck idling outside of a Quik Mart. I know where that is.”

There is plenty of unique landscape in the “Tennessee Pusher” album. The harmonies are raggedly perfect. The fiddle playing screams like a rock and roll guitar. The banjos and harmonicas and stand up bass ring familiar. It is deep-rooted American music, blasted into 2009.

Produced by Don Was (best known for helping resurrect the career of Bonnie Raitt, crafting her 1990 “Nick of Time” Grammy winning album), the band also enlisted legendary drummer Jim Keltner for six of the 12 tracks and Tom Petty keyboardist Benmont Tench on four.

“The album is a progression more than a departure from our earlier albums,” Secor says. “It is a little more accessible. That is because of Don.”

Secor seems to relish the band’s place in the continuum of American music, no matter what their too-soon-to-tell legacy ends up being.

“I am honored to be a part of the work that has gone on in the past to get us to the present,” he adds. “I like to think Old Crow and Barrack and the dreamers, thinkers and tinkerers are all part of a new paradigm.”

(also read at nuvo.net – Indianapolis’s Alternative Newsweekly)

New Springsteen – Working on Dream – The First Listen

bannertour2Picked up the new Bruce Springsteen album “Working on A Dream” a few days early. It is getting both roundly ripped for being rushed and lyrically vapid, and also earning some glowing reviews, focusing on the well-executed pop/rock sonic departure and commending him for not using his platform to perform a soundtrack to the Obama juggernaut.

Here’s really what it is: “Working on a Dream” actually allows us a new way to listen to a Springsteen album. Is rocks and pops like nothing he has made. Clear and undone of the muddy Brendan O’Brien production of “Magic”, it positively gleams. The band shines, even if much of it was overdubbed, after a core group of Bruce, pianist Roy Bitten, drummer Max Weinberg and bassist Gary Tallent cut the basic tracks. But it moves me. And I wasn’t trying to like it, anymore than I was trying to hate it. I was just listening.

There are hooks and shining chord changes and plenty to make it as interesting – in spiritually musical sense – as any music coming from any artist.

Lyrically, I will give those who say the gut-wreching, subtle universal truths revealed by Bruce are fewer than on, say, “Darkness on the Edge of Town”. Yet it feels like a record (and I will periodically still use the term RECORD to refer to albums. I won’t however, say EIGHT-TRACK) that will grow, peeling back to reveal more good tracks than bad with repeated listens. As I write about the latest Old Crow Medicine Show album, “Tennessee Pusher”, the best albums are never just a sugar buzz, though need enough instant gratification out of the case to warrant a deeper dive.

Bruce has something good here. So I will continue to dive in. More listens will tell me if this one is a masterpiece hidden by those who bemoan because of what it is (different), or if it is really just a 2009 version of “Human Touch” (shiny and empty). I’ve been wrong before. But my gut is saying interesting and worth the time to get to know it

I’ve been right before too.