God and Country Music: Tradition, Innovation, and Old Crow Medicine Show
Each week in God and Country Music, Nick Rynerson gives country music a chance and examines the world of Americana, folk, alt-country, and popular country music.
I am an unashamed nostalgia-junkie: everything from the music I listen to and the books I read, to the circa 1955 portable record player that serves as the centerpiece of my living room. So naturally, the bands that I love are deeply connected to the past, especially the new bands. The bluegrass / Americana / whatever band, Old Crow Medicine Show has had my heart for years for this very reason.
You may know them from their mega-hit (by Americana standards), “Wagon Wheel”, that has made their way into popular culture through country radio, wedding receptions and open-mic covers (and just so happened to be one of the best highway-travelin’ songs ever written). While not a “traditional” bluegrass band by many purists’ standards, Old Crow Medicine Show makes their living by channeling the heart and soul of American folk music and rural life (from the 1890’s to the present). They stick to pretty traditional song structures, instruments (minus the ever-present guit-jo) and traditional lyrical content, even opting to play a solid amount of 20’s & 30’s traditional tunes.
But Old Crow Medicine Show is not a relic, as so many “traditional bluegrass” bands are. And in no way do they have a “traditional bluegrass attitude”. They have rock & roll energy and stage presence (note the old dude at the end of ‘Down Home Girl’ video who asks, “is that the Sex Pistols”?). They are playing music that connects to their audience and deals with the world around them.
It is their foot in the past and their foot in the present that makes their music so relatable, accessible, and beautiful. Unlike an old Bill Monroe (ex. A) tune, an Old Crow song is not intimidating to those unfamiliar to non-bluegrass veterans. Yet, unlike a Toby Keith (ex. B) song, Old Crow Medicine Show doesn’t completely betray it’s roots.
Exhibit A (look for “snobbery”)
Exhibit B (look for “lack of quality”)
Old Crow Medicine Show should be a lesson to the church going into a “post-Christian” culture. If you loose your roots, you will forget who you are, but if you refuse to engage the present you’ll become a dinosaur. This is a tension that exists not only on the “Episcopal-Independent Fundamental Baptist” denominational spectrum but also in every church and to a degree, every soul. In clinging, savoring, and studying orthodoxy the challenge persists to bring the beauty of living, active, Bible (Hebrews 4:12) to an ever-changing context.
Old Crow Medicine Show is a perfect example of how looking to the past for relevance practically works itself out in other spheres of life. So if you are looking to be really relevant, you don’t always necessarily need to look forward, but backwards and then around all you.And I am convinced that (and I think the guys in Old Crow Medicine Show would agree with me) It is the beauty of the high and lonesome old-time folk music that brought Old Crow Medicine Show together and gave them a voice. For the Christian, we have an even more beautiful, more timeless message; the gospel of Jesus that proclaims victory over Satan, sin, and death.
Great connection Nick. I think this is by far my favorite article of yours. It made total sense to me after you gave the example of the Old Crow Medicine Show, then the bad examples of country and how that relates to us presenting the gospel in a post-Christian culture. I also thank you for introducing me to that band. They are way cool! Also, I have noticed that you have used Toby Keith’s “Red Solo Cup” in a few of your articles, you must really hate that song. ha ha
Matthew, thanks for the encouragement! That comment really just made my day! These guys are absolutely one of my favorite bands!
And yes, poor Toby… it’s just too easy to use him as an example ;)
Stylistically speaking, OCMS is not and has never been a bluegrass band. They don’t use bluegrass techniques, bluegrass styles or bluegrass rhythm, and consequently they don’t sound like bluegrass. They have much more in common with old-time string bands (which is how they refer to themselves in “Wagon Wheel”) and jug bands. (If you don’t know the difference, maybe you should learn more about the history of “country” music before you continue your series.)
So your comparison to Bill Monroe doesn’t make sense, on two levels: 1) If you find “Blue Moon of Kentucky” intimidating, it’s your problem, not Bill’s. That was the B-side of Elvis Presley’s first single, BTW … do you find Elvis intimidating too? 2) I can’t really parse the triple negative of “not intimidating to those unfamiliar to non-bluegrass veterans” … you need a little help with that sentence … but saying OCMS doesn’t intimidate people who aren’t bluegrass fans is like saying vanilla doesn’t intimidate people who don’t like chocolate. It’s a non-statement, since OCMS isn’t bluegrass to begin with.
