This is not my scene, I tell myself as I enter Fair Market prior to Old Crow Medicine Show’s SXSW 2018 set. But I’m a firm believer in getting outside one’s comfort zone (when it comes to music, not shoes; get some more comfortable shoes for tomorrow, I think) and I feel that swearing off an entire genre of music should be something we feel ashamed to do for its closed-mindedness. If nothing else, it’s antithetical to discovery, which is one of the greatest joys of music. So, here I am.
I arrive early for this SXSW show, partly assuming Old Crow Medicine Show is some sort of barefoot Appalachian-style bluegrass act that the kids love based off the single song I know going in, “Wagon Wheel.” People do love them, I see—sprawling lines snake slowly into Fair Market—but I will soon learn my uninformed labeling of them is off base.
As I take my place under the metal semi-cylinder of the hangar, an energetic cap-wearing young man named Kane Brown is on stage. The crowd goes wild, but, if I’m being honest, I don’t care much for him or his medley of pop tune covers, including songs by Khalid (who I think to myself is playing across town not long from now as I flinch through this), Outkast, and The Fray.
I swallow my distaste with a swig of beer from an aluminum bottle from the big brewery sponsoring this shindig. Brown leaves the stage, and a DJ fires up a crowd-pleasing selection of between-set tunes ranging from “Jessie’s Girl” to “Cupid Shuffle,” the later of which the masses totally take the bait for and begin dancing along to. As wedding DJ-ish as this move is, I support anything that gets people participating. And besides, I’ve decided to leave my judgment hat on the rack this evening.
Finally, Old Crow Medicine Show comes out to a rumble of applause. The frontman, a well-moustached man the internet will later inform me is named Ketch Secor (side note: which is an incredible name that rings with such an air of Star Wars bounty hunter rad-ness that I almost can’t believe it’s real) is a madman on stage, kicking about and singing at the top of his lungs like some sort of countryfied Cage the Elephant, another massively popular act I incorrectly assumed would be a snooze. These are the cases I love being proven wrong.
The band is sharply dressed in denim, vests, boots, cowboy hats, and the like—far from the faux shabby mountaineer look I was expecting. A better surprise yet, rather than sleepy, soft and slow-paced folk, they’re firing on all cylinders, opening with a trio of stomping tunes featuring a storm of fiddle, the deep gut-punching grove of stand-up bass, and barrel-chested harmonies belted in unison, all performed at a runaway train tempo.
And of course, there’s some banjo—the cilantro of the string family: a complex and savory treat to some but a soapy-metallic meal-ruiner to others. Here it fits well alongside harmonica and the sweet sing of pedal steel guitar. This is the sound of a 20-year-old act that has honed their craft to a degree few ever get to. This is good.
The set continues this way, with the band swapping instruments and Americana sub-genres nearly every song, bringing out an accordion for some mid-set dabbling in Zydeco and Tejano music, cueing denim-ed couples across the space to spin their partners around the dancefloor.
The band jokes about playing until sunrise and the show continues without a slow point or misstep, building steam until closer “Wagon Wheel,” which, played here, is much more lively than I could have anticipated compared to the inescapable version I’ve heard on the radio.
“It all sounds a little sweeter in the Lone Star State, don’t it boys?” says Secor as the band winds down. I have to agree. The band exits the stage before one of the most genuinely demanded encores I’ve ever seen a crowd call for.
Old Crow Medicine Show’s new record, Volunteer, is due out April 20.