With 2008's Tennessee Pusher, left-of-center bluegrass-slash-rock band Old Crow Medicine Show has a new album iconic and idiosyncratic enough to be both mainstream and misunderstood. If justice were to prevail, this gem of a record would be in line to earn a Country Album of the Year award at the Grammys or CMA Awards. But it won't, and you get the feeling Old Crow's Ketch Secor doesn't care.
"When I listen to country radio, I listen to it because I like to know what we are up against and who is setting the trends we are here to buck," says Secor, the chief songwriter and frontman for Old Crow. As Secor talks, it's evident he wants tangible, greasy, smoky, oozing vitality in his music.
"I believe in the power of music - to console, comfort, heal and to bring joy," Secor says. He talked with NUVO from his home in Nashville as his band geared up for a tour that will take it once again across the United States and then to Australia for the first time. The band hits Indy for a show at the Vogue Jan. 31, the fourth stop of the tour.
Here's why Tennessee Pusher is a great album: It's full of hook-laden, embraceable harmonies and genuine rock and roll attitude cloaked in classic country instrumentation. It's an oddly compelling record that reveals itself with multiple listens, as great albums do, on which well-crafted and inspirational songs about mortality ("Evening Sun", "Next Go 'Round") mix with boozy party songs ("Alabama High-Test," an ode to moonshine and "Humdinger," a Crow retro-sounding cut about a cop-free party).
Produced by Don Was (best known for helping resurrect the career of Bonnie Raitt by helping craft her Grammy winning album Nick of Time in 1990), the band also enlisted legendary drummer Jim Keltner for six of the 12 tracks on Tennessee Pusher and Tom Petty keyboardist Benmont Tench on four.
"The album is a progression more than a departure from our earlier albums," Secor says. "It is a little more accessible. That is because of Don."
The harmonies on the album are raggedly perfect. The fiddle playing screams like a rock and roll guitar. Listen closely to Tennessee Pusher and hear moments that echo The Beatles, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Kristofferson, Springsteen, Skynyrd and Neil Young. The record debuted at No. 7 on the Billboard Country Music album charts with scarcely any mainstream radio help.
Old Crow Medicine Show was started in 1998 by Harrisonburg, Va., junior high buddies Secor and Critter Fuqua. They went to New York, met friends Willie Watson and Ben Gould, and recorded a record (1998's Trans:mission) in Critter's bedroom, so they would have something to sell when they went on the road. Since then, the current lineup of Secor, Fuqua, Watson, Kevin Hayes, Morgan Jahnig and Gill Landry have traveled hard, crisscrossing the country, playing thousands of shows.
"People are going to get a high energy, pulse-racing, foot-stomping show," Secor says of the band's concert. "Sometimes it feels like a little bit of a camp meeting, like a little proselytizing is going on, in a snake-handling, strychnine-drinking way. Though I'm not saying we're going to drink strychnine on stage, and I don't want to encourage anyone else to either. But if you are seeing us for the first time, I do hope you have tomorrow off from work."
Secor, intelligent and forthcoming in an interview, is unwavering in his quest to carry American music forward.
"Regionality in music is one of the most important factors we have today," he says, as a dog barks in the Nashville background. "I like a sense of place in music. I really like artists who come from somewhere. Listen to John Cougar and you know the guy's from the Hoosier state. There's a backdrop to all the language in his songs. There is a rusty truck idling outside of a Quik Mart. I know where that is."
Secor seems to relish the band's place in the continuum of American music, no matter what their too-soon-to-tell legacy ends up being.
"I am honored to be a part of the work that has gone on in the past to get us to the present," he adds. "I like to think Old Crow and Barack and the dreamers, thinkers and tinkerers are all part of a new paradigm."