With the recent success of bands like Mumford And Sons and The Avett Brothers, bluegrass-tinged folk rock has become increasingly trendy, even seeping into American Idol via this past season’s winner, Phillip Phillips. With roots music suddenly morphing from something old people listen to into a mass-market cash cow, it would be easy for Old Crow Medicine Show, a banjo-clad band that’s been around a while, to tone down its twang, pump up the light rock, and hoot and stomp all the way to the bank. After all, the band’s biggest hit, “Wagon Wheel,” is popular not just because it’s based off a Bob Dylan riff, but also because it’s the song that Mumford And Sons uses as an ebullient closer.
Carry Me Back, the band’s latest, doesn’t suffer from a shortage of whimsy, but its surplus of cringe-inducing aw-shucks hokeyness is problematic. The album vacillates between Gillian Welch-worthy balladry (“Levi”) and Hee-Haw-friendly odes to getting busy in a hayloft (“Country Gal”). While at least some of Old Crow’s members have Southern roots (Predominant songwriter Ketch Secor is from Virginia), when the band sings about growing tobacco (“We Don’t Grow Tobacco”) and selling corn whiskey (“Bootlegger’s Boy”), it sounds like posturing, the musical equivalent of a well-to-do person in tattered overalls riding the rails and speaking in a faux-drawl.
Carry Me Back’s failures are particularly disconcerting because the band has, in recent years, been homing in on a more mature, cohesive sound that’s entirely its own. On 2008’s Tennessee Pusher, producer Don Was got the group to rein in its hoedown hijinks, yielding a softer but no less giddy record. In contrast, Carry Me Back is a mish-mash of styles and directions, with great tracks like “Levi” and closer “Ways Of Man” juxtaposed with throwaways like “Carry Me Back To Virginia,” resulting in a half-baked cornbread loaf of an album.