Old Crow, New Song: Old Crow Medicine Show at MASS MoCA
by Robert Burke Warren
Like a longtime married couple who’ve survived everything from overfamiliarity to substance abuse to trial separation, Nashville-based Old Crow Medicine Show deserves a standing ovation just for showing up at MASS MoCA on Tuesday, May 28. Attendees will keep the applause coming, however, from opening song to encore, as the sextet, formed in 1998, still deliver their rollicking, punky string band material with uncommon passion. “A band can’t be around for fifteen years without some changes,” says multi-instrumentalist Christopher “Critter” Fuqua. “Shakeups, ups and downs, that’s the nature of the beast. It’s pretty unusual when you think about it. It’s a marriage.”
Fuqua knows whereof he speaks. After bonding in an elementary school production of The Red Badge of Courage, he founded OCMS in Ithaca, NY, with childhood friend Ketch Secor, Old Crow’s dynamic leader and frontman. Unlike most youngsters, they unplugged, infusing old time, hardscrabble acoustic music with the dervish energy of their beloved punk and metal records. With a boost from the O Brother Where Art Thou? phenomenon, they rose quickly from city sidewalks to the festival circuit to A Prairie Home Companion and the Grand Ole Opry, introducing many twenty-somethings to Americana. A good time, for sure, but the pace and the attendant chaos took their toll. After writing, recording, and touring nonstop, Fuqua left the band in 2007 to get sober and, he says, to save his life. As his mates soldiered on, Fuqua rehabbed, cooled his jets, and attended college, working toward an English degree. In 2011, the band went on an indefinite hiatus, but returned late last year with the lauded Carry Me Back, welcoming Fuqua (who’d sorely missed making music) back to the fold with open arms.
How has sobriety affected time spent in a band famous for blistering live shows, not to mention many a song celebrating, uh, drinking? How’s the “new” Critter Fuqua faring?
“I’m a more authentic me because I’m sober,” Fuqua says. “There’s a new spirit in the band. Everything feels real fresh. Ketch and I recently realized we’ve played music over 20 years together. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Old Crow Medicine Show has enjoyed an uptick in popularity these last couple of years, due in part to the recent “New Acoustic Wave”; hot, banjo-toting bands like Mumford & Sons, the Lumineers, and the Avett Brothers cite OCMS as an influence. In an increasingly digital age, why the current fascination with back porch-friendly fare?
“Americans in particular always fetishize the ‘authentic.’” Fuqua says. “People want to have something that roots them. A lot of Americans feel unrooted. A banjo and a fiddle and acoustic guitar roots them in some way.”
Another reason for Old Crow’s continued upward trajectory is the tunes. In addition to revivifying old traditions and tackling well-worn chestnuts, the men in Old Crow Medicine Show write canon-worthy songs. Their biggest hit, “Wagon Wheel” — on which Secor shares writing credit with Bob Dylan — is certified platinum, has been viewed more than 17 million times on YouTube, and exists now in the campfire singalong firmament alongside “Free Bird,” “Friend of the Devil,” and “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.” During his sabbatical, Fuqua says he met fellow college students who knew and loved the tune, but had no knowledge of Old Crow Medicine Show.
On Carry Me Back, they do it again with “Levi,” a powerful, mournful-yet-celebratory soldier’s tune both old timey and contemporary, about a real-life American Army sergeant and fan of Old Crow Medicine Show who was killed in action in Iraq. Not only has Levi’s family expressed appreciation, but vets frequently attend OCMS shows, helping the band raise the roof.
“Seems like just about every show we meet a veteran,” Fuqua says. “War has always been a theme in our writing, and soldiers like our music. It hits home, it touches a facet of American life that feels so separate for them. There’s a part of America that’s not at war, and there’s a part that is. Some people have sons and daughters over there, and some just have a sticker that says, ‘Support our Troops.’
“Sometimes people think protest songs and folk songs are in the past, but they need to realize I can have my own voice and I can write about my brother in Afghanistan and have it be real. Doesn’t have to be dated, it can be right now. Unfortunately war is almost a force of nature. It’s always here.”
Speaking of forces of nature, some you can experience at will and some you cannot. The righteous Old Crow Medicine Show is one of the former, a reminder of the power of music to hold things together, against the odds.
Tuesday, May 28, 8 p.m.
Tickets: $35 advance/ $40 door