Words and Photos by Caroline J. Schwarz
After about a straight 30 hours of travel, which includes trying to sleep but hardly succeeding at SFO; trying NOT to fall asleep at LAX but not succeeding and waking up at my gate right as my flight is boarding; followed by a six hour drive to my first hotel with a quick stop to win a beer in a game of darts in Muskogee, OK, I finally get some true sleep – the kind where you wake up and you can tell you didn’t even move once during the night. I arise refreshed and excited in Joplin, MO, knowing I’m seeing my favorite band for the next three days!
This time I’m introducing my friend Erika to Old Crow and their music. She’s a Bob friend and went to a couple of their Blonde On Blonde shows. Now she’s ready for some straight up OCMS! Lone traveler that I usually am, I’d be lying if I said there was zero trepidation on my part about having someone along for the trip; I have a certain way of doing things and I’m not good at bending to the will of someone else when it comes to matters of my musical pursuits. But I invited her along and end up with no regrets at all. She is smart, funny, mellow, kind and we have a great time all along the way. It feels good bringing someone new who is a real music appreciator into the Old Crow fold and it’s fun to watch her knowledge and fandom of the band grow in the few short days.
Kansas City, MO
KC, MO is a solid show. The venue is a bit shabby and the sound not the greatest, kind of a cement box of a room. It’s also a really high stage with no rail, promising a stiff neck the next day. But the plus side of that is that when the guys come to the lip of the stage they are really close, looming above us. The medley of Ol’ Molly Hare/Raise A Ruckus/Tear It Down is a high-octane way to start. How can you not dance your ass off? The current show is anchored by a strong set of songs and flows nicely. As Ketch and Charlie will point out, this show has something of everything you’d want in a country music show: love, drugs, mules, heartache, unplanned pregnancy, coal mining, incarceration… the latter is represented by what is always a highlight for me: the raucous, swinging Brushy Mountain Conjugal Trailer (which, I would point out, adds the inclusion of another staple of a country music show: a trailer). Brushy has a lot of what seems quintessential Old Crow – it’s funny, bawdy, and Ketch’s loud and lusty harmonica playing blasts right out the gates, backed by the tribal drumbeat that kicks it all off, and it makes my heart leap every time. Joe’s twangy dobro feels like the one thing anchoring me to earth when this song launches, a necessary grounding connection. Unshackled indeed!
Old Crow can move seamlessly between songs that make my blood race, a country ballad, and many moods in between. I’m so glad they’ve brought back Next Go ‘Round, with Charlie Worsham singing the lead and doing a mighty fine job of it. When Ketch closes his eyes and bows that fiddle… it’s just so sad, and I live for a good, sad song. “I wish that I could stop and turn around…” I’m not a person with a lot of regrets, but who hasn’t yearned for a second chance once or twice, while at the same time knowing deeply that it’s not gonna come?
There’s a special guest tonight, Missouri local Madisen Ward, who sits in and lends a smooth vocal on CC Rider and the two encore songs. Old Crow is the best at calling out the place they are in with a special song or two each night. Tonight’s Missouri shout-out is a folk song, Jesse James – another native son whose life began and ended here.
Oklahoma City OK
Onward to OKC! Fine, fine memories of a 2017 OCMS show here, my final Blonde On Blonde show, are lived up to in this scintillating and stupendous night of music. Many of the Old Crow shows that stand out in my mind as the most memorable musically also seem to be the ones that make me laugh the most, and tonight they’ve got me repeatedly laughing out loud. Ketch looks real mod in retro, red-rimmed sunglasses that he’ll have on for much of the festivities; on the occasions between songs that he tilts them back onto his head, he’s got a wild and mischievous glint in his eyes that mirrors perfectly the way I’m feeling, and the way this night feels.
The audience is highly enthusiastic, including the gray long haired and bearded dude that I remember from last time here – he comes with a harmonica and a tambourine (which he fortunately saves for accompanying only the pre-show PA music and not the show itself) and dances wildly. Cory gets down with his jig during Brave Boys which includes some new moves (gotta keep it fresh!), and then gets waaay down with his melodica snake-charmer dance on Down Home Girl. Charlie’s singing lead on this one, while Ketch slinks around between the drum riser and piano, bending those notes on the harmonica, deftly moving up to the other mic to sing on the shared parts, then over to the keys while Cory does his thing center stage, and finally bumming a hit off that melodica from Cory – it IS legal here after all!
I don’t know if it’s because of that legality and in particular the dispensary right across the street, but every song tonight just seems to have that little special something, that extra kick. Sweet Amarillo is just a little sweeter. To me this is a perfectly crafted song, with a sweeping, epic sound to match the sweeping, epic love story that unfolds with the melody. Maybe it’s because I’ve watched the video so many times, but this second Bob Dylan co-write for Old Crow has the most cinematic feel to me of any of their songs. Tonight it’s over-the-top powerful and I am totally transported.
