The bluegrass scene has its hardcore purists and staunch traditionalists as well as its more experimental, risk-taking artists, and Carry Me Back underscores the fact that Old Crow Medicine Show fall into the latter category. This 2012 release doesn’t try to sound like a collection of Bill Monroe recordings from the 1940s. Instead, Old Crow Medicine Show combine bluegrass with everything from honky tonk, country-rock, rockabilly, outlaw country and alternative country to folk-rock.
They employ the acoustic instrumentation of bluegrass, old-time country (as in Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family) and Appalachian string bands, but all those fiddles and banjos don’t mean that the songwriting on Carry Me Back faithfully emulates the Anglo-American songwriting of 70 or 80 years ago; Old Crow Medicine Show are a lot more modern in their outlook.
However, modern doesn’t mean slick on this album. Carry Me Back doesn’t sound anything like the slick, glossy, pop-drenched “new country” that one hears on contemporary country radio. This is roots music through and through, and instead of running away from the hillbilly and good ol’ boy stereotypes, Old Crow Medicine Show revel in them. That country-and-proud outlook prevails whether they are providing exuberant, fast-tempo barnburners like “Bootlegger’s Boy,” “Mississippi Saturday Night” and “Sewanee Mountain Catfight” or taking a more reflective approach on “Ain’t It Enough,” “Ways of Man,” “Levi” (which describes the death of a solider in the Iraq War) and the Waylon Jennings-ish “Genevieve.”
With their accounts of bootleggers, moonshine whiskey, small-town preachers, tobacco farmers, country gals, haylofts and barnyard dances, Old Crow Medicine Show make no bones about their desire to make Carry Me Back a hillbilly manifesto. To put it bluntly, this album is way too country for contemporary “new country” stations. But then, that obviously isn’t the audience that Old Crow Medicine Show are going for.
This album is a perfect fit for the alternative country/No Depression audience (which, for the most part, would rather hear the Blood Oranges, Whiskeytown, Uncle Tupelo or the Drive-By Truckers than Sugarland or Lady Antebellum), and that audience will eat up the small town and rural imagery employed on “We Don’t Grow Tobacco,” “Half Mile Down” and the title song. The alternative country/No Depression audience will also eat up the Bob Dylan-ish touches on “Ain’t It Enough” and “Ways of Man,” the outlaw country defiance of “Sewanee Mountain Catfight” and “Bootlegger’s Boy” and the rockabilly/honky tonk exuberance of “Mississippi Saturday Night.” The alternative country/No Depression crowd will appreciate the way that “Country Gal” references Hank Williams, Sr.’s classic 1951 hit “Hey, Good Lookin’” even though it’s clearly a different song.
In one interview, rapper/actor Ice-T drew a parallel between gangsta rap and outlaw country: he asserted that when Johnny Cash, on his famous 1955 hit “Folsom Prison Blues,” declared that he “shot a man in Reno just to watch him die,” it wasn’t radically different from the urban outlaw tales that would be coming of hip-hop 30 and 40 years later. Some country fans resented Ice-T’s outlaw country/gangsta rap comparison, but for the alt-country/No Depression crowd, hearing a well-known gangsta rapper (hell, Ice-T wrote the book on gangsta rap) praising Johnny Cash was a validation; it reinforced their assertion that real country is hip, edgy and relevant, not square or moribund.
A lot of alt-country fans identify with the edginess of punk, metal and hip-hop, and for them, the fact that Carry Me Back is as ballsy and gutsy as it is will be a plus rather than a minus. Alt-country fans will be glad to hear that “Mississippi Saturday Night” has a similar mood to George Jones’ honky tonk/rockabilly hit “White Lightning” (a #1 country hit back in 1959) even though Old Crow Medicine Show are using acoustic instrumentation rather than electric pedal steel guitar (which has been one of honky tonk’s trademarks since the 1940s).
Carry Me Back is an excellent demonstration of what these good ol’ boys have to offer.
LISTEN TO MY FAVORITE SONG: “Ain’t it enough”