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Incredible String Bands

A once-underground movement proves it has legs

The Old Crow Medicine Show is among the best of the new old-timey thing.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 8/12/2009

The New Wave String Band movement first caught the attention of the wider world in 2004. That was the year that three of the movement's top bands left the realm of DIY albums and released new titles on well-established independents: Old Crow Medicine Show's O.C.M.S. on Nettwerk, the Wailin' Jennys' 40 Days on Red House and the Mammals' Rock That Babe on Signature Sounds. The next year, three more bands made the same step up from self-released projects: the Duhks on Sugar Hill, Uncle Earl on Rounder, and the Hackensaw Boys on Nettwerk. These mostly under-30 kids were using fiddles, mandolins, and banjos not to play bluegrass or singer/songwriter folk music, but the old-time country music that was eerily similar in rhythm and attitude to the punk most of them had played a few years before.

But now more people were paying attention. Suddenly these bands were no longer playing house shows or fly-by-night clubs or street corners for tips. No longer were they selling most of their CDs off the stage or out of the van. No longer were they playing just for friends and fellow musicians. Strangers were now paying attention, and that raised the stakes. Maybe there was money to be made--or maybe even art.

Whether it be rockabilly in the '50s, folk revival in the '60s, hip-hop in the '80s, or grunge in the '90s, whenever underground music sticks its head above ground into the bright sun of media attention, things change. The six bands mentioned above all put on exciting live shows, but now the question was: Could they come up with songs? Could they write songs that casual fans might remember after hearing the tune once at a show or on the radio? By 2005, they had all made records that were good reflections of those live shows, but they didn't have memorable original songs. Who could take the next step?

Now it's five years later and some answers are emerging. Two of the bands have withdrawn from the competition. The Mammals have been on hiatus so the newlyweds Mike Merenda and Ruth Ungar can travel as a duo and so Tao Rodriguez-Seeger can join the final victory lap by his grandfather Pete Seeger. Uncle Earl has also been on hiatus so banjoist Abigail Washburn can pursue the Sparrow Quartet with her boyfriend Bela Fleck. The Duhks, meanwhile, replaced their charismatic lead singer Jessica Havey with the less interesting Sarah Dugas. King Wilkie, the former bluegrass group, jumped into the New Wave String Band movement and released one of the genre's best albums, Low Country Suite, in 2007. The band has now switched genres again, though, to release this year's King Wilkie Presents: the Wilkie Family Singers, a pastoral-rock concept album not unlike The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society.

The Wailin' Jennys, possessors of the best band name in the movement, released a promising record in 2006 but haven't made a studio album since. They have, however, just released an admirable live record, Live at the Mauch Chunk Opera House. The three women--Heather Masse, Nicky Mehta, and Ruth Moody--have lovely voices, especially when they harmonize on Gillian Welch's "One More Dollar" or Leadbelly's "Bring Me L'il Water Silvy." They can be interesting songwriters, but only six of the new album's 13 songs are originals, and five of those have been previously recorded. And the women push their voices so far in front of the instruments that they are becoming less a string band and more a vocal-harmony trio.

So it has been Old Crow Medicine Show that has grabbed hold of the opportunity. As always happens in these cases, one member of the band emerged as a major songwriter and asserted control. In this instance, it was Ketch Secor, the band's fiddler/harmonica player, who wrote or co-wrote 10 of the 13 songs on last year's Tennessee Pusher and sang lead on seven on them. Don Was, the old pop pro who has produced Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones, oversaw the recording, and the resulting balance of rawness and polish allowed the disc to crack the top 10 of Billboard's top bluegrass chart with a bunch of songs about drug dealers, whores, and murderers. It was the best proof yet that a new wave string band could move units.

The band is using its newfound clout to headline a traveling tour that has included such names as Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch and Justin Townes Earle (Steve's son). When Old Crow comes to Merriweather Post Pavilion Sunday, the opening acts include Levon Helm of the Band, Iron and Wine, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, and the Felice Brothers. To understand why Old Crow deserves to top such a bill, watch the group's new DVD, Live at the Orange Peel and Tennessee Theatre. Filmed last December at theaters in western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee, director Lee Tucker's concert documentary captures the chemistry between the whooping, hollering youngsters in the audience and the bouncing, flailing youngsters on stage.

Old Crow had recorded all but one of the 21 songs before, but the band's current line-up, with Louisiana singer/songwriter Gill Landry replacing Critter Fuqua, sounds tighter and tougher than ever before. They rock convincingly with no drums and only acoustic instruments. When Secor introduces a song like "Alabama High-Test," he waves his fiddle bow over his head and Willie Watson bounces on the balls of his feet as if they can't wait to attack. Attack they do, transforming the traditional moonshiner ballad into the paranoid ravings of a drug dealer barreling down I-65 as if chased by a police cruiser in the guise of a relentless Chuck Berry riff. When they finally slow things down for "Tennessee Pusher," a similar story that turns tragically violent, Secor's evocative description of the murder scene proves that even the fastest, hardest arrangements have been built upon solid songwriting. And that makes all the difference.

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More from Geoffrey Himes

Drinking Songs (7/14/2010)
Patuxent Records keeps barroom bluegrass alive in Maryland

A Foolish Wit (7/7/2010)
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Keeping it Together (6/30/2010)
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