Hanging a Mirror Beside the Coal Ash Pile
Old Crow Medicine Show adds another verse to the American song on Paint This Town
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Since debuting with their first studio album, O.C.M.S., in 2004, Old Crow Medicine Show have become something of a string band institution. That album boasted one of the band’s — not to mention the genre’s — biggest hits, the Bob Dylan cowrite and live show staple, “Wagon Wheel,” and announced frontman Ketch Secor and the virtuosic group of players as a singular new voice in American roots music.
In the intervening years, the band released a string of acclaimed, boundary-pushing albums, earning Grammy Awards, a Platinum certification (for “Wagon Wheel”), and an induction into the Grand Ole Opry — among other accolades — along the way. Few bands have built careers akin to Old Crow’s, which somehow boasts both mainstream success and outsider cred and, at nearly two decades in, has profoundly influenced the trajectory of country, bluegrass, Americana, and more.
It makes sense, then, that a band of such stature would need its own headquarters. Nestled within a whistle blow of the train tracks that run through East Nashville, their new studio, Hartland Studio, has become just that, and provided a fruitful creative environment for Old Crow’s seventh studio album, Paint This Town, out April 22. In addition to being the band’s first album recorded at Hartland (co-produced with Matt Ross-Spang), Paint This Town is also a return to their earlier partnership with ATO Records, who released 2014’s Grammy-winning Remedy.
The band had long been eyeing the building that would become Hartland, waiting for an opportunity to purchase the property and make it their own. That opportunity finally came in February 2020, mere weeks before deadly tornadoes would tear across Middle Tennessee and the COVID-19 pandemic would take hold in earnest.
“It really caught our eye,” Secor says, speaking via Zoom from Hartland alongside Cory Younts, Morgan Jahnig, and Jerry Pentecost. “We used to stay at the Congress Inn there on Dickerson [Pike], so we were familiar with the area anyway. And then finally, Cory figured out somebody was selling it and we got our offer in quick and snatched it up just before the tornado touchdown.”
The plan, as Secor tells it, was to “move in, get all of [their] stuff” into the studio “and then go hit the road for spring and summer,” hiring others to finish out the studio while the band was on the road. The pandemic, of course, had other plans for both Old Crow and the broader music industry. With touring on indefinite hiatus, the band began immediate work on making Hartland a creative hub and soon devised plans for a new album, realizing that the social unrest of 2020 lent itself to their conscious, often allusion-heavy songwriting.
“The last couple of years have given us a lot to write about,” Secor says. “It just seems like there’s endless fodder for song right now, with all of the chaos that’s happening around the country, around the globe.
“What ended up happening was we had to start using it right away,” Secor says. “So, you know, everything was on top of boxes and there were cables running everywhere. It was really a clubhouse kind of vibe.”
That ragtag, DIY vibe wound up being a bit of a player itself on Paint This Town, which, while tackling difficult topics like racism and greed, is also one of the band’s more spirited releases in recent years. The band’s playing is at its finest, while Secor’s celebrated voice crackles with a renewed vigor.
Paint This Town opens with the title track, a buoyant, nostalgic ode to the recklessness of teenage love, with a distinctly American bent (“Paint it red and white for Old Glory / Paint it blue for the cops tailing your old man’s Ford,” Secor sings, alongside references to Waffle House and all-night truck stops). It’s imagery you might hear in a country song, or a Springsteen cut, but served up with the driving, frenetic string arrangements for which the band is so beloved.
As they’ve done so well on previous releases, Old Crow make America the primary subject of many songs across Paint This Town, including a particularly moving trio of tracks — “DeFord Rides Again,” “New Mississippi Flag,” and “John Brown’s Dream” — that address the country’s history of racism and hatred head-on.
On “New Mississippi Flag,” which opens with soulful piano and recalls Honky Chateau-era Elton John, Secor envisions a Mississippi flag (infamously emblazoned with a Confederate flag until early 2021) that reflects the state’s diversity and accomplishments, like the work of writer Eudora Welty and the music of Robert Johnson. The track was originally inspired by the band’s reaction to the murder of George Floyd, with Secor musing, “After, after George Floyd is in the ground, how do you want the world for the next generation to be?” And “John Brown’s Dream” pays foot-stomping homage to the famous abolitionist, with Secor’s vocal taking a darker turn to underscore the gravity of Brown’s situation.
Despite the social and historical elements often at play in their music, Secor does not believe Old Crow to be a political band, but rather a vessel for storytelling. It’s up to the listener to draw their own conclusions from the band’s work, which only promotes an ideology insofar as the subjects the band chooses to tackle.
“We’re just using music,” Secor says of writing about social issues. “This isn’t a loyalty oath. This isn’t a vote. This is just one of the many mirrors hung up beside the coal ash pile, saying, ‘Check it out.’ And we’re not the first people to sing about dirty old coal or about inequity or racism. We’re just adding, you know, another verse to an existing American song that’s been sung for a couple hundred years now. We’re singers and songwriters and performers. We’re not politicians and we’re not policymakers. But we love John Prine. And we think the Peabody Coal Company tore up Paradise.”
