Old Crow Medicine Show
The last time I saw Old Crow Medicine Show I was double fisting pulled pork and PBR at a pig roast in Sewanee, TN. It was 1999, and word on the street was they had agreed to play for $150, a handle of whiskey, a place to crash and gas money to make the round trip from Nashville.
Since that spring afternoon 20 plus years ago the band has woven itself into the storied tapestry of Americana roots music. They’ve played legendary venues and festivals and toured with an exhaustive list of juggernauts including Willie Nelson, Gillian Welch/David Rawlings and the dearly departed John Prine. They’ve logged thousands of miles on the road, endured lineup changes and inspired a metric fuckton of good times along the way.
Their music stems from the seeds of Appalachian hollers, dust bowl ballads, string bands, juke joints and beer-soaked honky tonks. It’s got a punk rock pulse, and like a Walker Evans photograph, it’s unassailably authentic, transcending space and time to preserve the past and define the present.
Speaking of the present, who else feels like we’re living through a cluster fuck bingo card nightmare? Between a global pandemic, fire tornados, police brutality and a bitter election cycle fueled by combustible, blue versus red politics, 2020 has been savage. The country stands divided, our collective psyche a vessel fractured. We’re racing toward a precipitous edge, and to make matters worse, live music is on life support. Venues are closing and musicians are out of work.
But that caustic sense of impending doom took a backseat when Old Crow Medicine Show hit the stage last Friday at the Nutty Brown Amphitheater in Austin, TX.
It was an emotional “Mr. Bojangles” opener as the band welcomed Asleep at the Wheel founder and frontman, Ray Benson, to the stage to honor Jerry Jeff Walker, who had succumbed to a lengthy battle with throat cancer earlier that day.
Born Ronald Clyde Crosby, Walker penned “Mr. Bojangles” after meeting the namesake while in jail. It’s a bona fide standard and has been covered by everyone from Nina Simone and Todd Snider to the Pamberi Steel Orchestra. And in a wistful twist, it was actually the last live song I heard before quarantine came to town. If you don’t know it, you should.
Keyboardist Cory Younts stood just to the left of center stage, his eyes closed, holding his hat over his chest the way Jerry Jeff used to do, as Benson and the Old Crows gave the song a fairly standard but impassioned rendering. The harmonies during the chorus glowed like a well tended fire, and Robert Price’s mandolin shimmered like its warbling embers rising to meet the stars.
Although “Mr. Bojangles” is Walker’s best known song, he was a luminary in the Texas music scene for decades, and Benson’s praise for him was nothing short of effusive when he spoke to the Austin American Statesman.
“Other than Willie, Jerry Jeff is the most important musician to happen to Austin, Texas, I would have to say. He really brought that folksinger/songwriter form to its height in Texas. And for that, he’ll be eternal, because there’s all these kids today that write songs in that mode.”
Benson, a living legend himself, remained on stage for a handful of songs including “Alabama High Test” and “Tell It To Me”, a frisky, albeit cautionary, tale about corn liquor and cocaine. Yount’s keyboard work added some rowdy ragtime swagger to “Tell It To Me” and other numbers in the Old Crow catalog that didn’t initially include tickled ivories. Having heard several of these on various live albums it wasn’t a surprise, but it sure was a pleasure to hear them live and in person.
They kept their collective foot on the gas for “Hard To Love/Elzick’s Farewell”, which featured hot fiddle licks and sweet harmonies. Ringmaster and fiddle player Ketch Secor prefaced the song with some comments on quarantine life, which concluded with, “Things are feelin’ sorta safe, so let’s play some hillbilly music!”
It was at this point that everybody should’ve, and in the before times, would’ve, been cutting a rug. However, nobody seemed to want to get into an oil and water situation with dancing and social distancing, which I get. If that’s the norm to resume shows until we get a vaccine, I’ll party on the inside.
“Down Home Girl”, an ode to an earthy, sultry inamorata slowed things down a bit, and was followed by “Quarantined”. The relatively new song included a humorous chorus speaking to the frustrations of folks looking to get their kiss on during quarantine.
“Brushy Mountain Conjugal Trailer” continued the frustrated lover theme, but prison replaced quarantine as the obstacle to sexy time. Fortunately for the confined and the condemned, there is time off for good behavior, though what happens in the trailer may or may not stay in the trailer. I suppose it doesn’t matter much when the hangman comes at dawn. In any case, it was a raucous ditty highlighted with saucy dobro licks from Joe Andrews and anchored by the foot stomping drum and upright bass tandem of Jerry Pentecost and Morgan Jahnig.
The remainder of the set included “Sweet Amarillo”, a medley of “Fall On My Knees / Tear It Down / Raise A Ruckus”, “Whirlwind”, “Take Em Away”, “Sixteen Tons”, “Wagon Wheel” and “Cocaine Habit”.
The fan favorite “Wagon Wheel” may have elicited the loudest eruption from the socially distanced crowd, but their cover of “Sixteen Tons”, most famously performed by Tennessee Ernie Ford, stole the second half of the show, capping the homestretch with some spooky mojo. Originally written by Merle Travis, the song tells the story of the bleak existence of a Kentucky coal miner.
Life in the mines was harsh, uncompromising, and as indicated by the chorus, ultimately a disposable asset controlled by the mining company
The Old Crows took that gritty historical content and polished it with a theatrical cloth, which showcased them not just as ace multi-instrumentalists but also animated performers, savvy storytellers and flat out funny dudes with a legit flair for showmanship.
Lest the long, single set end on a grim note, the band gave another nod to ski time with “Cocaine Habit”.
The “take a whiff on me” refrain made me wonder about tooter protocol during COVID. We’re clearly not all on the same page regarding masks, but is everyone carrying around their own short plastic straw these days? Blow isn’t passé, is it?
The tune peaked with introductions and solos, and the unbridled energy of the night was most clearly evident in Secor’s bow, which was in shreds by the time the last note had been played.
A night that opened with a tribute to one Texas legend ended with one for another. After a short encore break the band returned to the stage for a medley of Willie Nelson’s “Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die” and “Will The Circle Be Unbroken”.
Basking in the buzz of my first show in months, I chanced to think of kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery by mending the pieces with powdered gold.
The best music is always about more than just entertainment. It educates, inspires change, challenges authority and brings people together. And perhaps its restorative quality is its greatest power of all. Hats off to Ray Benson and the great and powerful traveling Old Crow Medicine Show for rolling into town with some powdered gold to help mend the pieces of a fractured world.
Also, hats off to the staff at the Nutty Brown Amphitheater for facilitating what was a remarkably smooth, and by all accounts, safe, experience.