Words and photos by Caroline Schwarz
Old Crow Medicine Show’s leading man, Ketch Secor, proclaimed several times during their December 30th and 31st shows at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium that these nights make up their “favorite two nights of the year,” and I must say I share that sentiment.
I attended all of Old Crow’s December shows during the week leading up to the Ryman. These shows contained some amazing highlights, including: in Louisville KY an appropriately dark, loud, lit-up Methamphetamine that gave me chills; a cover of John Prine’s Paradise played up close on the lip of the stage around a shared microphone, to which the whole audience sung along, a sweet accompaniment to Old Crow’s soaring harmonies; Ketch going way down deep on the vocals to one of my favorites, Sixteen Tons; in Memphis, a rare outing of their version of Minglewood Blues by Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers; another up-close song, this time an a Capella number led by Critter Fuqua, Roll Alabama Roll (yep, a sea shanty out of Liverpool that name-checks Alabama); and perhaps most memorable of all, a simultaneously sweetly and raucously played cover of the band Alabama’s Dixieland Delight in Huntsville AL that had that room seriously rockin’ and left me feeling I’ll never miss another one of their shows in this southern state!
But it’s hard to top the joy, excitement, surprises, hilarity, pageantry and top-notch musicianship these guys bring to their annual two-night Nashville run to ring in the new year. From swapping around a Santa hat on the 30th to taking turns wearing sparkly glasses that say “Kiss Me!” on the 31st, to passing around a pretend joint and then a bag of potato chips during their ‘stoner gospel’ tune, to of course passing around just about every instrument imaginable, the band goes at these shows with engaging good humor and an endearing spirit of letting the good times roll! Each and every band member gives their all.
Cory Younts on keyboard, mandolin, melodica, and dancing provides an unparalleled spirit and unbridled talent. Joe Andrews seems truly to play everything and, though it’s hard to pick, I think I most love his distinctive pedal steel and dobro riffs on songs like Brushy Mountain Conjugal Trailer and I Hear Them All (which Old Crow segues in and out of Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land for one of many singalongs over the two nights).
Critter Fuqua, who’s been here so many years, on banjo, guitar, accordion and unforgettable dry wit. Morgan Jahnig, on the upright base, manages to both hold down and embellish the rhythm on every song, while providing a classy cool vibe.
Recent addition Charlie Worsham has added a song or two of his own to the live shows and even a new genre, the aforementioned hilarious ‘stoner gospel’ song, I Hope I’m Stoned (When Jesus Takes Me Home), which Old Crow has already recorded with him in the studio and which fits them like a glove; Charlie has also been providing some fierce electric guitar on a number of songs.
Old Crow’s most recent member and their first full-time drummer, Nashville’s own Jerry Pentecost, also plays washboard and has warmed up quickly joining in with his own fun performance antics peppered throughout the show. And finally, the unparalleled Bobby Price, who roadies for the band – yes, I’m saying loads in/out, sets up, tunes up, and keeps track of who to hand out every freaking instrument to and when – AND himself plays a variety of stringed things on most of the songs! I truly don’t know how he does it, but I sure am glad he does.
Both shows are a mix of new, old, and older, spanning songs like the thumping, swampy Child Of The Mississippi off 2018’s Volunteer, to songs made famous on stages like this a long time ago, including Jimmie Rodgers’ Lovesick Blues and Jimmy Martin’s Guitar Pickin’ President. As is typical for the Ryman, the two nights also include a procession of surprise special guests. Margo Price shines her bright light on December 30th, coming out to sing the fabulous duet with Ketch, Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man. I’d been unfamiliar with this song until hearing it on Old Crow’s fall release of Live At The Ryman, when it quickly became one of my most repeatedly played songs on that album. So as soon as Ketch introduces her and we hear the distinctive stomping beat and fiddle notes, I’m as excited as can be. Margo’s voice is both sweet and powerful and soars up to the ceiling of that room and her spirited manner matches it; it’s a delight to be present for the very fun chemistry created by her and Ketch singing this song together!
