When a band loses a high-profile member, it can be awkward. Fans are torn between wanting a band they love to continue playing music and not wanting to hear a bastardized version of them ruin the good thing they had. Surviving band members are asked about the missing member ad-nauseum, and are put in a position to prove they’re the same as they always were, if not better off. Some are, some aren’t.
Though he left the group in 2011, “Remedy” is the first Old Crow Medicine Show album without founding member Willie Watson. (2013’s “Carry Me Back” was recorded before the band’s hiatus and Watson’s departure.) Old Crow is and always has been a group effort— different members take turns soloing and singing—but as voices go, in songwriting and performance, Watson’s was distinct. If you’ve ever stomped the dirt to “Down Home Girl” or harmonized with “C.C. Rider,” you were backing up Watson’s pipes.
Ketch Secor, another more prolific founding member of O.C.M.S., is still the heart of the band, and his touch is that much more prominent on “Remedy.” Without Watson to chip in, Secor takes the preponderance of lead vocals bits, which at times threatens the lively free-for-all spirit of the group. It isn’t until the fourth song, “Mean Enough World,” that Secor retreats from the mic, which turns out to be one of just a few breaks. It’s a subtle subtraction, but Watson’s whinnying timbre contributed a dynamism that’s notably missing here. The songwriting is still classic Old Crow.
The band’s songs have always been about embracing their roots-appalachian lifestyle with a hint of parody. That’s kicked up a few notches here. “8 Dogs 8 Banjos” is a compendium of what quintessential country folk need—including “corn whiskey, dirt weed”—while “Brushy Mountain Conjugal Trailer” celebrates a kinky reprieve from the clink. The anachronistic “Tennessee Bound” details the trip into the paradise of the Volunteer State on a “flop-eared mule” where mulberry wine and uh, 14-year-old girls await. Hilarious?
Along with the obtuse, a significant portion of “Remedy” is no-nonsense. Like so many folk-and-country bands, Old Crow sports a heavy hand along with their heavy heart on these numbers. “Dearly Departed Friend” is as on-the-nose lyrically as it is in title: a truck backfires—it’s always a truck—at the funeral of a young serviceman, scaring his fellow soldiers and suggestively elbowing the listener in the ribs. “Mean Enough World” begs assholes to be nice in a similarly straight—and asshole-y—manner: “It’s an already mean and up world without you.”
Questionable moments aside, Old Crow manage to hit the sweet spot most soundly in “Remedy” with their heart on their sleeve. The down-and-lonesome cowboy tune “Sweet Amarillo” is right up in the pantheon of the band’s great songs. (It should come as no surprise that like the massively popular “Wagon Wheel,” it too was born of a Bob Dylan outtake.) Critter Fuqua, who left the band for a stretch in his struggle with alcoholism, contributes the poignant “Firewater,” a rare moment of clarity for a band that’s always lived up to the cheap whisky it’s named for.
“Remedy” is a landmark album for Old Crow Medicine show, marking the departure of a major player in the band. Unfortunately, it also happens to be their least interesting, offering too many tired variations on old themes with too few revelations. They shouldn’t expect to hear the end of Willie Watson questions anytime soon—especially considering his relative solo success.But at least they have his songs to mix in with the relative boondoggle of “Remedy” on their upcoming tour.
Dylan Owens is Reverb’s all-purpose news blogger and album reviewer. You can read more from him in Relix magazine and the comment sections of WORLDSTARHIPHOP.