Addendum … Nick, perhaps you could unpack what you mean by “snobbery” as applied to Bill Monroe. If you mean it in a musical/creative sense, well, I can see what you mean, but I still think you have more of a problem than a point. Bill Monroe was stubborn and prideful, but he invented bluegrass, and I think that gave him the right to speak his mind on what it ought to sound like. If you mean “snobbery” in any other sense, you plain don’t know what you’re talking about. Bluegrass is working-class music (Kenny Baker, whom you see playing fiddle in that video, worked in a coal mine between music gigs), yet without an ounce of the boastfulness of someone like Toby Keith.
Furthermore … it’s ironic that you choose this version of “Blue Moon of Kentucky” to try to accuse Bill Monroe of being stuck in the past. Monroe recorded it as a medium-tempo waltz in the ’40s; that version sounds a lot like the first half of the ’70s live version you posted. Elvis’ uptempo, 2/4 version, released in 1954, earned a good chunk of royalties for Bill, after which Monroe rearranged the song to include an abrupt tempo change halfway through, in tribute to Elvis — just as he does in the ’70s clip.
Monroe helped to launch the careers of innovative players like Bill Keith, Peter Rowan, Sonny Osborne and Richard Greene, all of whom made major contributions in pushing bluegrass beyond the boundaries that Monroe set for it. As for Monroe himself, if you sit down and listen to his entire recorded oeuvre from the ’50s and ’60s, as I have, you’ll realize that he experimented with other forms of country and pop music, but the results simply weren’t as good as when he stuck to his first musical love.
It’s fair to say that Monroe did not innovate for the last 25 years of his career (although he kept writing new material until the end), but (a) he was still something to behold; (b) very few musicians do innovate if they’re lucky enough to keep playing for a living past the age of 40. I went to see the great bluesman Clarence Gatemouth Brown when he was 60 or so, and the dude played his then-current record note for note, without a single improvised lick or unscripted moment. It still blew me away.
I’m aware that Monroe is important. But it is important to realize that most people do not. The word “bluegrass” itself deserves books to be written about it (as does the influence of Monroe). As do the terms “punk”, “jazz”, “rock & roll” and “hip-hop”. But for the musically disengaged reader and those not fluent in “true bluegrass”, terms like bluegrass need to used in their ‘popular culture’, not ‘high culture’ context. That was my intended use of the word. Sorry for any confusion there.
Also, I like Monroe. I am regretful that I left a bad taste in people’s mouths with my example of Monroe. My point was simply that the fundamentalism of Monroe will not win many converts. While the shallow message of Keith might, their lives won’t be changed. But the appeal and winsomeness of Keith mixed with the (undeniable) roots and tried and true quality of Monroe makes for a revolutionary combination.
Finally, just an aside, but what exactly is the point that you are trying to make here?
Not trying to ruffle any bluegrass feathers, just doting on a favorite band ;)
The term “acoustic string band music” will do quite nicely as a catch-all term if that’s what you seek. The appropriate use of “bluegrass” is not a question of high culture vs. popular culture; it’s a question of accuracy vs. inaccuracy. I don’t have a problem with you claiming that OCMS’ approach is getting young fans interested in acoustic string band music (although the idea of “winning converts” is a bit farfetched, as if it were incumbent on me to abandon interest in all other types of music just because I liked a song by OCMS). But to claim that a band that doesn’t even play bluegrass is somehow more effective than the Father of Bluegrass at getting people to listen to bluegrass … that simply won’t do.
There are already several books about Monroe and his influence on bluegrass. Check them out.
As for what my point is … do I need one? You seem to be getting along just fine without one.
P.S. Perhaps you’ve heard of Joshua Bell’s busking experiment, where he played six virtuoso pieces, including the Bach Chaconne, incognito in a busy D.C. metro station and went virtually unnoticed for 44 minutes. On one blog where the story was posted, a woman who spends a lot of time busking with a musical saw had the gall to weigh in with the opinion that Bell failed to engage passersby because he lacked a schtick, i.e., he was insufficiently flamboyant.
Speaking personally, at the end of the day I’m more interested in whether artists remain true to their vision than whether they do things that are calculated to “win converts.” While it almost goes without saying that Toby Keith is an unrepentant panderer, I must say that I see the same kind of artistic integrity in OCMS that I see in Bill Monroe. They don’t play in the same style and may have quite different artistic ideas, but they seem equally committed to whatever ideas they’ve got. That, in the end, is what appeals to me. I don’t care whether a musician has a rock’n’roll stage presence, or wears a dark suit and a Stetson — if he does what he does without condescending to me, that’s a point in his favor.
