Spend a while talking to Old Crow Medicine Show's Ketch Secor, and you get the feeling he couldn't tell you the sun comes up in the morning without giving you a story in the bargain. It's not enough, for example, for Ketch to say that the band went to Hollywood in 2008 to cut a new record. Because it wasn't just to Hollywood. It was to a specific place, one that helped shape the American identity. And Ketch wants you to know that.
"We made the record out at the old A&M lot, now called the Jim Henson Company Lot, which was the lot designed by Charlie Chaplin. He bought an orange grove and turned it into a picture studio. Herb Alpert owned it, and then Jim Henson. That place is full of history."
It was a fitting spot, then, for the gestation of the third OCMS studio album, Tennessee Pusher. In ten years as a band, OCMS has created a history of its own, birthing a lyric legion of American ghosts, rolling a million miles of pavement, and presiding over scores of revival shows that helped resurrect a sound many had given up for dead.
Still, by the time they rolled into the studio last February, the band was in need of some resurrection of its own. "The season ended on brutal touring," says Secor, on the line from Nashville and getting ready to head out with the band for a short European tour before returning for more dates in the US. "That's a lot of work, and it was hard to get fired up about working again."
To complicate manners, OCMS had a new producer. On previous albums, they'd worked with David Rawlings, a friend and occasional collaborator. Now, they'd be turning over the reins to Don Was, legendary mixmaster for everyone from Bob Dylan and Bonnie Raitt to the Rolling Stones and B.B. King.
Lucky, then, that Was happens not only to be a producer, but a musician who has a definite attitude about what it means to cut a record. "I think once everyone understands they're not going to work, it's OK," Was said in a recent phone interview. "I try never to use the word 'work' when I'm making records. You play music. You don't work music."
Released September 23 on Nettwork Records, Tennessee Pusher shows that no work and all play can lead to a damned fine recording. Spanning 13 cuts and 52 minutes, the record finds OCMS on familiar ground -- the ethos explored by Woody Guthrie and Walker Evans, Dock Boggs and John Ford. Tennessee Pusher is a moonshiney mix of split-lip realism, drunken debacle, and sepia-toned mythology, and wholly American from first cue to last call.
Yet Tennessee Pusher lights out for new territory as well. For one thing, it's the first album of all original songs the band has ever made -- albeit with the help of Depression-era folksinger Blind Alfred Reed, whose "Always Lift Him Up and Never Let Him Down" is lyrically expanded and musically reworked by OCMS guitarist/vocalist Willie Watson.
"It's been a long time coming that we would make a record of all originals," says Secor. "What really happens with these originals is the assembly of everything that's in your head and your heart and here's an instance in which you take a bunch of old fiddle tunes and banjo tunes and listen to The Times They Are a Changin' too many times at 14 and suddenly you've got this dreamscape that you live in and slip into."
Secor and Watson wrote most of the songs on Tennessee Pusher. Of course, the tunes include the rowdy, intoxicant-driven rave-ups and character-driven set pieces that have been Old Crow's stock in trade. In the kickoff, "Alabama High Test," a weed runner heads down I-95, with the heat in hot pursuit. "The Greatest Hustler of All" channels E. L. Doctorow, in a cautionary tale about a woman "born to be a moocher, a low down hoochie coocher, her daddy made her walk the line."
"Thematically," Secor says, "it seems like I was sittin' on the street corner a lot watchin' hustlers, hookers, drug dealers, pimps, Katrina refugees, undercover narcs all struttin' by. It seems like there's a common theme running through all this, of people at a bus station. So I could say that there's an influence there from a lot of common American characters. Stackolee is on it. Billy Lyons. Frankie and Johnny make a brief appearance, blowing each other brains out on this record. I think that, uh, Sojourner Truth makes a brief appearance. And of course there's a little James Earl Ray cameo. And Boss Tweed is on this record. Oh, Lord. They don't make 'em like Boss Tweed any more."
None of this, of course, is out of character for an OCMS record. But it's important to note that the band also stretches out here, with songs that have roots more in contemporary Americana than in the dirt-floor hoedowns and minstrel shows of days long gone. "Highway Halo" delivers the wistful angst of vintage Son Volt. And "Evening Sun Goes Down" goes down as easy as a good sippin' whiskey. But "Next Go 'Round" digs deepest, as the narrator takes a look back at a life lived imperfectly and a love lost, wishing for another chance and knowing that's impossible.
Now the winds are blowing steady
And my bags are awful heavy
How I wish that I could stop and turn around
But there are no second chances
in a world of circumstances
And in this life you don't get no next go 'round

Older by a decade, the members of OCMS are no longer the kids they were when the Medicine Show first hit the road. Is it possible now that they're looking back -- maybe even having some regrets?
"I like to think that we aged a little bit just before we wrote that song," Secor says of "Next Go 'Round." "But I don't feel like we're at a vantage point to be able to look back and have regrets. Not really… I mean, I feel very much the same way about music as I did when I was a kid. All fired up. And think that our band is still very excited about the task at hand -- playing for the people. In the spirit of good songwriting we tried to think about writing that one, Willie and I. We thought a lot about Waylon Jennings. And we tried to imagine what it's like for somebody a little older than us to have regrets. So this might not be us, but it's someone, and it's real."