December 30th also sees Michael and Tanya Trotter, who together make up The War And Treaty, come out to guest on two songs, You Are My Sunshine and I Can’t Stop Loving You, with stunning lead vocal on the latter provided by Terrell Hunt. I admit I was not familiar with Terrell Hunt. From poking around on the internet he seems mostly to sing gospel and other music of faith, which makes total sense given how spiritual a performance he gives of this song originally written and performed by Don Gibson and made famous (to me, at least) by Ray Charles. It is breathtaking and elicits one of the longest, loudest cheers of the night from the audience.
We are lucky to have English singer songwriter Yola open the show both nights, and equally lucky to have her come out and lead Ketch and the band on a fabulously exuberant rendition of the 1960s song, Runaway. Watching Ketch beaming, bopping, and grinning from ear to ear as they sing this together is a real treat and it is impossible to not join him! It’s such a fun and well sung version and is definitely one of the highlights of both nights for me.
On New Year’s Eve this performance flows into Will The Circle Be Unbroken, for which Yola stays out and we also have the pleasure of local musician Joshua Hedley joining on fiddle (and later on guitar) and vocals, as well as the War And Treaty Trotters returning for the celebration. Old Crow has added this old Carter Family song as a staple in their encore these days; there’s something incredibly special and spiritual about having it here, at the Mother Church of Country Music, with everyone in the room singing and playing and dancing along as it leads into the countdown, then Auld Lang Syne and Happy New Year! The revelry continues with the Old Crow classic and best song in the world to never tire of, Wagon Wheel, heartily sung along with by this elated, now balloon festooned, Ryman audience.
We’ve gotten some of my favorite songs led by Critter Fuqua these last two nights, including Dixie Avenue and Shout Mountain Music, both off their most recent studio album, Volunteer; the soulful cautionary tale, Firewater, from 2014’s Grammy winning album, Remedy; and two of my oldest favorites, from way back respectively on 2004’s OCMS and the 2006 record Big Iron World, Take Em Away and James River Blues. I always feel like the line, “I know I’m not that colorful but a bird just the same” that’s in Take Em Away, is perfectly suited to Critter. He’s not the flashiest guy in the band and is more understated in his antics (though he definitely has antics) than some of the others; and I have always loved his particular smooth, high vocals that are such a solid sound of Old Crow. This all becomes more cherished when, after the main set and before the encore, there’s a pause in festivities while the band returns to the stage to surround Critter at his microphone as he announces that he is leaving the band and this will be his last show with Old Crow Medicine Show. It’s a brief but heady speech that is short on details but long on what it means to Old Crow’s fans. Critter has stepped back from the band recently, performing mostly local Tennessee shows this past year, so it doesn’t come as a big surprise. It makes me doubly glad that he came out on this whole tour this past week, and that I did too.
The encore ensues, Critter’s farewell announcement being followed with an appropriate Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine), brought back from Old Crow’s year performing Bob Dylan’s Nashville recorded album, Blonde On Blonde. This stomping, harmonica-driven song, which starts side three of rock music’s first double album, and therefore always kicked off the second set each night when Old Crow was performing the record in its entirety, is a real raver when they do it, with Ketch twirling around during the harmonica parts blowing his lungs out and singing his heart out in between. Though they haven’t performed it in a while they don’t miss a beat and it’s one of the most energy-infused numbers of the night.
The night wraps with Critter back “where he belongs, on the drums,” says Ketch, and he takes that perch in the center of the stage. Critter will also sing this one, an upbeat and well-suited cover of Tom Petty’s American Girl. A well-loved tune that they rock and make their own, it feels somehow a perfect, celebratory way to both conclude and embark on a decade. Take it easy, baby, make it last all night! This song also get a highly unusual appearance on guitar instead of bass by Morgan – so, maybe anything goes in 2020!
As I’m outside a few minutes later saying some goodbyes, a particularly meaningful ‘happy new year’ hug and kiss is punctuated by one of the two balloons I’ve left the venue with popping loudly and for no apparent reason, mid-embrace, like a sneaky exclamation point. It makes us jump a little and smile a lot more, and seems like a really good omen for the year ahead!