On Carry Me Back, Old Crow Medicine Show rediscovers the mojo they lost on 2008’s dour, self-serious Tennessee Pusher. It’s not that OCMS can’t pull off something weighty (the deeply humanist “I Hear Them All” from 2006’s Big Iron World remains one of their very best singles), but they’re at their best when they chase their bigger ideas with a shot of piss and vinegar. That Carry Me Back includes some of the band’s most riotous performances and their most fully developed, empathetic narratives makes the album both a substantial rebound for the band and an obvious standout in what has been a dire stretch for Americana music.
What’s most impressive about the songs on Carry Me Back is that, in composing their original material, OCMS manages to apply their old-timey frame of reference to contemporary issues with subtlety and control. Frontman Ketch Secor may sing, “I’m a rebel boy/Born on the banks of the Shenandoah/In ‘61 went to the war,” on the opening lines of “Carry Me Back to Virginia,” but the song’s overall message is one about the physical and psychological toils of any war on a soldier. It’s an idea the band revisits on the standout “Levi,” while matters of economic hardship inform “We Don’t Grow Tobacco,” “Mississippi Saturday Night,” and “Half Mile Down.” The images the band chooses of sharecroppers, bootleggers, and families displaced by the damming of the Watauga River is often decades or even centuries old, but their point of view is distinctly modern.
Though there’s certainly an element of shtick to what OCMS does, there’s also a palpable sense of empathy that runs through Carry Me Back, making the album more than an exercise in empty posturing. That the band develops their songs of real duress so fully also makes the escapism of their more ribald cuts like “Steppin’ Out” and “Country Gal” seem all the more significant. The band’s spirited, breakneck-paced performances certainly enliven even the bleak tales of “Carry Me Back to Virginia” and “Bootlegger’s Boy,” but “Country Gal” and “Sewanee Mountain Catfight” find OCMS at their most tawdry and rambunctious. The narrators of the songs on the album may be socially and politically disenfranchised, but that doesn’t stop them from having a good time.
That drive to find happiness is best reflected on the ballad “Ain’t It Enough.” Over a lilting, bluegrass-inspired arrangement, Secor sings of simple pleasures, asking, “Ain’t it enough/To live by the ways of the world/To be part of the picture/Whatever its worth?” It’s as optimistic and unabashedly sincere a song as anything in the band’s catalogue, and it speaks to OCMS’s ongoing development into a band of real substance. What makes Carry Me Back such a strong album and such an improvement over its predecessor is that the band has realized that maturing doesn’t mean they can’t still get rowdy.