For the past 16 years, Old Crow Medicine Show have been channeling traditional folk music, be it through Depression-era string music, Appalachian bluegrass, or old-timey Americana. They modernize these genres for a rapt 21st century audience. They play fast, with punk energy and a whole lot of earnestness. They’re responsible for the most ubiquitous folk song of the past decade, “Wagon Wheel”, a platinum-certified song famously co-written by Bob Dylan and made into a Top 40 hit in 2013 by Hootie from Hootie and the Blowfish. On the strength of that song, their raucous live show, and their fairly solid string of albums, Old Crow Medicine Show have laid claim to being one of the foremost American string bands.
Remedy, the band’s eighth studio effort, is a reunion of sorts. It marks the return of founding member Critter Fuqua, who left the band in 2007. The band teams up with producer Ted Hutt, who helmed their last effort, 2012’s Carry Me Back. Most importantly, Remedy features another Bob Dylan “collaboration,” “Sweet Amarillo”, a song that aims to recapture the magic of “Wagon Wheel”. For the track, Dylan sent lyrics with specific instructions for the band, detailing his preference for fiddles over harmonicas and having the chorus come in on the 16th bar. But while it’s the best song on the record, it’s hard to see it having the lasting effect of “Wagon Wheel”, apart from making a claim for country radio airplay.
The rest of the album works hard to reach the same heights as “Sweet Amarillo”, but ultimately it doesn’t. With Hutt’s production, the songs, even when ferociously strummed, feel a bit tidy, glossed-over, and cleaner than the ragged charm of their origins. “Brushy Mountain Conjugal Trailer” and “8 Dogs 8 Banjos” should have the rustic appeal of their earlier songs, but the major studio sheen and played-out folk tropes neuter it. The state flag of Tennessee adorns Remedy‘s cover, and for good reason, as it’s the most Nashville-sounding record of their catalog. The O’Charley’s-referencing “Dearly Departed Friend” and “The Warden” feature some sing-along ensemble country, and it’s mostly successful. The blitzing fiddle of “Shit Creek” and the hook-heavy romp of “Mean Enough World” are also redeeming moments.
Old Crow Medicine Show deserve credit for sticking to their roots. As we’ve seen from newer, more pop-minded folk revivalists, a refined studio sound can really take away from the songs (see The Avett Brothers’ mostly dire streak of Rick Rubin-produced LPs). While Old Crow Medicine Show haven’t really tinkered with their sound as much, something’s missing. Compared to their earlier successes (particularly 2004’s O.C.M.S.), Remedy is a mostly pleasant, forgettable dose of Americana. There’s as much to forget as there is to appreciate.
Essential Tracks: “Sweet Amarillo”, “Mean Enough World”, and “Shit Creek”