Looking back, It must have been four years ago and the fledgling RGM was just starting to get noticed by Pr companies and labels. It was an exciting time; a review of the self-titled Parker Millsap album would lead to an invite to see him open for Old Crow Medicine Show on their UK tour, at The Roundhouse in London, in support of the ‘Remedy’ album. Parker was excellent and he fully lived up to the promise of his record and Old Crow would be up next. Now, to be honest, I wasn’t really fully aware of O.C.M.S. much beyond ‘Wagon Wheel’ but a very quick spin through the highlights of their back catalogue on the day of the show made me think they could be pretty good. Obviously, as any fan of the band knows, they’re a monster live act with songs and musical dexterity to burn. Needless to say ‘Remedy’ became pretty popular in the RGM office in the days that followed so when ‘Volunteer’ hit the RGM inbox I was very keen to check it out.
Since ‘Remedy’ the band have kept busy and last year released ‘Fifty Years of Blonde on Blonde’ a live recreation/reinvention/tribute to the seminal Bob Dylan record and even hooked up with Kesha for an episode of CMT’s Crossroads show (surely one of the more unlikely pairings the show has seen). For ‘Volunteer’ the band enlisted the help of the producer with the Midas touch Dave Cobb and set up in the legendary RCA Studio A fully intending to make a rockin’ record, hence the addition of Cobb and electric guitars for the first time since 2004.
Old school fans need not worry about the threat of rockin’ electric guitars as ‘Flicker & Shine’ is pleasingly raucous and traditional and pretty much the ideal way to start an O.C.M.S. album, while the call and response vocal and flying fiddle of ‘Shout Mountain Music’ and the amusing, if totally throwaway, ‘The Good Stuff’ should keep traditionalists very happy indeed. Electric guitars are added to the mix, but very tastefully to add colour and I really like the way the band and Dave Cobb have gone about it. The opening twangy guitar riff of ‘Dixie Avenue’, doubled on harmonica, is just about as perfect an Old Crow moment as I’ve heard.
‘A World Away’ showcases the ability of the band to write a catchy tune that deals with the serious subject of immigration. ‘Child of the Mississippi’ is a pleasing banjo-led stomp, with lashing of harmonica, that paints a vivid picture of the importance of The Big Muddy while ‘Look Away’ could well turn out to be as important to Old Crow as ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ is to Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Two of the finest songs on ‘Volunteer’ are saved for the end as ‘Homecoming Party’ with its echoes of Glen Campbell and those classic Jimmy Webb tunes is followed by a quite lovely bittersweet ballad ‘Whirlwind’ which concludes the record and will no doubt be a highlight of the live show. Interestingly these two songs are split by an instrumental blast of fiddling frenzy ‘Elzicks Farewell’ which is fine but, for me, spoils the album flow just a little.
‘Volunteer’ is done and dusted in less than forty minutes, as all albums should be, but is sure to leave fans wanting more. Old Crow Medicine Show do a good job of juggling their traditional folk and string band roots with a desire to stretch the envelope, something they’re always managed to do very successfully over the years. This approach and attitude never feels forced and has been a contributory factor to their success as they celebrate twenty years as a band. If ‘Volunteer’ is anything to go by they might just be getting started.