On Wednesday night my wife and I, with our daughter and her boyfriend, went to a concert by the Old Crow Medicine Show at the State Opera House in Wellington. If you’ve not heard of the OCMS, they’re an old-style American country band – old-style in the sense that they’re an acoustic “string band”, but with a fresh, contemporary spin. Rolling Stone magazine got it right (as even Rolling Stone must, once in a while) when it described OCMS as marrying old-time string music and punk swagger. Nashville-based, they’ve been described as melding bluegrass, alternative (“alt”) country, folk and traditional, old-time Americana – in other words, hard to pin down stylistically. I’d heard good reports about their last visit to Wellington last year and was determined not to miss them this time.
We weren’t disappointed. The OCMS throw a lot of energy into their performance and the crowd responded with a boisterous reception. Front man Ketch Secor cheesily ingratiated himself with the audience by making lots of jokey local references, gamely but accurately rattling off placenames like Wainuiomata and Paekakariki, and the punters lapped it up. The eclecticism of the band’s repertoire was highlighted by the inclusion of songs like the blues standard C C Rider and Dylan’s Corrina Corrina alongside more traditional acoustic country fare (I loved the wryly funny Let It Alone, sung in a quavering high pitch by guit-jo* player Kevin Hayes) and their signature tune, Wagon Wheel. In their willingness to plunder diverse strands of the American country-folk music tradition, OCMS reminded me of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. In terms of musical virtuosity they’re not quite at the top of the ladder with, say, Alison Krauss and Union Station, but they’re certainly on the next rung down, and they play with a contagious exuberance.
What struck me even more, though, was the audience. Wellington isn’t exactly noted as a country music town, yet somehow enough people knew about OCMS to fill the Opera House. What’s more, it was a crowd as mixed as any you’re ever likely to see at a musical event: blokes and sheilas in roughly equal measure, and of all ages. And they knew the songs.
It wasn’t the first time I’d noted this phenomenon. Several years ago Gillian Welch and David Rawlings visited Wellington, and with very little advertising sold out the Paramount Theatre three nights in a row, as I recall. I wouldn’t have thought that many people in Wellington knew who Gillian Welch was, notwithstanding her performance – along with the aforementioned Krauss, among others – on the soundtrack of the Coen Brothers movie O Brother Where Art Thou, which provided a Road-to-Damascus experience for many New Zealanders previously unexposed to old-time country music. (People were going straight from movie theatre to record shop to order the soundtrack, and many subsequently latched on to the documentary sequel, the magical Down From the Mountain.)
It’s not as if country gets a lot of airtime. Only National Radio finds space for it. Yet clearly there’s a subterranean enthusiasm for good country music that comes out into the open whenever acts like OCMS or Welch come to town.
Does this mean country music has finally overcome the sneering of New Zealand’s self-ordained cultural priesthood, who reflexively snigger at the very mention of the genre? As tempting as it might be, I wouldn’t jump to that conclusion. I know too many musical bigots, mostly masquerading as liberal sophisticates, who still associate country music with cheesy songs about horses and dogs. They make the mistake of confusing country music – a genre as wide and varied as pop, jazz or classical – with what is now often referred to as country and western, a sentimental, mutant sub-genre which grew out of the great American cowboy songs of the 1930s and 40s and survives mainly in New Zealand and Australia (and to some extent, oddly enough, in Ireland).
Invariably those who are most disparaging about country music are those who know least about it. For much of the past 40 years, I have bristled at their ignorant condescension. On occasions, like a bright-eyed missionary in 19th century Africa, I’ve misguidedly tried to convert musical heathens to the charms of outlaw music, country rock, honky-tonk, western swing, Appalachian folk, bluegrass, alt country, country gospel and all the other divergent strands that make up the vast country catalogue. Now I’ve come to realise that country music is something you either get or you don’t, and that's an end to it.
I must say, though, that it warmed the heart to see so many people getting it at the Opera House on Wednesday night.
Footnote: Special mention should be made of the Eastern (aka the Eastern Family), the Lyttelton-based country group that opened the show. Another acoustic string band, they tap into much the same vein of country roots music as OCMS, and do it with great panache, energy and authenticity. How does a great country band like this emerge from a South Island port town? Your guess is as good as mine.
* Guit-jo: a six-stringed instrument that combines the characteristics of the banjo and the guitar. It was a great pity that both Hayes’ guit-jo and Gill Landry's conventional five-string banjo were virtually inaudible for most of the night.