O.C.M.S. album cures the bluegrass blues

Old Crow Medicine Show is an ensemble known for its gritty and at times intimate sound that conjures images of both the American South as well as Appalachia. In its past two albums, O.C.M.S. and Big Iron World, Old Crow Medicine Show has successfully defined itself in the Americana and bluegrass traditions, producing a rootsy sound that is at times reminiscent of the early days of American folk music and at times innovative and modern. In its third album to date, Tennessee Pusher, the band has done just this with an added contemporary touch that hints at a more creative and novel feel than their last two albums.

With new producer Don Was, who has worked with the likes of Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and Bonnie Raitt, and an added organist and studio drummer, the band has remained true to its original raw country sound but has nonetheless cleaned up and refined its sound. While the album contains the usual mix of renegade, drug-referenced songs with the more occasional love songs, it departs from the band’s traditional sound with songs that resemble what one would have heard if they turned on a country radio station in the 1960s – free and easy country with a hint of pop.

Opening with “Alabama High-Test,” the album jumps directly into the hell-raiser sound the group is so renowned for. The narrator paints an image of running from the cops under a certain influence as he belts out “Alabama high-test/ Got me in a big mess/ Higher than a wild cat/ Runnin’ from the wolf pack/ They’re gonna put me in the slammer if they catch me with that Alabama high-test.” With an especially gritty fiddle solo in the middle, at no point during the song does the vocal and musical tension abate.

Another great hit on the album that I cannot help but praise to death is “Highway Halo,” the band’s most audible departure from its bluegrass roots. Opening with a smooth harmonica solo that is harmonized with an organ, the listener cannot help but, yet again, feel as if he is on the road along with the narrator, observing the open countryside on the way to the heartland of America. The lyrics are consistently intimate and tranquil, as manifested by the chorus: “Gone where I do not know/ One eye on the open road/ Stepping out in the great unknown/ With a highway halo.”

“Caroline,” the quintessential Medicine Show folk jig, is the album’s only single to date. With a feel good, blissful edge, it brings the listener back to the carefree days of youth in which friendship and love are as of yet uncomplicated. The layers of guitar, banjo and harmonica produce a clean, beautiful tone and fit snugly with the lyrics “Oh Caroline/ Heartbroken hard times, they never got us down/ Walkin’ the same line through every single southern town/ Hand-in-hand, your arm ‘round mine/ Oh Caroline.”

Tennessee Pusher is a wonderful testament to how the best country music will not be playing on the radio or on CMT anytime soon. Having found its own unique style, Old Crow Medicine Show is part of a group of folk/bluegrass players who refuse to conform to the norms of modern day pop-country.

With the release of its new album, the Medicine Show has rightfully found its niche within the tradition of Americana music, while simultaneously building a larger, more diverse foundation. The band has indeed lived up to and arguably surpassed its own standards of quality bluegrass music.