If any band could take a request to cover an entire album from master lyricist Bob Dylan from start to finish and make it happen in less than a month, that band is certainly Old Crow Medicine Show. The founding members of Old Crow have always possessed a fascination with the folk poet, and they took one of his unfinished works, “Rock Me Mama,” and made it into a lasting hit called “Wagon Wheel.”
For the 50th anniversary of Dylan’s seminal double album “Blonde on Blonde,” the Country Music Hall of Fame asked the alternative country/old time string band Old Crow Medicine Show to perform the album. It was meant to be a one-off performance. The band worked up the songs and went for it. Never once did the band consider the project might live on, says Chris “Critter” Fuqua, who plays banjo, guitar, accordion and provides vocals for the band.
What: Old Crow Medicine Show performs “Blonde on Blonde”
When: 7 p.m. Nov. 16
Where: Walton Arts Center, Fayetteville
Tickets: 479-443-5600 or tickets.waltonartscenter.org
The original performance, which took place in May 2016 at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, went flawlessly. A live recording was made, and almost immediately, the group decided to release the album on their new record label, Columbia – the same one that originally released Dylan’s 1966 masterpiece. Dylan’s original was revitalized after New York recording sessions were scrapped for sessions in Nashville. That influence shows in the final recording, and it makes a Nashville-based band like Old Crow perfect for the retelling.
The Old Crow Medicine Show live recording, titled “50 Years of Blonde on Blonde,” was released April 28 of this year, followed by a series of tour dates in support of the album where the band plays the “Blonde on Blonde” tracks in their original order. The tour visits the Walton Arts Center for a Thursday night (Nov. 16) performance.
Live is the way this concept is meant to be, Fuqua insists.
“It wouldn’t work in the studio,” he says. “I don’t want to do 20 takes of ‘Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,’” he says, making reference to the 11-minute-plus closing track that required Old Crow to memorize pages of lyrics. There were 43 pages of lyrics for the full “Blonde on Blonde” recording, by the way.
“It’s absolutely bonkers, the length of the songs,” Fuqua says. “It’s just stream of consciousness.” It was also a seminal record at the time of its release, and is considered to be among the first double album releases from a major artist.
The challenges of reconstructing complex Dylan classics – when he was arguably at his peak – has been met, Fuqua says.
“We’re better at it than Bob ever was,” says Fuqua of their comparative live sets. That’s what happens after several dozen performances on the road dedicated only to this music. But Old Crow’s version isn’t precisely Dylanesque. It is all Old Crow Medicine Show, however – jangly guitar, foot stomping, fiddle and banjo interplay, layers of vocals and frantic pacing.
It speaks to the talents of OCMS to be able to pull it off. It also speaks to Dylan and his adaptability. Dylan has been notoriously across the board himself.
“He’s flexible. He’s a rock singer, he’s spreading the gospel. He’s the folk singer, the recluse, the crooner. He’s whatever he wants to be,” Fuqua says.
And, a major influence in music more than five decades after starting his career. Fuqua says that following the conclusion of the “Blonde on Blonde” portion of the evening, the band typically returns for an encore to perform several of their popular songs. And maybe a song that’s part theirs, part Dylan. But, to be honest, what popular music doesn’t have a little bit of Dylan’s influence?