Old Crow Medicine Show Plays Blonde on Blonde

Thursday, May 12, 2016
CMA Theater at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

The seven members of Old Crow Medicine Show paraded onstage like a dissolute yet determined marching band, complete with an upright bass drum pounded by mallets, as they woozily slid into Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.” The musical introduction—as original as it was unusual—set the tone for the creative way the popular stringband paid tribute to Bob Dylan’s landmark album Blonde on Blonde, released fifty years ago this month and recorded largely in Nashville with Music Row studio musicians.   

The sold-out concert, held in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s CMA Theater, continued a series of events inspired and informed by the ongoing special exhibition Dylan, Cash, and the Nashville Cats: A New Music City.

Rock & roll’s first double album, Blonde on Blonde is older than every member of Old Crow Medicine Show. But the Nashville-based stringband revealed, in speeches and in their inventive renditions of Dylan’s songs, the influence that his work and this particular album have pressed upon the band.

Ketch Secor, singer and bandleader of Old Crow, repeatedly asserted that Dylan provided a guiding light for the emergence of the band’s distinctive style, which draws heavily on traditional American music. Secor also implied, while standing onstage in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, that Dylan’s influence on country music is not fully recognized.

“Bob Dylan belongs in the Country Music Hall of Fame,” Secor said. “Not just because he made these three or four powerful albums here. Not just because he wrote country music songs like ‘Lay Lady Lay,’ which is pure country. But because he has informed every songwriter in our city. He is at the heart of what Nashville, Tennessee, is all about. He came here long before many other folks did. Fifty years ago, in fact.”

OCMS—with multi-instrumentalists Joe Andrews, Critter Fuqua, Kevin Hayes, Morgan Jahnig, Chance McCoy, Secor, and Cory Younts—has made a career of putting a fresh spin on older American music. Secor has always acknowledged Dylan’s influence: He has said he once listened to nothing but Dylan albums for four years, while learning to write songs and plotting his future.

For Old Crow Medicine Show’s best-known song, “Wagon Wheel,” Secor took an unfinished Dylan composition, “Rock Me Mama,” that he heard on a bootleg recording, and, with permission, added his own words and music. It’s become a staple for cover bands performing in nightclubs across the South.

Museum staff member Peter Cooper, in his introduction of the band, explained that the museum wanted to honor the anniversary of Blonde on Blonde as part of its current exhibition acknowledging the importance of Dylan’s work in Nashville.  While discussing several possibilities, such as a multi-artist concert, the idea of finding one band to pay tribute to Dylan’s classic album emerged.  

“What group of players might perform these songs in such a way that calls to mind Dylan’s whimsical genius without copying his blueprint?” Cooper said, recalling the meetings that led to the concert. “What group of players could ground these songs in the blues and stringband traditions Dylan holds dear? What group of players would have the patience, love, and brilliance to get all the way inside one of American music’s landmark works, and the unmitigated gall to change the whole damn thing around and make it shine in different ways, with different sounds?”

The call went to Old Crow Medicine Show.

As Secor implied, the artistic and commercial success of Blonde on Blonde altered the perception of Nashville musicians. When other musicians heard the acclaimed album, and when they learned Dylan recorded it in Nashville, scores of young rockers and singer-songwriters started booking studio time in Nashville. Joan Baez, the Byrds, Leonard Cohen, Gordon Lightfoot, Paul McCartney, the Monkees, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Linda Ronstadt, Ringo Starr, Neil Young, and countless others scheduled sessions in Nashville studios to record what for many became landmark works.

Blonde on Blonde opened doors,” Cooper said. “It signaled Nashville’s place as a truly ecumenical Music City, and as a beacon for music-makers of all types. Fifty years later, Nashville remains a beacon, a place where rock, pop, jazz, bluegrass, R&B, and hip-hop artists come to create.”

Old Crow celebrated Dylan’s influence on Nashville, and on their own work, by reinventing Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde to fit their own style—looking back to traditional music while bringing modern energy and brashness to their renditions.

Using instruments not found on the sessions for Blonde on Blonde—such as banjo, fiddle, and mandolin—and focusing attention on the steel guitar as the primary lead instrument, Old Crow showed how malleable Dylan’s songs are and how entertaining they can be when presented in a wholly different context.

The band strutted through “Pledging My Time” as if the song were being rendered by a 1930s stringband, and the exaggerated jive-time vocals of “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” recalled Memphis jug bands and other Vaudeville-era acts. “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)” featured twin fiddles and a bowed bass, giving it a classical quartet feel, while “Just Like a Woman” and a beautiful take on “Visions of Johanna” accented the romance and sensitivity of the lyrics in a manner not heard on Dylan’s rough-hewn original.

As is their style, Old Crow Medicine Show emphasized rhythms and spirit more than virtuosity and solos. Their devotion to finding ways to make each song new gave the attentive audience a chance to hear several classic American folk-rock songs in a way that made them sound fresh. The crowd responded throughout the night with robust approval.  

For an encore, the band kept with the theme. They performed Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” as a bluegrass, harmony-drenched tearjerker while gathered around one microphone. Then they lustily tore into “Quinn the Eskimo,” one of the most popular songs to emerge from Dylan’s basement recordings with the Band, and performed it with raucous energy.

“Thank you all,” Secor crowed near show’s end. The crowd’s standing ovation sent the gratitude back to the band.

—Michael McCall