Of course, when they show up at a venue in 2006, Old Crow is not some unknown gang of street urchins anymore. They are preceded by those record sales, videos, and a handful of increasingly-known tunes — particularly “Wagon Wheel” from the last record, which has become familiar enough that CMT country cable TV was using a piece of it for months for station identification.
“Wagon Wheel” is seemingly become a poignant and sexy generational anthem for the new audience their music is pinpointing. “I guess I pretty much knew when I pieced that song together ten years ago, when I was a senior in high school, that I would still be singing it when I was an old man,” Secor says.
That words to its seriously infectious chorus — “Roll me mama like a wagon wheel; ohhhh, mama rock me” — can be traced back at least as far as the chugging, acoustic, Chicago-born Bluebird/Melrose blues records at RCA of around 1940. Check out Tommy McClennan’s “Roll Me, Baby” specifically, with a bit of add-on from the better-known “Rock Me Mama” track by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup — as put together by B.B. King about a decade later in a version that would become a ’60s electric blues revival standard in the hands of, for instance, Jimi Hendrix.
The specific, unusual tune and take in Secor’s version, and the basis of a co-credit for the song’s writing, is a faint outtake from the Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid soundtrack created, toyed with, and abandoned by Bob Dylan. But the Crows’ version tells a story — with references to places like Johnson City, Tennessee — about bolting from New England and Philly for the particular personal liberation and warmth of the south. The imaginary, epic, musical south at least as much as the real one.
“I think the notion that’s exciting people there,” Secor suggests, “is, ‘Heading down south to the land of the pines.’ You want that, wherever you live — the ethos of the south, the mystery and the legend of it. And our band, which plays so much southern music, has found a way to get that out again, to kind of sprinkle it out there, throw it out to the wind — and people like it. But then, they liked it before when Elvis did it. They liked it when the Stones did it.”
Much of the Old Crows’ musical exploration, excavation and recasting method is embedded in that suggestion and in the multi-generational history of “Wagon Wheel” — including that free updating of the 1960s turn on roots music. For performers and writers of the Old Crow members’ generation — i.e., born in the late ’70s — the Dylan or Stones or Jim Kweskin or Dead turns are as much legendary and useful back material to digest and re-filter as the music of the old-time country and jug bands of the 1920s. (Not so incidentally, both the ’20s and ’60s were periods in which the musical and general cultural emphasis was on opening up the hot, not on the “birth of the cool.”)
The opening, audience-pleasing track on Big Iron World (and also on a three-song EP that preceded the album’s release by a month) is none other than the teasing “Down Home Girl”. Co-written by that noted imaginary southern boy Jerry Leiber, it was performed by early rock ‘n’ rollers the Coasters, R&B’s Alvin Robinson, and, the source from which most people who know it have heard it, the early Stones, circa The Rolling Stones Now.
In point of fact, most of the band didn’t know any of those versions of the affectionate old complaint about a girl who’s so down-home her “perfume smells like turnip greens” when Willie Watson brought it up. Built on knowledge of what came before, and unconcerned by exactly what genre it’s being worked into now, it seems now a perfect OCMS song choice — haltingly funky, funny, sung with post-or-trans-racial exasperation by Watson, and accompanied by some knowing old slide guitar from Critter Fuqua and very mid-’60s folk-rock harmonica and high harmony from Secor.
All of the sources are grist for this mill, but the Crows have ground it into their own song, and, as was clear enough at the Ryman show, plenty of 20- and 30-year-olds had never heard the song before themselves. The audience didn’t receive used goods, or a self-consciously retro simulation of old performances, but the chance to encounter the music directly and fresh — as “Down Home Girl” was at its creation.
This band, which long slept over in the homes of fans they found along the road, has developed a finely tuned sense of what their audience is likely to have heard and not heard, and of how to bring forward new sorts of material — some of it quite challenging — with that in mind.
“Like any other artist,” Fuqua acknowledges, “I want to be respected, but I also want to respect my audience. They’re not always just out to get wasted anymore than we are; I mean, they’re thinkers, too. This music is good-time party music; it’s good to make people dance and move and drink beer and loosen up and have a good time. But I think our fans get both sides of this. Certain pockets are more leaning to listening to the lyrics and to whatever message we have — and I like to be able to write something that means something, as well as playing something that people can really get down to.”
So in an era when mainstream country radio’s idea of honky-tonk can seem an endless series of “let’s grab a longneck and get stupid” songs, and not a little rock, pop and hip-hop leans the same way, Old Crow posits the contextually refreshing notion that their fans can have fun and be smart at the same time.
“They do get drunk, and they do get laid,” Secor laughs, “and I’m so glad to be a contributing source to it! ‘Make a joyful sound unto the Lord,’ you know! That’s the simple part of it. We also sing ‘Drink corn liquor and let that cocaine be,’ so there’s a moralist viewpoint in there too. And then our other content is a whole other flip side.”
One aspect of that flip side is a growing willingness not just to take their style of roots music hotter, but emotionally warmer, with the mature self-confidence that allows unabashed public displays of community affection. Neither of these were the first attributes that spring to mind if you were to describe much of indie music in the past couple decades, alt-country included.
A striking and central song on Big Iron World, “I Hear Them All”, co-written by Secor and Rawlings, is a tender banjo and harp-driven anthem of respect and hope for personal liberation, a song of increasing inclusion for most anybody who happens to be listening. (It would be a gutsy move indeed to make it Old Crow’s next single; no decision on that matter had been made at press time.)