On August 29th, 2006, a certain singer/songwriter by the name of Bob Dylan released an album entitled Modern Times. While the album title is largely ironic since nothing is modern about its musical arrangements, the music does not resemble anything like his early folk sound either. So what is the pre-electric Dylan fan supposed to turn to in these “modern times?” Well… how about to another album released on August 29th? Big Iron World by the punky-folky-bluegrass outfit Old Crow Medicine Show is just what the doctor ordered. In many respects a concept album, Big Iron World is a lyrical and musical picture of a harsh, cold world… one that largely contradicts OCMS’ irresistible upbeat sound. Yet, somehow, this combination ultimately proves to be the band’s strongest effort to date.
Produced by the great David Rawlings, the music of Big Iron World is solid. OCMS has always been a musically strong group, and they surely do not disappoint here. Each member of the band delivers, and delivers well. Joined on some tracks by the light drumming of songstress Gillian Welch, the tight-knit group of Critter Fuqua (banjo), Kevin Hayes (guitjo), Morgan Jahnig (bass), Ketch Secor (fiddle), and Willie Watson (guitar) deliver listeners an old-timey sonic blast that is sure to please… and on some occasions, make them want to dance. While their previous two albums were a little more raw and gritty, Big Iron World is OCMS’ most consistently impressive musical record.
In addition to their outstanding musicianship, four members of OCMS contribute lead vocals to songs on the album as well, and all four handle the duty well when called upon. The laid back voice of Critter Fuqua works on both the boatman’s hard time lament “James River Blues” and the lively “New Virginia Creeper,” while the “rocker” of the group, Keith Secor, proves he can be sorrowful as well on the murder tale “My Good Gal.” Even though Kevin Hayes doesn’t have the strongest voice, he still uses it well on a cover of the traditional “Let it Alone.” However, providing the most memorable vocals on the album is guitarist Willie Watson. His haunting, howling vocals on songs like “Don’t Ride That Horse” send chills down one’s spine. A band that has multiple members who can deliver effective lead vocals is rare, but Big Iron World proves that OCMS is one of them.
Yet, what makes this album such a great listen is the cover and original song selection that creates this Big Iron World. Beginning with the twangy, bluesy cover of The Coasters’ “Down Home Girl” and the Dylanesque “Bobcat Tracks,” there is plenty of musical goodness in between for listeners to experience. While many of these songs are fast-paced, they often feature just as much of a dark undertone as the sad and haunting numbers. Some of these are stories of addiction (“Cocaine Habit”), some are stories of infidelity (“Minglewood Blues”), and some are stories of the working man doing what he can to survive (a blistering cover of Woody Guthrie’s “Union Maid”). Hard times define the album, and it is evident that some of the hard times discussed are those that we face today. One of the album’s standouts, “God’s Got It,” sounds like a southern gospel song on the surface, but hints at the irony of wealthy evangelists selling Christianity to the poor. Another very memorable song, “I Hear Them All,” finds OCMS protesting against tyranny in the world in the name of the suffering. In times when such songs are a dime-a-dozen, this is as good as any song of the kind that has been released in recent years, and manages to deliver its political message without bashing listeners over the head with it (are you listening Neil Young??). From start to finish, each song on Big Iron World is a winner.
With all respect to Mr. Dylan, perhaps the greatest musical statement about modern times released on August 29th was Big Iron World. In discussing the darkness around each of us, OCMS has delivered their best album. And in a world where we face the horrors of war, terror, and mediocre noise on mainstream radio, thank heaven for Old Crow Medicine Show!