The lush hills of northwestern Davidson County put The Spin in a rural, hell-raising frame of mind — whether it was the whiff of freshly mown hay or the prospect of browsing where Barbara Mandrell once walked, we were in the perfect mood to catch a couple of super-retro bands working the string-band, country-rockabilly-hillbilly boogie side of things. At Fontanel, the spirit of Mandrell hung over the proceedings, and The Spin ate ice cream before the reformed BR549 hit the stage just as a fat Tennessee moon began to rise over White's Creek Pike.
Pioneers of hip, old-school light irony that both Moon Mullican and George Harrison might have appreciated, BR549 sounded better at Fontanel than The Spin can dimly recall, from collective memory of nights at the legendary Robert's on Broadway, back when fusions of Ray Price, The Beatles and Billy Swan were something new in Music City U.S.A. These days, guitarist and vocalist Chuck Mead does his own thing somewhere in the vicinity of Rockpile, while Gary Bennett has released cool solo records.
Doing such material as "Me 'n' Opie" — about The Andy Griffith Show, except the song mentions smoking "homegrown hay" — BR549 totally impressed The Spin as a kind of lost NRBQ-style band. Even their monikers are similar, come to think of it. With pedal steel master Don Herron providing color that vied with Mead's well-placed guitar licks, Bennett stepped up and proved himself a first-rate country vocalist in a band proficient at roots moves and power-pop. Drummer Shaw Wilson and bassist Smilin' Jay McDowell kept everything jumping during Tommy Collins' "You're a Humdinger," while Bennett got reflective with Gram Parsons' "Hickory Wind."
They were impressive indeed, with dynamics straight out of The Sir Douglas Quintet and Seconds of Pleasure, with the added attraction of the rockabilly and country genre pieces at which they excel. Then it was time for Old Crow Medicine Show, who explore a somewhat different — post-O Brother, Where Art Thou? perhaps — musical universe. Whereas Mead and Bennett have a '60s-specific view of roots, Old Crow are enthusiasts of older styles, from jug ensembles to string bands.
Opening with a rousing rendition of "Carry Me Back to Virginia," which leads off their latest full-length, Carry Me Back, the reconstituted Medicine Show demonstrated the energy and onstage chemistry that their fans have grown to love. Singer Ketch Secor fiddled and played harmonica with equal fervor, and he danced around the stage in small, ecstatic circles as the band delivered "Alabama High-Test," which speaks about heading down I-65 with a half-pound of, well, homegrown hay.
With founding member Critter Fuqua adding licks on banjo and Kevin Paul Hayes adding amped-up, super-folkie vocals that left The Spin speechless, the band was a rollicking powerhouse. Former Old Crow (and, as of late, Jack White sideman) Cory Younts ambled on stage for a few numbers, which didn't hurt at all. Nursing a broken arm, new Old Crow Chance McCoy made his presence known — as he said, "Don't ride your motorcycle on meth."
Those were words The Spin will do our best to abide by, but meanwhile, such excellent new tunes as "Levi" got the crowd singing along. Secor is a compelling figure — his energy overflows the boundaries of the song, and fills up the stage. Guitarist Gill Landry was a calm presence, while bassist Morgan Jahnig got crazy with the instrument — much like BR549's Jay McDowell.
Getting sociological with the spirit of Mandrell hanging over us isn't easy, but The Spin couldn't help but observe how Old Crow's mangy, sing-along spirit had its component of music that was rather un-subtle, even given the no-frills aspect of their string-band ambitions. Still, the band seems to speak for its audience in a pretty special way: Their tales of loss, dope, drinking and good times merge with a Carolina-Tennessee mental geography that might just mirror the experiences of many folks at Fontanel, and elsewhere. In that sense, Old Crow is a song band, but also an energy source — you can dance and sing along. As always, the demands of the present intrude on folkie pipe dreams, and Old Crow Medicine Show revels in that kind of contradiction.