Consider Old Crow Medicine Show's big source of inspiration (prewar blues and string-band music) and business model (a leap from busker to recording artist that brought the responsibility of making a new album every couple years), and you can imagine where there might eventually be a rub. Record-store bins of rare old 45s and 78s don't see many "new" titles. But the Crows need fresh material for each album.
Hence a couple of big firsts on the group's latest album, last year's Tennessee Pusher (Nettwerk). It's almost all newly written originals, and it features touch points from classic-era rock (e.g., drums, organs and living legends).
It's not that the Crows' familiarity with old-time American music bred contempt. God forbid they ever stop playing rollicking old numbers like "Cocaine Blues" or ditch their string-band instrumentation.
Old Crow Medicine Show
With Justin Townes Earle, 8 p.m. Thursday, May 7, at Warehouse Live, 813 St. Emanuel, 713-225-5483 or www.warehouselive.com.
"There's a limited number of recordings that were made of old folk songs," explains de facto ringleader Ketch Secor. "So you will run out at a certain point. We always talked about there being an all-original record, even when we first started [ten years ago], but we couldn't have done it any other time except for right now.
"Before, Old Crow really had to school itself in playing such a variety of traditional American music," he adds. "And it took a long time to get that. Then at a certain point, you just start thinking, 'Well, what do I got to say about it all?'"
So the Crows have a new batch of densely shadowed, bare-knuckled survival songs — 12 originals and one cover — that are still appealingly rough-edged, but shorter on hot tempos. Not that they'd planned it that way — this is, after all, a band that cut its teeth in the most in-the-moment of all music scenes: the street corner.
"No, it wasn't a plan," Secor says. "It's rarely a plan with us. Most direction comes to us in the midst of a hurricane, so to speak."
The un-plan began unfolding when the Crows' longtime producer, sometime member and fellow old-time music enthusiast David Rawlings, was tied up with other projects and couldn't produce the new album. Rock producer Don Was, who's steered the likes of Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones, happened to call out of the blue and say he wanted the job. So the band headed to L.A. to record.
In the past, longtime Rawlings partner Gillian Welch has contributed a few snare drum taps to OCMS shows, but recording in California put them in drummer Jim Keltner's backyard. Keltner has kept time with Dylan, John Lennon and Neil Young, to name a few, and he added just the right loose-limbed backbeat to Pusher.
"For us, it was cool as hell to know that our record was going to be part of Jim Keltner's discography," Secor says. "Gets us one step closer to Bob."
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench came by, too, and overdubbed organ parts that added a new texture to the scrappier strains from Secor's harmonica and fiddle and Gill Landry's slide guitar. (Landry is the band's newest member.)
The album art was another happy accident, the result of guitarist Willie Watson doodling a truck over and over to pass time in the studio. When Secor saw that very same truck — "a '77 Ford Bronco, orange" — on the street, it seemed like a sign that they should use it on the cover.
Ultimately, Secor says, the fact that the songs seem generally heavier in tone than those on 2004's O.C.M.S. or 2006's Big Iron World wasn't by design either: "There certainly is an interconnectedness to a lot of the songs, but it's more accidental than, 'Oh, let's make a record of coal-mining songs.'"
Songs like the desperate-sounding "Methamphetamine" are the fruit of Secor and his bandmates' gathering inspiration firsthand. "In so many of these songs, you really had to be able to see it with your own eyes to be able to write like it was right in front of you," he says.
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"You couldn't just watch a bunch of20/20 and say, 'Oh, there's an epidemic about meth.' You had to go knock on that lady's door and have that door open and look in there with your own eyes. And having done that, I think that I was much better equipped to tell the story, at least within one county line of what's going on up on the mountain."
Portraiture of downtrodden characters is a connection to the Crows' early folk roots that remains thoroughly intact on Pusher.
"The old folk songs [talked about] pimps and murderers and drug dealers," Secor says. "I wanted to give some empowerment to people that I feel have been kind of cast aside, whose ballots have not been counted, probably because they didn't go to the voting booth. They were too busy trying to put food on their tables or pay the electric bill.
"And there's a kind of bus-station politic to it all," he adds. "It's not like they're deciding between Barack Obama and John McCain. They're trying to decide whether $49 can get them to Amarillo."