By Brian Turk
By Drew AIles
By Taylor Boylston
By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
Ketch Secor is on a Rocky Mountain high of sorts. As his band's bus rolls into Sante Fe, New Mexico, all the Old Crow Medicine Show singer wants to talk about at the moment is Denver — John Denver.
"The power of his songcraft has a lot more influence and sway on cultural trends and tastes than the 23 seconds of shaky, grainy footage of last night's bar gig up on the computer," Secor asserts, "or the many umpteenth numbers of poly-ethnic slam-grass bands out there, know what I'm sayin'?
"I think it's cool that there's a lot of bluegrass music and jam-grass music and all the other kindsa grasses," he continues, "but a good song will outlive trend, and a musical life is like a fire: When it goes out, it burns on for a long time. The little things that are happening here and now are just little flickers; they're not even worth talking about. I don't even know that we're worth talking about. But certainly, John Denver is."
While Secor's humility is appreciated, you get the sense that he's selling self-effacement like the snake oil peddled by medicine-show hucksters a century ago. Surely he's aware that his own traveling Medicine Show has a dedicated, ever-growing fan base, healthy album and ticket sales, boatloads of critical acclaim and admiration from a legion of respected musicians across numerous genres — not to mention the talent and stamina he and his bandmates possess to play hundreds of rollicking shows a year, combining bluegrass, mountain music, Depression-era folk and blues and early-Dylan-style rock to major crowd-pleasing effect. There's a reason Old Crow's shows nearly always sell out.
Approaching its tenth year as a band, Old Crow Medicine Show — Secor on fiddle, banjo and vocals, Chris "Critter" Fuqua on banjo and vocals, upright bassist Morgan Jahnig, vocalist/guitarist Willie Watson and Kevin Hayes on guitjo, a guitar-banjo hybrid — has gone from busking on the streets of upstate New York to headlining the Grand Ole Opry, entertaining a Late Night With Conan O'Brien audience and appearing regularly on National Public Radio's A Prairie Home Companion.
Eventually, Secor is compelled to acknowledge Old Crow's various achievements, and he doesn't scrimp on characterizing the group's significance. "I don't necessarily wanna say we knew it all along," he begins before doing just that, "but there was a real feeling from the conception of this then-project that it was going to be important, in a bigger sense than the town we were living in, or the region we were living in, or in our small circle of friends and poets and artists."
Originally hailing from Ohio, Virginia, New York and Massachusetts, Old Crow's five members — all in their twenties and thirties, with collective musical interests that include everything from classic country to prog metal — started honing their roots-revivalist style around Ithaca in the late '90s and eventually migrated to North Carolina, where they found themselves in exactly the right place at the right time. The outta-left-field commercial success of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, which took Album of the Year honors at the 2002 Grammys, coupled with the rising stardom of singer-fiddler Alison Krauss, renewed interest in precisely the type of music Old Crow was making.
And one day, as the members were busking in front of a pharmacy, folk-country legend Doc Watson, then in his late seventies, happened by and, impressed by what he heard, invited the band to participate in his annual MerleFest music festival in Wilkesboro, North Carolina. That big break led to the act's relocation to Nashville. There they were embraced and mentored by Marty Stuart, Gillian Welch and Welch's longtime songwriting partner and guitarist, David Rawlings, who produced Old Crow's most recent album, 2006's Big Iron World. That release was the outfit's second album for Nettwerk Records, following 2004's self-titled debut; prior to that, the band self-released several full-lengths and EPs, most of which are currently out of print.
"I think we had dreams to fulfill," Secor says of the band's sturdy work ethic and drive. "And there wasn't anything that was going to stop them from being fulfilled; they were just meant to be. Critter and I, we talked about going to Nashville when we were sixteen and then forgot all about it, and then we found ourselves going there."
Introducing Old Crow Medicine Show during a live Prairie Home Companion broadcast from the Fitzgerald Theatre in St. Paul, Minnesota, last year, host Garrison Keillor told the band, "Remember this, boys, I say this from the heart: To play this kind of music, you can't let yourself get too luxurious. You gotta stay in bad hotels, you gotta eat bad food, to play this music the way it needs to be played."
Little did he know.
"Before all of this," Secor notes, "we were playin' in kind of extreme locations, whether they were the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota or some hillbilly bar on a dirt road way up on the mountainside in east Tennessee. We were playing places where people our age didn't go, where nobody looked like us. It was like the dark stranger in town; there were a lot of eyes for a long time.