“DeFord Rides Again” was one of the first songs the band wrote for the album, with a co-writing contribution from new band member Jerry Pentecost. The freewheeling track features Pentecost on lead vocals and drums, and celebrates the music of Black harmonica player and former Grand Ole Opry star DeFord Bailey. Pentecost and Secor wrote the tune in something of a rush, with the time constraint lending urgency to the already breakneck track.
“It was actually kind of tricky, because my wife was pregnant with our twins,” Pentecost says of writing “DeFord Rides Again.” “And so we had a small amount of time to get in here and make a record together. We had done some demos here and everything just kind of came together. But that was my first songwriting collaboration in this group, working on that song.”
“As we kept working on it, we realized that Jerry was even closer to the DeFord Bailey story than we knew,” Secor adds, with Pentecost explaining that Bailey’s gravesite is near graves of his own family members at the local Greenwood Cemetery.
“Over Christmas, me and Jerry both had COVID so we got together for a quarantine field trip,” Secor says. “We went to the Greenwood Cemetery up on Elm Hill Pike and we saw some of Jerry’s family where DeFord was buried. We saw [Jerry’s] Uncle Billy, who’s buried underneath the Nashville-Chattanooga-St. Louis Railway. He’s buried under the driver’s wheel. That’ll be our next song.”
The addition of Pentecost, who also plays mandolin, was integral to developing the sound of Paint This Town, as were the contributions of two other new members: Mike Harris (vocals, guitar, mandolin, slide guitar, dobro, banjo) and Mason Via (vocals, guitar, gitjo).
All three players auditioned for the band early into their work on Hartland Studio and subsequently helped the band get the studio into working shape.
“We tend to shake this band up every couple of years in one way or another,” bassist Morgan Jahnig says. “It definitely feels like a continuation of everything that we’ve been doing for 20-some odd years now. We’ve known Mike since the [touring with] Mumford [and Sons] days, and when it came time to look for another guitar player Jerry mentioned him and there you go. Mason being so young and full of energy, that was definitely something that a band in its 20-somethingth year needs.”
“The band is almost as old as Mason now,” Secor quips. “He’s brought a great spirit to the band. We met him pretty randomly, but there’s always been a divinity to the randomness and who becomes a touring member of this band. It just seems like we find the right folks right when we need them.”
One of those “right folks” was Ross-Spang, an in-demand producer known for work with Jason Isbell, Margo Price, John Prine, and more. Already a friend to the band, Ross-Spang helped push the band along as they sought to finish up the studio and get a new record in the can before Pentecost’s wife gave birth.
“Morgan and I especially were very nervous [about time], like, ‘I don’t think this place will be ready,’ and trying to really clean up all the coffee cups and nail guns and things out of the way before Matt got here,” Younts says. “And when he walked in, he loved it. It’s still kind of run-down. It’s definitely not Blackbird Studios or anything. It’s very GarageBand, which has an element of use to it still, even though we’re getting older. But it feels like, you know, Mom is at work and Dad’s at work and we can jam out in the garage for a while. … So that made us really relaxed, like, ‘Alright, it’s gonna be okay to make a record here.’”
“You can hear some of that youthfulness in these tracks, too,” Pentecost adds. “There was just a great energy running through the building the entire time we were making the record, which wasn’t at the height of the pandemic but it was pretty present. So, we had so many other things to be aware of as well, while making this record.”
In addition to recording Paint This Town there, Old Crow used Hartland to host a series of live-streamed performances, called the Hartland Hootenanny, on Saturday nights during lockdown. Guests included up-and-comers like Amythyst Kiah, Molly Tuttle, and Billy Strings, as well as roots icons like Marty Stuart and Jim Lauderdale, all making for a deeply collaborative, community-driven outlet during the darker days of the pandemic.
“The pandemic was like the fifth Beatle,” Secor says. “We had this place to plug into for 37 Saturday nights in a row without work. Instead of sitting around, we did our Hootenanny livestream show and that was so beautiful and so unifying. The Hootenanny really helped us to utilize the space and also to curate the next iteration of Old Crow.”
That next iteration is an exciting one to be sure, particularly as the band readies itself for an extensive tour in support of Paint This Town, kicking off around the same time of year — late March — that the band began work on Hartland in earnest. Call it coincidence, or perhaps full-circle, but for Old Crow it’s just another moment of serendipity that deepens the scope of their music.
“The bus is gonna pull up to Hartland again and we’re gonna get all the gear in and go do a big tour,” Jahnig says. “We recorded this record for a year down here. So, it’s been in the can for a while. We’re ready for people to hear these songs. That’s right at the top of my list, getting the music to the people.”
Old Crow Medicine Show's seventh studio release Paint This Town drops April 22 via ATO Records
Co-Produced by OCMS and Matt Ross-Spang
Preorders & tour info available at crowmedicine.com