Old Crow Medicine Show have been around for more than a decade, but their best-known song is far older than they are. Their cover of “Wagon Wheel,” a 40-year-old Bob Dylan sketch, was covered by Darius Rucker, and Dylan himself was so impressed he dug out a set of unrecorded lyrics from the early ’70s and left them on Old Crow’s door. The result of this odd collaboration is “Sweet Amarillo,” the centerpiece of their ninth album, Remedy. With Ketch Secor singing in a nasal whine just shy of impersonation, the song sounds like The Basement Tapes at its lustiest.
“Sweet Amarillo” fits perfectly on Remedy, which is one of Old Crow’s cleverest, catchiest collections to date (and the first in seven years to feature founding member Critter Fuqua). Unlike other string bands, these transplanted Tennesseans aren’t terribly concerned with down-home platitudes. Instead, they’re Appalachian wiseacres — wiser and wilier than their peers, and they have the temerity to be irreverent toward folk traditions: “Doc’s Day” sounds like a doting paean to folksy nostalgia until they fess up to playing stringed instruments to get chicks.
Most of all, in Old Crow’s 16 years together they’ve learned that lyrical chops trump instrumental prowess. Remedy is, surprisingly, a songwriter’s album: “Dearly Departed Friend” details soldiers trying to settle back into civilian life, with dire consequences. Presented as a graveside monologue to a deceased friend (who may or may not be a suicide), the song is full of keen details, like going to dinner at O’Charley’s and watching Tennessee kick Georgia’s ass on a Sunday afternoon. But Secor underplays the sense of loss, which only makes the absence all the more affecting. Remedy expertly mixes gravity and levity, a lesson they’ve seemingly taken from Dylan himself.