With Paint This Town, Old Crow Medicine Show remind us how we’re better off facing our past, without toning down the celebration in their music.
You don't have to follow the news much in order to acknowledge that political polarization in the United States has climbed to alarming levels over the last few years. Naturally, the widespread sense of a deep social fissure has been reflected in many ways across the American musical landscape.
Paint This Town, the seventh studio album from Nashville-based “old-time” outfit Old Crow Medicine Show, speaks to the divide by grappling openly with America’s history of racial strife. Fans of the band probably won't be surprised that frontman/bandleader Ketch Secor has his attention focused in such a direction.
This time around, with the raucous, harmonica showcase ‘DeFord Rides Again’, Secor and the band recognize DeFord Bailey, the first African-American star of the Grand Ole Opry - and one of its most popular early performers - who inadvertently inspired the show’s name as he was being introduced during a broadcast in 1927.
Bailey, whose harmonica playing left a lasting imprint on both the blues and country, was essentially fired from the Opry, which precipitated his quick fade from public view. ‘DeFord Rides Again’ is an indictment of the fact that Bailey died unrecognized after essentially being shoved out of the public eye.
Conversely, the song title ‘New Mississippi Flag’ suggests that Secor wants to just tear the band-aid off when it comes to the subject of race. Instead, he takes the opposite approach.
Often referenced as an emblem of the extreme viciousness of life under Jim Crow, Mississippi is an easy place to point fingers at, particularly for artists who prefer to ignore the fact that terror, murder and segregation were hardly exclusive to America’s Deep South.
Instead of pandering to such stereotypes, Secor instead appeals to Mississippians’ sense that they also have much to be proud of. A plaintive, downtempo piano ballad, ‘New Mississippi Flag’ finds Secor proposing a new flag for the state that would include two stripes - one apiece for Robert Johnson and Charley Pride - along with a star for Elvis and other visual nods to writer Eudora Welty and country music progenitor Jimmie Rodgers.
Commendably, OCMS are one of the few premier “revivalist” groups out there who are willing to at least broach the uncomfortable truth that looking back will drudge up skeletons. That said, Secor and company spend much of Paint This Town also taking aim at contemporary/personal concerns; the opioid crisis, big pharma, rising water levels, environmental decay and divorce. Through all this, they still somehow sound like they’re having a hell of a lot of fun in the process.
For such a "heavy" record, Paint This Town has “party” stamped all over it. It’s as if they can’t help themselves: as serious as they get on these songs, the band doesn't tone it down when it comes to the actual music, capturing it in all of its sweaty, foot-stomping glory.
When the band cranks up the amps and tears through the rockabilly/boogie hybrid ‘Bombs Away,’ for instance, you’d never know Secor was singing about a relationship on the brink. And if you didn’t know the backstory, you’d think you were at a jamboree when drummer Jerry Pentecost leads ‘DeFord Rides Again’ into its singalong chorus of “Blow! Blow! DeFord, blow!”
After being hailed for over two decades as pioneers of the “old time” movement, OCMS have certainly earned the right to stretch into country-rock territory. They don’t necessarily add a fresh touch there. It’s hard to distinguish the title track, for example, from vintage John Cougar Mellencamp. And at times, the mix courtesy of co-producer Matt Ross-Spang (Jason Isbell, Margo Price, John Prine) can be inoffensive verging on overly safe.
Still, no amount of production polish can subdue the band’s energy, which comes across so convincingly here that you can’t help but feel your pulse start to pound and your feet start to move.
Clearly, Secor thinks we’re better off facing rather than ignoring our demons. Walking away from this album, though, one realizes that’s a lot easier to do when you have your spirits lifted in the process.
Old Crow Medicine Show's album, Paint This Town, is released April 22nd via ATO Records.
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