It appears that Old Crow Medicine Show has finally become a household name, though the final push to get there may not fully reflect the band’s talent and years of hard work. After 16 years of sidewalk busking, cross-country touring, superb songwriting and recording, it was pop-country star Darius Rucker’s cover of the band’s “Wagon Wheel” that brought O.C.M.S. into the mainstream fold.
Timed perfectly to ride the wave of Rucker’s “Wagon Wheel” success, the Nashville-based band just released its eighth studio album, “Remedy,” which carries a collective sound that screams O.C.M.S., while adding a couple of nuances that slightly shift the band’s course.
First, with the departure of former member Willie Watson — who left the group to pursue a solo career — comes a vocal void that is glaringly obvious to any listener who has been following the band’s trajectory. Watson’s trademark timbre always added an Appalachian authenticity to songs that frontman Ketch Secor is not quite able to reproduce, though he comes very close.
Second, on “Remedy” Secor and crew include tracks that make an obvious nod to modern country music. This direction will certainly appeal to the mainstream country music fan, and potentially secure their current spot in the limelight. However, long-time fans may find it unsettling.
Fortunately, these country tracks are scant and the meat of the album stays true to the traits that have made O.C.M.S.. great for so many years — old-timey salt-of-the-earth storytelling peppered with parody, punk-rock energy, and good old-fashioned traditional folk instrumentation.
Listener response aside, “Remedy” may be just what the doctor ordered. The album is fun and carefree with top-notch songwriting and strategic introspective moments. O.C.M.S. has always possessed the gift of storytelling through their songwriting, making it difficult to distinguish personal experience from that of a stranger, deceased soldier, leathery farmer or backwoods moonshiner. This storytelling gift has created a genuineness that has earned the band a loyal following over the years.
There are several glimpses of this level of storytelling on “Remedy,” though with less historical reference than on previous albums like “Carry Me Back.” Rather, “Remedy” feels very present, as the boys hail Music City, lament loss, explore the ups and downs of prison life, and tackle pessimistic attitudes. The album’s upbeat tracks can do no wrong, while selective ballads feel overworked with pedestrian themes.
The album opener, “Brushy Mountain Conjugal Trailer,” gets things rolling with a hot prison teaser, steaming with enough vivid imagery to keep prisoner acting on their best behavior. “8 Dogs 8 Banjos” follows and explodes with a feverish fiddle and rolling banjo arrangement along with fun call-and-response lyrics, making it near impossible to sit still. This track will translate perfectly on stage, and is sure to become a fan favorite.
“Sweet Amarillo” marks the second time O.C.M.S. has taken an unfinished song by legendary musician Bob Dylan and made it their own. Here, dusty winds blow a bit farther West from Nashville, Tenn. giving the sweet cowboy ballad more of a Texan texture—of which Dylan reportedly approved. “Mean Enough World” is like a steam engine cranking through the station with a perfect combination of whiny harmonica, speedy banjo picking, and finger wagging lyrics begging for a light at the end of the tunnel.
Though the sentiment is powerful on the next two tracks, they struggle to keep up with the album’s musical caliber and therefore feel a bit out of place. “Dearly Departed Friend” fills the album’s fallen soldier quota, but falls flat and translates like a country Jimmy Buffett tune. While “Firewater” is a poignant chronicle of band member Critter Fuqua’s struggle with alcoholism, it fails to live up to its musical potential. Hopefully, both of these tracks will evolve and improve as they are road tested.
“Brave Boys” picks spirits back up in true O.C.M.S. fashion with a raucous cadence, fiddle solos and enough band hollering to reach coal miners in West Virginia. “Doc’s Day” is the perfect old-timey, playful tribute to Doc and Merle Watson, fit for front porch jam and sweet tea sipping.
More tributes follow as O.C.M.S. bows down to the bounties of their current hometown, Nashville, Tenn. “O Cumberland River” praises the southern waterway’s beauty, utility, and power as lyrics recall the devastating 2010 river flood that wreaked havoc on Music City. “Tennessee Bound” jumps right in line with a typical O.C.M.S. rambling homecoming tune, sung with pure pride and joy.
“Shit Creek” proves that O.C.M.S. still possesses the lyrical talent and musical prowess to keep fans satiated. This track turns up the fiddle speed dial just passed “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” mark and is chock full of enough river/relationship metaphors to keep listeners busy for a while. It ranks as one of the album’s best.
O.C.M.S. continues the tradition of keeping a light-hearted outlook on life with “Sweet Home,” a spirited sing-a-long about heading to the pearly gates. The album closes with “The Warden,” a stripped-down, harmony-rich ballad sung from the point of view of an observant criminal. This track is an outstanding example of an unhurried O.C.M.S. song that maintains the band’s rich storytelling abilities and traditional sound.
Overall, “Remedy” delivers what O.C.M.S. fans desire — mountain music with a good mix of fundamentals, fun and fire to keep things moving forward. The few weak spots on the album are overshadowed by the boot-stomping, hand clapping pace, strong songwriting, and consistent mingling of harmonica, fiddle and banjo across tracks. This album will certainly continue to grow the band’s fan base in different directions and motivate new fans to catch a live O.C.M.S. performance, which is where these boys really shine, much like a big ol’ full moon over that muddy Cumberland River.