The members of Old Crow Medicine Show didn’t grow up playing old-timey music. Frontman Ketch Secor wasn’t born with a fiddle in his fat baby hands; guitar and banjo player Critter Fuqua (whose given name probably isn’t Critter) didn’t entertain his kindergarten classmates by plucking out some Carter Family jams. Rather, Secor, Fuqua, and all the rest of OCMS were born, raised, and weaned on alt-rock and punk. Specifically—as Fuqua says in the bio for the band’s new record, Remedy—on Nirvana.
For by-the-book fans of Nirvana, the leap between Kurt Cobain’s grungy wails and Secor’s down-home ditties about prison and dogs might not seem like a direct line, but those with an understanding of the history of country music might get the parallels. Like punk, country grew from a dirty, raw dissatisfaction with the status quo. Hillbillies and immigrants shared songs of rebellion, of free living, and that’s what became the music Carrie Underwood warbles today. It’s not the cleanest line, given the pop-music turn the country industry has taken in the past 20-odd years, but for greasy honky-tonk acts like Old Crow, the parallels are still strong.
Of course, Remedy isn’t entirely a thrashed-out punk record. Some tracks, like opener “Brushy Mountain Conjugal Trailer,” spit into the wind defiant and snotty, but others, like Secor’s funereal ballad “Dearly Departed Friend” are more lackadaisical. Still, listen hard enough and the “up yours” subtext is there, with “Friend,” for instance, taking jabs at the military-industrial complex that led to the flag-draped coffin that now encases the titular pal. And while “Trailer” is hokey in its tongue-in-cheek take on how “hard time just got a little hotter,” it’s also a subtle acknowledgement that too many damn Americans are behind bars.
The punk parallels get a little clearer—albeit still tinged with a hillbilly haze—when it comes to “Sweet Amarillo,” a song OCMS composed using an old Bob Dylan demo. It’s something the group did before with its platinum-selling hit “Wagon Wheel,” and does again on Remedy to great success. Dylan is a young folk punk who said “F you” to the industry when he went electric in the ’60s and has said it again in recent years by not only putting out terrible Christmas records, but by teaming up with acts like Mumford And Sons and The Avett Brothers to bring a new-age hoedown to the Grammy stage. Dylan recognizes the through-lines in the bands, as tenuous as they might sometimes be.
Several other songs on Remedy manage to successfully blend that country twang with a sort of Ramones-style flightiness. “8 Dogs 8 Banjos” has a dumb title but aptly asks listeners to pick just what they “need in the whole wide world,” be it “hot coffee,” “sweet tea,” “corn whiskey,” or “dirt weed.” Love the stuff that makes you happy, the song opines, whether it’s cool (or healthy) or not. Firewater, which Fuqua wrote, gets a little waltzy toward the middle but still advocates for the downtrodden, the ones who have been “kicked to the gutter” and find themselves turning to firewater as “the one thing to put out the flame.”
Old Crow also pays homage to its direct ancestors on three of the record’s other tracks. “Doc’s Day” is a piece of what the band calls “historical fiction” that honors the group’s patron saint Doc Watson, who discovered the group busking in Boone, North Carolina in 2001. “Tennessee Bound” is not only a tribute to the group’s adopted home state but to the song’s original singer, Lily May Ledford, a clawhammer banjo player from the ’30s who helmed the Coon Creek Girls, one of the first all-female string bands to appear on the radio. “Sweet Home” was originally recorded by The Skillet Lickers who, when they formed in 1924, became one of the first “hillbilly” acts.
There are duds on Remedy, of course. The album’s second prison ditty, “The Warden,” skews a little ’80s country, even though its message is sound. And three of the album’s other tracks—“Shit Creek,” “Mean Enough World,” and “Brave Boys”—sound fairly similar, with their stomping choruses and posturing lyrics.
Old Crow Medicine Show is one of the preeminent forces in the roots and Americana music world, and it’s easy to see why. (They were even inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in late 2013.) But for those who are able to look beyond the mandolins and fiddles and focus instead on the group’s loud, fast, and loose aesthetic, Old Crow becomes more than just a bunch of hillbillies warming up the crowd before they tap a keg of moonshine. Remedy is not just full of happy songs, but of protest songs belted at top speed and on full blast. Old Crow is having fun and playing songs without a thought toward self-importance, and these days, that might be the punkest thing a band can do.