Old Crow Medicine Show – Paint This Town
ATO Records – 22 April 2022
Back on their former label, the New York Americana sextet Old Crow Medicine Show return with their first album in four years and the first to be recorded in their own East Nashville studio. Paint This Town features new members Jerry Pentecost (drums, mandolin), Mike Harris (slide guitar, guitar, mandolin, banjo, dobro, vocals), and Mason Via (guitar, gitjo, vocals), balancing what they describe as an obligation to talk about the more difficult things happening in the world and ensuring everyone’s having a great time while they do it.
To this end, they kick off with the harmonica blowing swagger title track, a co-write between singer Ketch Secor and Jim Lauderdale that draws on their own teenage years and the band’s career to paint a picture of kicking against small town life (“We were teenage troubadours hopping on box cars for a hell of a one-way ride”) where “farm kids go to make out or die”, and the highlight is climbing up the water tower or playing the jukebox at an all-night Waffle House, and of rebelling by painting anarchy signs on the power lines “Cause that’s what you do when you’re 15 years old”.
The lyrics reference Old Glory and the South, and its history and future loom large throughout, most pointedly on New Mississippi Flag, which, featuring Shardé Thomas on fife and, cast in mix of gospel and folk shades, imagines what it might look like (“She’ll be the color of the big muddy/Green as a burial mound /Gold like stars twinkling on a sleepy little delta town/In the middle put a big magnolia”) and how it would honour the state’s cultural heritage (“She’ll have a diamond for Elvis/Eudora Welty lines/Railroad dust for the brakemen singing Blue Yodel #9/She’ll have a stripe for Robert Johnson/And one for Charlie Pride”).
Again drawing on Southern history, but with a menacingly swampier chug and sax infused, John Brown’s Dream recalls the radical abolitionist’s violent rebellion against slavery and his death at the gallows, juxtaposing the voice of those who saw him as the devil (“Mister Governor Wise won’t you read from his crimes/While they wrap that rope round his neck/And old Mr Avis I want you to turn them pages/And read what the good book said”) with the memory of what he sought to bring about and “all her sons and daughters who died on the road to change”.
No less politically charged, co-penned by Secor and former member Critter Fuqua, the piano-backed slow march ‘Dylan meets Petty’ Gloryland laments the contemporary nightmare of a world gone insane (“Every inch of ground is a barrow land/A lost tribe of strangers scratching at the door/Shots in the alley blood down the hall”) with “flood water rising with poison rain” as he sings “Have mercy Saint Peter won’t you hurry up and let us in, Cause we’re locked out knocking at the gates of Gloryland”. Such issues are there too on the fiddle driving, urgent punky rocking Used To Be A Mountain which, partly based on memories of hitchhiking around coal country in his youth, concerns the problems facing Appalachia today, both in terms of the environment (“There used to be a river so clear you could swim to the bottom/There was heart there was soul but I guess that we forgot ‘em/Cause there ain’t nothin’ standing out the window but a sign on a slag pile/It says, It says there used to be a mountain here”) and the economy (“There used to be a house on the edge of town/There used to be a job and a roller rink”) as it firmly pints the finger of blame (“From the fat cats, race rats, big Pharma, tall stacks/They’re the ones digging the hole/All the way down to Guangzhou”) leaving the people “all jacked, smoke stacked, sucking on a thumb tack/Swinging at the end of your rope/From a shoelace”.
On a more personal note, the deceptively rousing yee-hawing fiddle and banjo (both Secor and Molly Tuttle) bluegrass romp Bombs Away is actually about his feelings and mental health following the end of his marriage (“You say you’re worried about the shape I’m in I don’t care what and I don’t give a damn… You say I act like a sentimental dope I say kiss me quick and show me the rope”).
The same musical energy barrels along with Lord Willing and the Creek Don’t Rise with its honky tonk piano, which borrows its title from the Jerry Reed song (who borrowed the phrase from North Carolina senator Benjamin Hawkins, though he was apparently referring to the Creek tribe) to strike a more optimistic note rocking on the riverside (“We’re gonna have a little party tonight/Come on Katy it ain’t no thing/Peel off your party dress dive on in”). By contrast, things take a darker turn for Painkiller; another Lauderdale co-write with Secor on fiddle, which, again taking a paradoxically rollicking rock n roll pace, addresses opioid addiction (“I heard the first taste’ll cost you a dime/They never mention how the prices climb”), borrowing railroad imagery for its metaphors (“I hear the whistle and it’s making me sweat/It’s getting closer but it ain’t here yet… Hop on the mainline if you wanna get gone/Hammer that big spike/Gonna be the death of me…driving insane on this runaway train”).
Slowing things down, Reasons To Run is a simple country strum about how constant touring can wear you down, sung in the persona of a faded musician who, using the Lone Ranger as its metaphor, has seen better days (“It’s a ghost life I live/On an open road/Come passing through towns where for years no one would ever go”) and features the album biggest hook refrain (“with every passing season I’m running out of reasons/Running out of reasons to run”). Keep the pace reined in, but with a bluesier slow-burn Southern rock mood laced with Charlie Daniels Band echoes, Honey Chile finds the singer in a town called Lonely where “the kudzu swallows everything that stands in her way”, missing the woman who “knocked me off of my feet like a freight train” because “Good lovin’ is a hard habit to break”.
A co-write with Tuttle and Jerry Pentecost, another roaring bluegrass stomp, DeFord Rides Again is a tribute to legendary harmonica player DeFord Bailey (the first Black star of the Grand Ole Opry) who “wailed on them reeds ’til his lips would bleed” but, after playing at the Opry from 1927 was fired in 1941 because of a licensing conflict for his songs (“black balled and shamed/Stripped out the silver from his hand /Now its welfare lines and a dollar shine”), rarely again performing in public (though he did appear at the Opry again in 1974 and 1982), dying in July and now buried in Greenwood in a plot four foot nine (childhood polio stunted his growth), Secor declaring “For our city’s biggest shame they whitewashed his name/And for that kind of sin there ain’t no excuse”.
It ends with the old time moonshine swigging sound of Hillbilly Boy, written by Secor, Fuqua and Cory Younts, the latter on lead vocals and harmonica, that tells of Wiley, who tuned in his crystal radio and got turned on to playing fiddle (“So Wiley hit the airwaves on the Wheeling Jamboree/In every little coal town they were dancing in the streets”), and became “king of the mountain, duke of the dance/Burning up the beer joints with his crackerjack band”.
Secor says that “at the end of the day, we’re still just trying to stop you on the street and get you to put a dollar in the guitar case”. Get your wallet out.