Review: Old Crow Medicine Show 'Live at the Ryman'
Few bands owe as much of their musical success to the energy of their live shows as Old Crow Medicine Show. From their starts busking on street corners to impressing audiences as an opening act, to their run of New Years Eve shows at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium. So it's strange that the band who hangs its hat on their live strength has only released one live album, and that in 2003, a year before their label debut OCMS. Now Old Crow Medicine Show's odd dry run of live albums is over with the Oct. 4 release of Live at the Ryman.
Old Crow Medicine Show's history with the “Mother Church of Country Music” is a long one. Since their first appearance there in 2001, the band has played the venue over 40 times, and has been selling out their annual New Years Eve concert (now expanded to two days) since 2009. So it makes sense that Old Crow's first proper live album should be culled entirely from Ryman performances held between 2013 and 2019.
Live albums are primarily for an artist's existing fanbase, but Live at the Ryman serves as a fairly good “greatest hits” album as well. When I initially heard of the release, I worried it would focus more on their current direction at the expense of their earlier Willie Watson-era recordings. But the album does a good job of pulling from across the band's entire musical career, with early fan favorites like “Take It Away” and “Tell It to Me” with more current offerings like “Methamphetamine” and “Brushy Mountain Conjugal Trailer.” And, of course, there's “Wagon Wheel”, the perennial set closer that has become the “Rock and Roll All Night” of Old Crow Medicine Show's live performances.
But the real sell of Live at the Ryman is the same sell of an Old Crow Medicine Show concert at that venue; interesting covers and guest performances. “CC Rider” is a given, having been included on their label debut. But you also get Ketch Secor putting on his best bass to take on Tennessee Ernie Ford's classic “Sixteen Tons.” He ends up sounding more like Tom Waits than Ernie Ford, but the fun the band is having with the song comes through.
As for guests, there is a lot of star power on offer. Margo Price takes on the Loretta Lynn role to Secor's Conway Twitty for “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man”, a song that has a long history of being performed on the Ryman stage. Harmonica god Lee Oskar of War joins the band to lay down the backbone for “CC Rider.” And 2018 Americana Instrumentalist of the Year Molly Tuttle lends some guitar muscle and sweet vocal harmony to album closer “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”
Live at the Ryman is the world's easiest sell for a fan of Old Crow Medicine Show. This is the band as they're meant to be heard. They are, and always have been, primarily a live entity. But even someone who only knows “Wagon Wheel” will likely enjoy this collection. While it doesn't quite capture the feeling of sitting on the floor of the Ryman and having so many people stomping their feet in the balcony that you fear structural failure, it does as good a job of it as any album could.