With 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)