Filed by M. Trevor Higgins
Old Crow Medicine Show are throwbacks, for sure, but I’d hardly call them revivalists. On “Big Iron World” the string-band crafts a truly contemporary album despite covering Woody Guthrie and singing about displaced riverboat workers.
The outlaw mountain wails of Ketch Secor and Willie Watson are mournful and impassioned as they sing songs that would be at home with the work of Pete Seeger or early Bob Dylan. Plucky guitar and banjo lead the way, the only percussion you will find are sparse clickety-clicks from guest drummer Gillian Welch. If it weren’t for the Karl Rove name-check and allegorical parallels to current events this album might feel archival.
But the songs are too engaging. “God’s Got It” is hauntingly understated, full of vibrating moans and a revival tent creeping bass. It’s the most direct turn to faith, but religious notes resonate throughout the album. “Cocaine Habit” is a good old fashioned barn hoe-down.
The stand-out, however, is “James River Blues,” the aforementioned tale of boatmen quickly outdated by prominence of the railways. Sung in first person, the sad tale of once valued men now without purpose is told in against the backdrop of the powerful, ever moving, unchanging river.
“I’ll be stepping out tonight on the cool flow/floating down, down below/the bridge to the water’s edge/from the ridge to the ledge/from the hills to the sea/I’ll become a memory.”
One song before Guthrie’s “Union Maid,” “James River Blues” is one of several Tom Joad campfire sing-a-longs on the album.
But again, don’t let the comparisons to the music of a generation ago fool you. “Big Iron World” is a record for today, busting with passion, that just happens to performed by a string band. Or as OCMS sings on the opening track “You’re so down home, girl.” So are they.
Four-and-a-half stars our of five.
E-mail M. Trevor Higgins at email@example.com