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.” In contrast, at a Prairie Home Companion appearance last February, the Crows planned to perform a song called “Denomination Blues” from an old 78 by an obscure singer and songwriter named Washington Phillips. The song laments the squabbling among Protestant sects and includes the lines: “Jesus is coming back on the dividing day/Taking in the sheep/ Turning the goats away/That’ll be all now/That’ll be all/You better take Jesus now/And that’s all.”
In the process of rehearsing in the dressing room, the song was rewritten as “Domination Blues.” The Bristol audience—and the other six Southern cities in which I heard the Crows—loved the sentiments it expressed on war and the general state of affairs. We’re fighting each other and feeling proud of ourselves, the Crows sing, but in the end, fighting over money and power brings total destruction—the kind of destruction that leaves a soldier with a “tear in his heart.” This kind of apocalyptic language is far closer to the evangelicalism of the abolitionist, temperance, and suffrage movements than the Rapture fantasies currently in vogue.
If the Crows have inherited the social conscience of the folk revival, and some of the zeal of the civil rights movement, they’re anything but flower children. They articulate their generation’s disgust for things as they are, and their rejection is hot and furious. In a new song that Secor says is inspired by Isaiah, he sings of the suffering who wander in the desert, crying out for heaven’s benevolence. The tune is reminiscent of Guthrie and the verses incarnate his spirit, but while Guthrie’s social criticism could seem less friendly to religious faith, Secor’s doesn’t.
There is nothing conventionally pious about these rock-club prophets, and their performances are not the family entertainment sometimes associated with folk music. But there also is a serious message, for those with ears to hear. The Crows are appalled by the world they confront, and their mission is to dig up the good soil of American popular culture in hopes of finding something curative. “American music right now is puff pastry full of canned, creamy goodness. There is no content,” said Secor in an interview in Country Music People. “It’s like a drugging thing. It is not inspiring. It doesn’t make you want to dig ditches, and it’s not a good soundtrack to dig ditches to. We’ve got ditch-digging music in the Old Crows.”
“Ditch-digging music” is often political, religious, and subversive, like what’s expressed in the old pentatonic gospel song “Gospel Plow.” The Crows learned the song, which appears on their Greetings from Wawa, from old recordings; Dylan recorded it more than 40 years ago. The primitive, modal exhortation is sinister, almost frightening: “Mary had three links of chain/On every link was Jesus’ name/Keep your hand on that plow, hold right on/Hold on! Hold right on! /Yeah, keep your hand on that plow, hold right on.” The main theme is perseverance in the struggle here and now.
COMMUNITY CAN LIGHTEN that struggle, and the Crows’ sense of community is as countercultural as their approach to music. Secor and guitarist Willie Watson wrote the moving “We’re All in This Together,” a track on their latest CD, about sharing sorrow and bearing one another’s burdens. (Norah Jones sang it on the worldwide tsunami relief benefit televised last January). The lines speak of human solidarity, of being members one of another: “We’re all in this thing together/Walkin’ the line between faith and fear/This life don’t last forever/When you cry, I taste the salt in your tears.”
This is not the gospel of individual absorption, of “me and Jesus alone in the garden.” It is fulfillment sought in what Martin Luther King Jr. called the Beloved Community. It is about the commandment “that you love one another.” Although the Crows may not consciously intend that message, it comes through loud and clear, and the audience seems to embrace it with enthusiasm.
The other explicitly religious song in the current repertoire is “Drinkin’ of the Wine,” a spiritual largely unfamiliar outside African-American churches. First collected in Western North Carolina almost 100 years ago by performer Bascom Lamar Lunsford, the song’s origins, says Secor, may go back to the Gullah speakers of the Sea Islands. Watson sounds like an archangel, singing this quiet hymn of joy: “Drinkin’ of the wine—wine, wine/ Drinkin’ of the wine—holy wine/You oughta been there for a thousand years/Drinkin’ of the wine! /Drink it member, drink it free/And meet me in Galilee.” Here, the theology of salvation is frankly communal. Millennial hope and the invitation of the risen Lord are identified with the sacred banquet of the Holy Eucharist.
Is the Crows’ music secular or sacred? The answer has to do with joy, which always accompanies the sacred. There is real joy in the Crows’ songs, even those that aren’t sacred by conventional definitions. But if the sacred is that which participates in the good, the beautiful, and the true—in peace, justice, solidarity, and communion—then what Old Crow Medicine Show offers is indeed sacred. Meditations of this type are, by nature, subversive of political tyranny and false religion. That is why fascism promotes kitsch. One hopes that the Crows’ music speaks for their generation. If the crowds they’re drawing are a reliable indication, it does. That would be good news for American society just now.
William J. Teska is a retired Episcopal priest living in Minneapolis. He followed the band for a week during its spring tour.