Fusing a wild-eyed mix of old-time country with a bit of punk-rock mischief, the Grammy-winning Americana group Old Crow Medicine Show has done the important work of shooting folks straight for more than 20 years now.
Whether decrying prejudice, inequality, drug abuse, or corporate greed, they’ve always spoken tough truths that Americans need to hear, and for their seventh album, Paint This Town, out April 22, that doesn’t change. But things have definitely evolved. With three new members and their new “Hartland” clubhouse/studio in East Nashville, the band brings a rejuvenated spirit and fresh sound to their 2022 project, feeling more personal and pointed than ever.
“We’re just having a lot of fun coming out of hibernation and connecting again,” says bandleader Ketch Secor, noting that along with veteran members Morgan Jahnig and Cory Younts, the group now includes newcomers Mason Via, Mike Harris, and Jerry Pentecost, as well. Much has changed for their first album since 2018, but the work itself is vintage OCMS.
“I think we’re still talking about a lot of the same things, and I think this building was a big piece of it,” says the band’s bassist Jahnig. “Once we decided we wanted to make a new record, I think having our own space and being able to really settle into the music left its mark.”
“Settle in” is right. Their Hartland hideout is every rebellious kid’s ultimate dream: a large former commercial building retrofitted with a recording studio and hang out spots, plus spacious work areas, a kitchen, a podcasting studio, and plenty of mix ‘n’ matched furniture. Most of Secor’s house is stacked up in one corner, the band jokes, and the singer predicts a spring rummage sale is in the making. “Tell the folks at Lifestyles this is where they’ll find the great deals!” he deadpans, adopting the cadence of an old-time carnival barker.
“We had always seen this place, because for years our orientation to Nashville was wherever the cheapest motels were, and that was always over on Trinity Lane, Hart Lane, and Dickerson Road,” Secor explains, agreeing with Jahnig that the cozy new headquarters helped them create Paint This Town.
In fact, with the added creature comforts and new musicians in mind—plus co-producer Matt Ross-Spang (John Prine, Jason Isbell)—there are parts of the album which sound a bit smoother than recordings of the past. Perhaps it’s more attuned to their regular Grand Ole Opry appearances than their old days busking on the Ryman Auditorium steps. But by and large, OCMS’s freewheeling folkie nature is still in force. All throughout the set, fast tempos and furious fiddles keep the energy high, and Secor’s sharp tongue has never dulled. Famous for mining the dark side of both American history and the American dream, these days the band has more source material to pull from than ever.
“I think our audience represents a pretty healthy cross section of America, and we’re pretty square in the middle in terms of who comes to see an Old Crow show,” Secor explains. “That allows us the opportunity to sort of speak from a cigar box in the middle of the sidewalk, just getting close to people and saying, ‘This is what we see. We’ve been on the road for 20 years and this is the America we’re looking at.’ It’s a reflection of all the things we’ve done so we say it with authority because we’ve sat here and watched the grass grow, and the sun come up and go down for so long now.”
They do speak with authority. For Paint This Town, Old Crow tackles issues like strip mining (“Used to Be a Mountain”), the opioid epidemic (“Painkiller”), the Confederate flag (“New Mississippi Flag”), and what Secor calls “a real insurrection” (“John Brown’s Dream”). But unlike others in the field of social commentary, Old Crow’s music feels more fun than preachy.
“That’s the spoonful of sugar,” Jahnig says. “We’re a band you can dance to, the one you put on in the Waffle House jukebox, and I think that’s one of the things that [attracts fans]. They don’t know that they’re listening to a song about mountaintop removal or the opioid epidemic. All they know is that they get to scream ‘methamphetamine!’ It’s music you have a good time to, and that’s what we’ve always done even when we’re getting serious.”
To that end, one of the most serious and fun songs is “DeFord Rides Again,” a barnstorming story song about the forgotten country trailblazer DeFord Bailey. The first Black artist to be embraced by country fans, Bailey was a harmonica wizard who was a Grand Ole Opry fixture and fan favorite from its earliest broadcasts in 1926. But despite being the first artist presented as an Opry star and the first to record his music in Nashville, his legacy remains obscure.
Through no fault of his own, Bailey was fired in 1941 over a royalties dispute between WSM, BMI, and ASCAP, which prevented him from performing his songs on the radio. After that he faded quickly into the Jim Crow south, trading the spotlight for a shoeshine stand and never again regaining his public standing. In the ’80s, Bailey was eventually recognized by the Opry and inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame (posthumously, in 2005), but his story is still a footnote at best. And that doesn’t sit well with Old Crow.
“Why not tell the story?” says the song’s co-writer and the band’s drummer, Pentecost, who sings lead on the track and happens to be Black himself. “The man is really interesting in his place in history and place in music, and since then he was forgotten. We felt like we needed to share it, so Ketch came up with an idea.”
Fusing energetic harmonica runs with a locomotive rhythm to recall Bailey’s signature song, plus a story that traces his biography, the track is both a tribute to a legend and the mark he left behind, nearly invisible for decades but now coming into view. “We feel that as members of the Opry it’s our responsibility to shed some light on one of the real progenitors of country music,” Secor says.
“He was the first Black artist that white country folk bought. The first! So, pick anybody today— Blanco Brown, Lil Nas X, that’s [because of ] DeFord Bailey all the way.” Elsewhere, the band addresses their own 20-year legacy (and the toll it’s taken) in “Reasons to Run,” and ends the project with “Hillbilly Boy,” an all-out old-time jam that will remind fans of the band’s early days. That makes perfect sense really, since all these years later, they’re still singing from the heart.
“Back then when I first came to town, it was to play old-time music on the curb, and that spirit has remained with us every step of the way,” Secor says. “It’s what we do when we play music in Nashville; we are channeling the very first time we stepped off the Greyhound bus in this town. It’s in every strum we strum.”