Old Crow Medicine Show

Since getting their start busking on street corners back in 1998, Old Crow Medicine Show have emerged as one of the most potent and influential forces in American roots music. Over the last quarter-century, the two-time Grammy Award-winning band has brought their sublimely raucous live show to rapturous audiences around the world and toured with the likes of Willie Nelson and John Prine, all while amassing an acclaimed catalog that includes such standouts as their double platinum hit single “Wagon Wheel.” Arriving as the Nashville-based six-piece gears up to celebrate their 25th anniversary, Jubilee finds Old Crow doubling down on their commitment to creating roots music that bears an undeniable urgency. “In a lot of people’s minds folk music seems to be relegated to a place of supposed purity, but we’ve always wanted our folk music to be the soundtrack to real living rather than something stuck behind the glass in a museum,” says frontman Ketch Secor. “We’d much prefer to smash that glass and take those instruments back to the street corners, maybe break some strings and bleed on them a bit. To us music works best when you sing it loud and hard and lusty until your throat gets sore—it’s meant to hurt when it comes out right.”

Old Crow’s eighth studio LP, Jubilee serves as something of a companion piece to Paint This Town—a 2022 release that marked their first time cutting an album with band members Jerry Pentecost, Mike Harris, and Mason Via. “We made Paint This Town before we’d even played any shows with this lineup, so it felt right to get back into the studio with our new partners-in-crime after we’d been out on the road and felt all greased-up,” says Secor. Like its predecessor, Jubilee finds Old Crow producing alongside Matt Ross-Spang (Drive-By Truckers, St. Paul & the Broken Bones, The Mountain Goats) and recording at their own Hartland Studios in East Nashville. Featuring guest appearances from legendary soul singer Mavis Staples and singer/songwriter Sierra Ferrell, the result is a wildly expansive body of work encompassing everything from jug-band tunes to Irish folk songs to exultant gospel jams, each touched with Old Crow’s dazzling musicality and poetic yet powerfully trenchant storytelling.

After kicking off with “Ballad of Jubilee Jones” (a soul-stirring anthem of resilience for the working people of the world), Jubilee slips into tender reminiscence on “Miles Away”—a sweetly reflective track graced with guest vocals from Old Crow co-founder Willie Watson. “We hadn’t recorded with Willie in 12 years, and it made sense to bring him back for a song that has to do with seeing old friends again,” says Secor. “It’s about looking back on the past and accepting that people sometimes part ways, and yet time can mend things. There could be a scar in the earth, then a few years go by and now it’s a Walmart parking lot or a garden.” Co-written by Secor and bluegrass virtuoso Molly Tuttle, “Miles Away” unfolds in delicate banjo runs and luminous fiddle melodies before building to a sweeping string section at the bridge, lending even greater poignancy to Old Crow’s warmly dispensed wisdom (“So if you run into some lost friend or lover/And find only reticence remains/Grab the saddle horn and just throw your body over/Don’t let the past hold the reins”).

While songs like “Miles Away” embody a bittersweet gravity, much of Jubilee harnesses the unruly exuberance that Old Crow unfailingly channel into their live show. On “Keel Over And Die,” for instance, the band delivers a frenetic and freewheeling love song whose lyrics endlessly tilt from ecstatic to macabre. “It’s one of those just-getting-over-divorce songs where you’ve finally found someone you’re crazy about but nothing else is right in your life, so you can only express joy in death metaphors,” says Secor. “I think I write songs like that because I’m a fan of Shane MacGowan and all the antics of bands who use traditional music as a soundtrack for some kind of brawl, whether it’s a sporting match between cross-town rivals or people picking a fight in an alley over love.” Later, on “I Want It Now,” Old Crow unleash a gloriously sordid and dance-ready party song spotlighting their knack for fantastically unhinged wordplay (e.g., “Freight-train-hopping, purple-pill popping, bluegrass-bopping/You know what I need, I want it now”). “On every album we ever make, Old Crow tends to put revelers, corn whiskey, and the cops all together in a stretch of woods somewhere,” says Secor. “‘I Want It Now’ is the latest offering in that 25-year batch of debauchery; it’s your typical story of a hillbilly love triangle and a party that just won’t quit.”