The song I haven’t heard them do before this run that is a nightly treat now is Hank Williams’ Lovesick Blues – no doubt a nod to the fantastic Ken Burns Country Music documentary that’s come out and that features Ketch and his winning personality and masterful knowledge of old American music. This song is so perfect for Ketch, and the band nails it with a homespun, swinging beat from Bobby on the drums and Morgan so cool in the middle holding it down while Ketch wails away. Tonight it’s off the hook, beginning with some funny back and forth banter with Charlie about Ketch’s situation with a current heartache, complete with a pouting bottom lip to drive the point home. I believe tonight he blames this heartache on a girl from Emporia, Kansas. It’s the second mention for Emporia this tour, which last night was cited as a hub of meth out on the plains of Kansas during the lead-in for Methamphetamine – all of which makes me giggle because Emporia is where we stayed in between these two shows! Who knew it had so much going on.
The best bits tonight, though it’s all so good, are the special songs – those not played on the other nights. My heart soars when I recognize the beginning to Caroline, which I’ve seen change and now watch it change some more. It makes me happy that my namesake song is constantly evolving more than any other. She not busy being born is busy dying, and this song is always being reborn of late. Tonight it is rockin’. Just last year it was played with a mournfully bowed violin leading a slow drawn out start that moved into a hoedown; last tour it returned to a more upbeat country number with two guitars instead of the original banjo; tonight it sticks with the two axes but it’s FAST and punk’d out with Ketch jubilantly shouting the words. I love it. I get a bit more of a thrill even when I see later that it wasn’t on the set list but took the place of I Hear Them All, just squeezed in there spontaneously per some unexpected inspiration.
I Hear Them All has been played with a segue into This Land Is Your Land; tonight the medley gets cut, but I have faith that we’ll still get one for Woody, knowing that we are in Oklahoma AND it happens to be the anniversary of his death. And we do – we get the Do-Re-Mi. And it’s so darn good. The whole band tears through it full throttle but with endless love and respect – raucous and upbeat country twang with a punk edge. Woody’s here in his home state, proud and glowing.
Fort Worth TX
Before we know it we better go back to beautiful Texas. This show comes with a good amount of excited anticipation. Album release day! World’s largest honky tonk (not to mention belt buckle). The legendary Fort Worth stockyards; cowboys and cowgirls walking their horses past the bus. The band has been posting a series of funny Facebook videos leading up to this show, indicating they too are seeing this as a special night and adding to the sense of fun expectation as the week rolls along. And indeed, the ambiance of the place is intriguing and entertaining, like no place I’ve been before. Pre-show bull riding (live, not mechanical); a cowboy even asks me to dance to the warm up band playing on the second stage and I am obliged to do so, though hesitatingly since, as I tell him, I’m from California and we don’t dance like that. I live up to my professed ineptitude and he laughs at me as I almost strangle him once in a twirl. But it’s a good time (for me at least). I likely would have enjoyed it even more had I known it was the only dancing I’d get to do at the world’s largest honky-tonk since, in what has to be one of the world’s largest ironies, they forbid dancing during the show! Yes, it’s true. Despite Ketch’s repeated invitations of, “Let’s dance a while!” and Cory’s more blatant suggestion that we set the tables on fire. No dancing, and what’s more, they’re mean about it, the Billy Bob’s security squad comin’ at me if I even lift my ass outta my seat for ten seconds during a song. Damn.
Last thing I want to do is sit there and scowl so to make sure I do not I line up about four drinks (I think they don’t allow dancing so they can accommodate the endless rounds of table service, but I don’t want them bugging me during the music so I order a few rounds up front) and consume the rest of anything else I have. So while I dutifully obey their rules of not getting out of my seat, I also circumvent them by surreptitiously floating above it on my buzz. And it is a fun time – I mean, how can it not be? The set list is pretty fucking cool with a bunch of different songs for the tour, the first divergence being a very favorite of mine, Sixteen Tons. This song has a number of elements to a Ketch performance that I love: a dramatic late-song pause that leaves us hanging, only to spring back up to life with vigorous surprise; expressive vocal emoting like only Ketch can do, best of all when he goes way down deep and resonant. I was just pointing out his vocal prowess on this very song to Erika, as we listened to the cut on the new “Live At The Ryman” album on the drive here.
Of course we get some Bob Wills, all but required for a Texas dance hall show, including a swinging Stay All Night with the unparalleled Cory Younts on honk-tonk keys and lead vocal. “Dance all night, dance a little longer”… ah, if only we could! We’re also treated to a breakneck speed Tiger Rag, and sandwiched in between we get another one-off for the evening, a song Ketch attributes here tonight to Willie Nelson, I associate more with that other Guthrie, Arlo, that was written by neither – but so goes the great American tradition of song! City Of New Orleans. It’s a soaring version and as if that ain’t enough of American songs with a cowboy bent we get an encore opener of Whoopie Ti-Yi-Yo (Git Along Little Dogies), a song that got mashed up and passed around between Tex Ritter, Roy Rogers, the Sons of the Pioneers, Woody, and a mess of others. Of course Old Crow does it in a big, upbeat fashion so, before we’ll be gittin along for the night and for the tour, we’re all on our feet and dancin’ at long last, alongside the long tables at Billy Bob’s! What a great run it’s been and it’s perfect to end it on my feet and shaking it, because Old Crow deserves no less than a bunch of energy given back to them for all they give out!