Oh, you can't scare me, I'm sticking to the union, I'm sticking to the union, I'm sticking to the union. Oh, you can't scare me, I'm sticking to the union, I'm sticking to the union 'til the day I die.
The crowd yelling Woody Guthrie's defiant words to "Union Maid" is mostly college-age, joined by a number of elders like me--a gray-beard in a clerical collar. They dance in the aisles of the beautiful old art-deco Paramount Center for the Arts in Bristol, Tennessee, singing about solidarity at the top of their lungs. The first performance of Old Crow Medicine Show's spring tour sounds like a labor rally.
The five-member band is a phenom--arguably the most popular old-time string band in a long time. The Crows have been packing houses for the past couple of years, thanks to the Internet and appearances at the Grand Ole Opry and on Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion. Their eponymous record, released in 2004, rose to first place on some bluegrass charts, "which is pretty good, since we're not even a bluegrass band," says fiddler, vocalist, and band spokesperson Ketch Secor, who, like his bandmates, is in his mid-20s.
Indeed, the band's music is delightfully hard to categorize. Sure, it's got a bluegrass feel and an old-time sensibility, but it isn't exactly either. The basic ingredients of OCMS--banjo, fiddle, harmonica, guitjo (a guitar/banjo hybrid), guitar, upright bass, and vocals--are recognizable as the time-honored sound of the band's great-grandparents, but it's really a brand-new formula, an irresistible and addictive mix.
Much of the band's eclectic repertoire is obscure public-domain string-band material unearthed through the Crows' own dedicated research. (Norm Parenteau, the band's manager, says that when the Crows subsisted on food allowances in the not-so-distant past, they would often share a bowl of soup and spend the rest of the money on 78s.) But OCMS contains liberal admixtures from different shelves in the apothecary: rural blues, jug-band classics from Memphis, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Neil Young, the Grateful Dead, The Band, and plenty of their own originals, all ground together with a sprinkle of hip-hop wordplay and a garage-band attitude. The result is something new and exciting--old-time music with tattoos and multiple piercings. Whatever you call it, it is distillate joy.
WHICH ISN'T TO SAY it's lacking in outrage. Christopher (Critter) Fuqua, a founding Crow who performs occasionally with the band, wrote "Big Time in the Jungle," a song about a Vietnam vet who comes back from the war a changed man. He "got his life turned upside down/Turned his smile into a frown ... /For an ideal he didn't even know about.... /Then the bombs started fallin'/And they pounded his brain/And he thought about Eutaw/And who was to blame/For sendin' him to Vietnam."
The Bristol audience roars its approval. The theater's atmosphere is more rock concert than folk, more Woodstock than coffeehouse, but one senses a political and even religious spirit from the stage. What's going on?
The young man sitting next to me tries to explain. "There are a lot of us who don't like what comes out of Nashville--'nashtrash.' This is different." Although they're currently based in that city, the Crows make no secret of their distaste for what Nashville has come to represent. OCMS is the best known of a new wave of young string bands--including The Mammals, The Duhks, Uncle Earl, and the Hackensaw Boys--who are taking country music in new directions. The movement is classified variously as roots, Americana, alt-country, and "new-wave old-time." And two nonmusical aspects of this movement-politics and theology--distinguish it from "nashtrash" as well.
Last April, the Grand Ole Opry televised its "support the troops" gala, in which, under an enormous American flag, a hunk in a cowboy hat sang a sentimental, belligerent song called "God, Family, and Country. …