If you look far enough down a pair of railroad tracks, they appear to come to a point, but of course they never actually do. It’s just an optical illusion, which is a common danger for those who are prone to drawing parallels. I will leave that exercise up to those who are more inclined to it, while I myself exit the train.
Here’s a little something for anyone who still thinks Bill Monroe was a snob:
So I know very little about string bands, bluegrass and country music so I cannot speak to the accuracy of Nick’s article, however, I understood the larger point that he was trying to make. I am sure Monroe is a fine musicians and an innovator but Nick’s comparison to the Old Crow Medicine Show was to bring out a larger point that as Christians we need to vintage in our theology, yet communicate the gospel within the proper cultural context so that people can understand it. If I present the gospel in the same way my grandparents generation did the people of my generation would not understand what I was talking about. The key is to speak to the culture in their language yet not abandon the orthodox Christian faith.
Also I think will Monroe in his peak might very well have been communicating in the appropriate manner for his audience but it might come across as snobbery to people of this generation even though that is never what Monroe intended. Once I was on a cruise and I heard a group of older people presenting the gospel to one of the cruise ship employees who was probably in his early 30s. As I overheard their interaction with them I knew that they hearts were in the right place with wanting this guy to hear the gospel but their evangelicalism technique came of as abrasive. The way they spoke with this cruise ship employee a generation ago probably would have been effective and come across in a loving way but now it sounds harsh and judgmental to those hearing it. I do not fault the older people for how they were presenting the gospel because that is how they knew how to present it but as Christians we must always reevaluate our methods of gospel presentation to start a conversation with another person and not a confrontation.
So in the same way Monroe’s music spoke to his generation without snobbery but now a band like Old Crow Medicine Show speaks to this generation. Then one day Old Crow Medicine Show will be probably thought of as snobs because their musical language no longer communicates to the new generation.
Yeah, it might be more fair to compare today’s OCMS with Bill Monroe in 1946. I guess we’ll have to wait and see whether OCMS endures for 58 years in the music biz the way Monroe did. Considering their well-publicized problems with substance abuse, i must say I doubt it.
Again, drawing a parallel is not equal to making a point, but in presenting the gospel to today’s generation, there are certain things we can’t compromise. And if we don’t know enough about acoustic string band music to be able to distinguish bluegrass from contemporized old-time folk, how can we be sure that we know enough about religion to be able to distinguish Christianity from moralistic-therapeutic deism?
I think we are viewing what Nick wrote in two different ways. I see a parallel and you see a point. With his point you are stating that he has faulty data and I agree with a point you need good data. So I can understand where you are coming from with that mindset.
I think though that it is a large leap to equate not being able to distinguish between genres of music to not being able to see the difference between Christianity and moral therapeutic diesm. There is large difference between the latter while the former I would say are at least in the same style family.
“Considering their well-publicized problems with substance abuse, i must say I doubt it.” <– You do realize that comes off as very, very unkind.
St. Ralph, I think you are looking to die on a hill that no one here is willing to kill you on ;)
But also St. Ralph, you do make good points about what integrity truly is. I guess, like the fundamentalists, I would not doubt Monroe’s integrity, but unlike music the church is commanded to change and adapt all the while keeping their integrity.
Yep. Contexualize without losing the message of the gospel.
Hey, no mistake, I am glad Critter has gotten sober. However, I don’t know what’s going on with the rest of the band vis-a-vis substance abuse (the article I linked to suggests that all the band members imbibe to some degree). To doubt that a given band will last for 58 years in the music industry is not unkind, it’s just realistic. On the other hand, OCMS has been around in some form since 1998 (minus the recent hiatus), so they’ve already outlasted Charlie Poole by seven years and have three to go before they pull ahead of Hank Williams.
Matthew, I think you’re a little confused on the difference between a point and a parallel. There are lots of the latter being drawn here and precious few of the former. I was having a little fun with the remark about MTD, I suppose, but I’d be careful … I meet people every day who don’t know the difference. (Helpful hint: MTD uses only two scriptures: Mt. 7:1 and Mt. 22:36–39; anyone who knows anything else about the Bible hasn’t succumbed entirely to the influence of MTD. But I digress.)
Nothing wrong with a good belt of contextualization once in a while, but “commanded to change and adapt”? Eh? Says who?
I think that part of changing and adapting comes from Jesus’ prayer in John 17 where we are to be in the world but not part of the world. Thoughts?
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