Old Crow Medicine Show
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.
"But there was something strange and awesome about being in places like that," he adds, "and it made our pack really strong, too, because we were the only ones of us for miles around. We didn't hang out in the coffeehouses with the other bands, working on a press kit. We were riding around in the back of a car with hitchhikers that didn't speak for a thousand miles."
Secor says the surreal, often trying road Old Crow's members have traveled to get to a point where they can earn a living playing music and fill large theaters, clubs and auditoriums, makes relative luxuries like a tour bus that much more acceptable. He's grateful for the years of busking and the "traveling musical-salesman lifestyle," which he says helped the band develop "a backbone," but notes, somewhat wistfully, that those days are over.
"Nah, there's no more 'conversions' like that," he says, letting out a chuckle. "Playing on a street corner, you have to get people to stop; you have to get people to reach into their wallets, pull out money. That conversion is a real challenge, because you got nothing on 'em. All you got is your music and your voice and the strength of your band, the unity of your group and the strength of music as a whole. But when they've already paid twenty dollars to come in the door and there's a big line that wraps around into the alley, where there's a big diesel bus sitting there all heated up, with tinted windows and a big American flag on it...well, you sorta have to suspend that way of thinking."
Still, old habits die hard. "I try to busk a couple times every year, just for fun," Secor reveals. "I like to walk into bars in Cajun country and bring a fiddle, talk some broken French and try and follow along. I like to play music with people. I don't need there to be a thousand people out there freaking. Certainly, it's a privilege to have people come out, and I'm glad the people are there to make the show. But I didn't sign up for this 'cause of shows. The good times and the bad times, all of the music that was made, all of the strings that were broken, all the stubbed-out pencils that songs were scribbled with — all that stuff was going on, and it doesn't really matter what came out of it, what kinda gems were unearthed, but it was that process, the passion of playing music with my friends — that's what I signed up for."
For the singer and his bandmates, the appeal of being in Old Crow Medicine Show is clear. But when thinking about why the band's old-timey sound has attracted so many fans, the hoary cliche springs to mind: In an era of war-fatigue and media/technology overload, people yearn for the simpler times that this music represents. Agreeing with that notion to some extent, Secor believes the connection runs much deeper.
"I think that people hear our music and know our music from way back, in their hearts," he points out. "They know it's American music, and that somewhere down the line, they were making it, too. There's a recognition there that's pretty powerful. But, y'know, it's also just really fun to listen to, it's fun to groove to, to dance to, to sing along with and have a good time. Yeah, you can intellectualize it, and you can try to figure out the 'whys,' but in the moment of hearing live music, you don't do any of those things. You just dig it, man."
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