On “One Drop” (featuring Mavis Staples), Jubilee closes out with its most rejoiceful track, a spirit lifting gospel number propelled by triumphant harmonies and bustling hand percussion. As Staples, Secor, and Pentecost trade off vocals, “One Drop” speaks to the potential for profound change in times of overwhelming darkness and disillusionment (“It takes one step before the saints go marching/It takes one march before we’ve got a movement marching in/It takes all kind of saints in step together/‘Fore we stand in union hand in hand”). “‘One Drop’ is typical of any Old Crow gospel jam in that we leave the deity TBD, so that you can fill in whatever feels right to you,” says Secor. “We took some inspiration from the Pete Seeger School of Theatrics, where songs of a spiritual persuasion become a rallying cry. One line builds on the line before it, and it ends up as a sort of equational transaction in which we’re trying to figure out our way to peace.”

In keeping with the sociopolitical consciousness of Paint This Town (an album that confronted such complex matters as country music’s thorny racial politics), Jubilee also brings Old Crow’s incisive perspective to tracks like “Allegheny Lullabye”—a sorrowful yet fiery meditation on systemic poverty and lack of opportunity in regions like Appalachia (“With a hand on the bottle and one on the wheel, won’t be slave to the iron and steel/The choices are no choice at all, just the flipping of a coin/It’s factory, gas station, or join”). “I wanted to have a song about the pervasiveness of hopelessness, which to me is one of the defining factors of life in America in 2023,” says Secor, who drew inspiration from Sam Quinones’s Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic in penning the lyrics to “Allegheny Lullabye.” “I know a lot of people in towns like we’re describing, where there’s basically a three-track system: you can work at the factory and get nowhere, work at the gas station and get nowhere, or join the Army or the rat race. To me those options aren’t enough for the region that gave us songs like ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken?’, and I’m mad as hell at the elected officials who are doing nothing to change that opportunity-distribution load.”

As Secor reveals, Old Crow’s boundless passion for imbuing a timely vitality into traditional music has played a major part in the band’s longevity. “Being the type of songwriters and performers that we’ve always been, we tend toward the topical material and what’s going on right now—the issues currently faced by our species, our country, our beloved Southlands,” he says. “I think the artist’s job is to dip their quill into the reservoir of the now, and for Old Crow that reservoir is deep: we might end up pulling up some Lead Belly colors, some Gene Austin colors or some Paul Robeson. So as long as these things keep happening in our world, and as long as banjos are around to be plucked and fiddles are there for us to drag a bow across, you can bet we’ll still be interested in making this kind of music. At this point it’s just our second nature.”

Old Crow Medicine Show

On their whirlwind new album Paint This Town, Old Crow Medicine Show offer up a riveting glimpse into American mythology and the wildly colorful characters who populate it. The most incisive body of work yet from the Nashville-based roots band—a two-time Grammy Award-winning juggernaut whose triumphs include induction into the Grand Ole Opry and double-platinum certification for their iconic hit single “Wagon Wheel”—the album pays homage to everyone from Elvis Presley to Eudora Welty while shedding a bright light on the darker aspects of the country’s legacy. Fueled by Old Crow’s freewheeling collision of Americana, old-time music, folk, and rock & roll, Paint This Town relentlessly pulls off the rare and essential feat of turning razor-sharp commentary into the kind of songs that inspire rapturous singing along.

In a major milestone for Old Crow, Paint This Town marks the first album created in their own Hartland Studio: an East Nashville spot the band acquired in early 2020 then transformed into a clubhouse-like space custom-built to suit their distinct sensibilities. “Over the years we’ve spent a lot of time and money in professional studios, but this was the first time we’d worked in our own place since back in the late ’90s, when we’d hang a microphone from the rafters and record a cassette on our TASCAM 4-track,” says frontman Ketch Secor. Co-produced by the band and Matt Ross-Spang (a producer/engineer/mixer who’s worked with the likes of John Prine and Jason Isbell), Paint This Town also took shape from a far more insular process than their past work with such producers as Don Was and Dave Cobb (who helmed Old Crow’s most recent effort, 2018’s widely acclaimed Volunteer). Not only instrumental in allowing the band a whole new level of creative freedom, that self-contained approach helped to revive a certain spirit of pure abandon. “Doing it ourselves was a lot more fun with a lot less stress or pressure, and because of that we were way less precious about it,” says Secor. “It all just felt less like a chore and more like a complete joy.”

The seventh studio album from Old Crow, Paint This Town opens on its title track: a raucously swinging anthem that fully embodies that joyful energy. With its fable-like account of the band’s carefree troublemaking over the last two decades, the track showcases Secor’s uncanny knack for packing so much detailed storytelling into a single line (e.g., “We were teenage troubadours hopping on box cars for a hell of a one-way ride”). “Our band has always drawn its inspiration from those elemental American places, where water towers profess town names, where the Waffle House and the gas station are the only spots to gather,” says Secor. “This is the scenery for folk music in the 21st century, and the John Henrys and Casey Joneses of today are the youth who rise up out of these aged burgs undeterred, undefeated, and still kicking.”

