Friday, March 26, 2010

Old Crow bring out the country aficionados

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.


Eric Crampton said...

Plains FM in Christchurch often plays alt-country. Community access radio is high variance, but the peaks exceed anything else on the air.

Walking downtown Christchurch this weekend, we saw a wooden shipping container on the quad in front of Alice in Videoland. Two men were prying open the front with crowbars; when it opened, a three-man country band inside started playing. They played for half an hour. Delightful.

Baz said...

Sounded like a good concert and i am sorry to have missed it. For the sake of historical accuracy Corina Corina is a traditional folk song and was first recorded before Dylan was born, in 1928 by Bo Chatmon and the Mississippi Sheiks. Over the years many artists have recorded the tune including jazz singer Jimmy Witherspoon, who made it one of his specialties, The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and even John Lennon!

Karl du Fresne said...

Baz, thank you for pointing out my error. I see now that there's a substantial Wikipedia entry on the song. It never occurred to me that it wasn't Dylan's own.

Vaughan said...

As you indicate, Karl, Bob Dylan had no qualms about liking good country music.

In fact, the Wiki entry on the His Royal Bobness says he grew up listening to it.

Later, Bobcat released a whole album of country music: "Nashville Skyline". Then there was the wonderful song "Copper Kettle" on Self Portrait album.

On John Wesley Harding, there were two good tracks that could be labelled country: "Down Along the Cove" and "I'll be your Baby Tonight".

The Byrds (Sweetheart of the Rodeo), The Band and The Grateful Dead also played great country music.

Vaughan said...


Just watched them singing I Hear Them All on youtube..

It's one of those songs that makes you tingle. You know you are listening to something fine.

Bearhunter said...

I'm not sure Wellington's love for old-time music is completely mysterious. It's a fertile spot for Irish and Scottish traditional music (which is of course one of the roots of American old time music). I think you're underrating OCMS somewhat by placing them a rung down from Union Station too. I think of them rather as being in the same school as the Band, a group of great musicians who subsume their virtuosity into the whole of the band. And that Gillian Welch concert was immaculate, thank you for reminding me of it. If only she and David Rawlings would come back and play (as they do in the US) with OCMS, it would be my perfect concert.