It wasn’t quite the same as Bob Dylan plugging in at the Newport Folk Festival. But there was still something surprising about hearing Critter Fuqua play an electric guitar on Old Crow Medicine Show’s new album Volunteer, which marks their 20th anniversary.
"It needed to be busted out for 20 years," Fuqua said by phone from the road in Asheville, N.C. "People get surprised at the electric guitar and think that’s not roots music. People think roots music means acoustic music. But electric music is roots music. The reason why they didn’t play electric guitars back in the 1750s is that they didn’t have any. People forget that roots music was at one time brand new."
If anyone can remind folks of that, it’s Old Crow Medicine Show, who on Sunday return to Jannus Live in St. Petersburg.
Along with groups like Mumford and Sons and the Avett Brothers, they were key to this century’s Americana revival movement, thanks in no small part to their 2004 reimagining of Dylan’s Wagon Wheel. Their version was a minor hit; Darius Rucker’s cover was a blockbuster.
Released in April, Volunteer nudged Old Crow closer into country music’s outer orbit by pairing them with producer Dave Cobb, whose red-hot touch includes lauded albums by Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell — artists whose work seems in line with Fuqua’s view of how Nashville should sound.
"In the ’90s, when I was in high school, that was the last gasp for what was really good country," he said. "We had Travis Tritt, we had Randy Travis, we had Alan Jackson and George Strait. Those guys are still around, but they were at the top of the game, and that was really good country — and it was Top 40 country. Now it’s just this bro-country hybrid; I don’t know what it is now. It’s very weird."
If the influence of more traditional bands like Old Crow Medicine Show (see: Rucker’s cover of Wagon Wheel) has waned over time, Fuqua doesn’t seem worried about it.
"Inevitably, people look at it as: If it’s popular, it’s going to make money," he said. "When that happens, things tend to get watered down in any genre. That could be happening now, but I don’t know. The bands that I know in this world, I think they could keep going as long as they wanted."
Fuqua said the album’s title, Volunteer, could be seen as a nod to Tennessee, the Volunteer State. But he also allowed that it could refer to civic engagement, about "helping someone out in your community without thoughts of return."
A connection to one’s roots is also at the heart of their song Dixie Avenue, whose potentially problematic title is actually a reference to a real street in the band’s hometown of Harrisonburg, Va.
"The political climate is changing, and the narrative of the Civil War is changing for the better," he said. "Symbols are being recognized as racist and offensive to the culture, and I think terminology can be sketchy. … We’re not advocating racism or anything like that. It’s a street name near where I grew up. I don’t know that we need to explain anything like that, really, to our fans or anybody. We’re singing about the South. It’s where we come from."
Old Crow still drops in a little Dylan in each set — maybe a song or two from last year’s full-album tribute to Blonde on Blonde, but definitely Wagon Wheel.
Fuqua said the band hasn’t heard much from Dylan over the years ("I don’t even know if he exists or not"), but they do still find inspiration in his enigmatic musical evolution.
"When you’ve had a long career like Dylan," he said, "you’ve got to keep it new, or else you’re not going to do it."
Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.