One night in the early ‘00s, the legendary Doc Watson stumbled across a group of good-lookin’ cats playing old-timey music in front of a pharmacy in North Carolina, and immediately shipped them off to Merlefest. In 2004 they knocked the nation off our feet with their self-titled debut album. It opened with a fiery hot version of the traditional “Tell It to Me,” finished with the mostly original (and now legendary) “Wagon Wheel,” and also included one of the best versions of “CC Rider” ever recorded. Eight years and a couple of personnel changes later, Old Crow Medicine Show has dropped their fourth studio album, Carry Me Back. Recorded at Sound Emporium in Nashville and produced by Ted Hutt, the album delivers twelve original songs, most of which stay true to the band’s pre-World War II feel.
Old Crow is not really picker’s pickin’. Perhaps because they’ve been based in Nashville for so long (there’s a whole, whole lot of string bands here), it’s really surprising that after all these years the group still sounds so…amateur. There’s quite a lot that needs tightening up. Much of the singing is below average, and the fiddle licks almost seem to have regressed over the years. In their defense, Old Crow is a live band: “The greatness of an old-time string band lies in its performance,” says lead singer Ketch Secor. There’s a fire at a concert you can’t really catch in the confines of a recording booth.
But Thelonious Monk wasn’t known for his chops, either. If a musician delivers the right energy, the right soul, the connection is made and nothing else matters. By the end of the second track you can tell Carry Me Back has four times as much of this as 2008’s Tennessee Pusher, their last full-length release. The return of founding member Critter Fuqua seems to have revived the energy that made their classic debut album such a wonderfully hot mess. “Bootlegger’s Boy” and “Sewanee Mountain Catfight” especially go down hotter than a moonshine burn; “We Don’t Grow Tobacco” makes you want to see how fast your pickup truck can go. Carry Me Back is probably worth a listen, but whatever you do, don’t miss their live show.