Although much of Paint This Town looks outward to examine the American experiment, Old Crow never shy away from the intensely personal. Written soon after the demise of Secor’s marriage, “Bombs Away” puts a devil-may-care twist on the classic divorce song, while the gently galloping “Reasons to Run” invokes the Lone Ranger in confessing to the emotional toll of too much time on the road. And on tracks like “Used to Be a Mountain,” Old Crow turn their lived experience into a lens for illuminating larger-scale problems affecting the modern world. “I spent about 25 years of my life very close to the region of Appalachia where strip-mining occurs, which is really dangerous work and destructive for all living things,” says Secor of the song’s origins. Partly informed by his memories of hitchhiking around coal country as a teenager, “Used to Be a Mountain” emerges as a galvanizing meditation on environmental catastrophe, boldly propelled by Secor’s frenetic vocal flow and firebrand poetry (“From the fat cats, race rats, big Pharma, tall stacks/They’re the ones digging the hole/All the way down to Guangzhou”).

In one of the album’s most potent segments, Paint This Town delivers a trio of songs that delve into matters of race and hate and systems of power, embedding each track with Old Crow’s vision for a more harmonious future. On “DeFord Rides Again,” for instance, the band serves up a gloriously stomping tribute to legendary harmonica player DeFord Bailey (the first Black star of the Grand Ole Opry, who was eventually banned from the show and left in exile). “One of the things that inspired that song was the experiences we’ve had traveling all over the world and seeing the people who take country music into their hearts,” says Old Crow upright bassist Morgan Jahnig. “It’s the entire spectrum of humanity—but when you look at the people making country music, it tends to be pretty monochromatic. If we really want to push music forward, we need to let all kinds of people have a voice.” Featuring Mississippi-bred musician Shardé Thomas on fife (a piccolo-like instrument often used in military bands), the soul-stirring “New Mississippi Flag” dreams up an insignia that truly honors the state’s rich cultural heritage (“She’ll have a stripe for Robert Johnson/And one for Charlie Pride”). “We’re living in a time in which there’s a great undoing of the mythologies that were created in order for the South to alter its view of itself, and with that undoing comes a repurposing,” Secor points out. Meanwhile, “John Brown’s Dream” unfolds as a swampy and smoldering portrait of the notorious radical abolitionist and his brutally violent attempt at rebellion.

Throughout Paint This Town, Old Crow bring their spirited reflection to an endlessly eclectic sound, spiking their songs with elements of everything from gospel (on “Gloryland,” a heavy-hearted lament for our failure to care for each other) to Southern highlands balladry (on “Honey Chile,” a melancholy love song graced with soaring harmonies and swooning fiddle melodies). That deliberate unpredictability has defined Old Crow since their earliest days, when they got their start busking on the streets with pawnshop-bought instruments. Through the years, they’ve continually breathed new life into their sound by inviting new musicians into the fold; to that end, Paint This Town marks the first album to include Jerry Pentecost (drums, mandolin), Mike Harris (slide guitar, guitar, mandolin, banjo, dobro, vocals), and Mason Via (guitar, gitjo, vocals). “We were auditioning new members during the process of putting the studio together—so if you signed up to be in this band, you got handed a paint roller and a list of songs to learn,” says Secor. As they got Hartland Studio up and running, Old Crow also launched the Hartland Hootenanny: an hour-long variety show livestreamed every Saturday night during lockdown, with guest appearances from the likes of Amythyst Kiah, Billy Strings, Marty Stuart, and The War and Treaty. “The Hartland Hootenanny kept us joyous during what could’ve been a very bleak time,” Secor says. “It helped us process the experience of Covid and George Floyd’s death and all the urgent cries for change, but at the same time we talked about full moons and football and summer camp—which in a way symbolizes everything we are as a band.”

Indeed, Old Crow ultimately consider that mingling of the joyous and the profound to be the very life force of their collective. “At the end of the day, we’re still just trying to stop you on the street and get you to put a dollar in the guitar case,” says Jahnig. “Then once we’ve got your attention, we’re gonna tell you about things like the opioid epidemic and the Confederate flag and what’s happening with the environment—but we’re gonna do it with a song and dance. We feel a great obligation to talk about the more difficult things happening out there in the world, but we also feel obligated to make sure everyone’s having a great time while we do it.”