Old Crow Medicine Show Recalls Career Highlights Ahead of Colorado Run | Westword

Old Crow Medicine Show Recalls Career Highlights Ahead of Colorado Run

After a prolific series of albums and live performances, Ketch Secor says "the power of our folk music is in our hearts."
Old Crow Medicine Show plays Dillon and Mishawaka this weekend.
Old Crow Medicine Show plays Dillon and Mishawaka this weekend. By Brendan McClean
Share this:
Ketch Secor doesn't sit in one place for long. The rootsy singer, songwriter and Grammy-winning multi-instrumentalist of Old Crow Medicine Show, who has performed at venues all over the world, comes by his peripatetic nature honestly, having grown up as the son of educators who bounced from place to place during his youth.

"I'd lived in five states by the fifth grade," recalls Secor, who calls Nashville home these days. "We moved around a lot. Both my mom and dad worked in elementary schools and started a couple schools, as well. I was born on the campus of a girls' reform school in New Jersey. I learned how to walk and talk in New Orleans and how to sing in Missouri. I based a lot of my understanding of America from living in South Carolina and growing up in Virginia."

Secor first started performing in St. Louis, where he was exposed to plenty of Americana, folk and roots music and envisioned a career as a traveling troubadour.

"I was in some choirs when I was a kid," he recalls. "I was a member of the Young Singers of Missouri. We sang in malls in St. Louis and did some show tunes. That was the year that John Hartford, the great fiddler and banjo player, came to my school. I met him when I was in the first grade. I guess I got the idea around then that I was going to be a famous shortstop or a wildly successful traditional musician."

The young boy from St. Louis appears to have succeeded in his musical aspirations. At 46, and now a father and husband, Secor counts a co-write with Bob Dylan among his achievements. Having borrowed a refrain from a throwaway take that Dylan contributed to a 1972 movie soundtrack session (Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid), Secor helped to incorporate Dylan's lost refrain of "Rock Me Mamma" into one of the most popular folk-tinged ditties of all-time, "Wagon Wheel." The song, which appeared on Old Crow's 2004 self-titled album, quickly became the group's most recognized tune and has been played by countless campfire pickers and open-mic strummers as well as being famously covered by Darius Rucker and Mumford and Sons, among others. Secor says he penned his part of the hit while attending boarding school in New Hampshire.

"I went to Phillips Exeter Academy," relates Secor. "Among other things, I played a ton of Jew's harp there. That was my first instrument. It follows an ancient tradition of making music inside of your mouth. It's a simplified version of the vocal cord. With that instrument, I feel connected to parts all around the world and the ebb and flow of ancient tribes; and the history of the passing of the torch in the American South from white to Black and back again; and that constant interplay that makes our American music so rich. I was the only kid who could pull that instrument out of their pocket. No matter where you go to high school, it's a time of self-exploration. Being away at school near the New Hampshire seacoast allowed me to explore my alter ego a bit. I got into the music of Jerry Garcia and Bob Dylan, and I had dreadlocks and did the kinds of things you could do when you're away in New England at prep school. That's where I wrote 'Rock Me Mamma,' when I was seventeen."

Secor estimates that Old Crow has released approximately fifteen albums, and he jokes that he "probably knows how to play about 2,600 different songs at this point." He says he knows a vast amount of material because he's been performing and moving around since he was eighteen years old.

"I've been traveling hard and rolling for a long time," says Secor, who, along with Old Crow Medicine Show, is a member of the Grand Ole Opry. Old Crow Medicine Show marked its 25th anniversary last year with the release of its latest album, Jubilee.

"Being a part of the country-music story is pretty special," muses Secor. "Country music isn't Merle Haggard and Loretta Lynn these days. There's still some of the connective tissue in there, but it's also a lot of snap tracks and songs about the beach and stuff. We feel like Old Crow has a legacy of traditional country in a modern world and enables us to show the roots to people who might only know that from a record. I can play tunes that predate the Civil War that don't sound a lot different than they did way back then. I think our purpose is to use these museum pieces and relics in profound new ways. Kind of a re-appropriation of ’em, so that the power of our folk music is in our hearts and not behind glass."

The band's current run marks the latest return of Old Crow founding member Chris "Critter" Fuqua, who first met Secor in the seventh grade in Virginia, and who has returned to support the current tour, which celebrates its Jubilee album. The tour comes to Dillon Amphitheater on Friday, June 21, before hitting the Mishawaka Amphitheatre for a two-night run starting Saturday, June 22.

"Critter and I were in school together as kids in the Shenandoah Valley, and we got our first gigs together at the same homeless kitchen and did dishes together after our set in the same sink and used the same scouring pads," Secor recalls. "Since Critter is back, we're bringing back some old tunes that he sang over the years. I gotta relearn the set lists. You make records in your twenties and you gotta do your homework to keep up with it. We're a lot like the Grateful Dead, because even our original material is traditional. It's borrowed and battered. We might have Molly Tuttle sitting in with us, too. She's fantastic."
And like the Grateful Dead, Old Crow racks up more miles and shows as the years go by, returning to its favorite spots and pulling in new listeners along the way. The band's regular visits to the Centennial State are well appreciated by fans and the band alike.

"We've been playing in Colorado since 1998," Secor points out. "Our first trip through the state, we played in Pueblo and Trinidad, and we crossed over Wolf Creek Pass and played in Durango. We hit the southern part of the state. We've been performing in Denver since the late ’90s at all the iconic venues, including Cervantes', the Paramount, the Bluebird and Red Rocks."

Secor says that, regrettably, the music industry is not a meritocracy and that most talented artists are not always recognized by the mainstream. Despite this unfortunate reality, he encourages fans and artists to keep pursuing the sound and the magic.

"Some of the best people I've seen, I might not see again," he muses. "I've taken in some incredible performances over the years by unknown musicians. Music has a lot to do with the beholder. Having a chance to get close to someone who is really great at what they do, to see someone who has one hand in the clouds and the other pointing at you is special. We don't always get a chance to get far gone with our eyes rolled back because of the power of song, and yet those of us who have that skill can share that with people; we're able to show them something of a magical realm. If you can pull that trick in 2024, that's the rabbit I want to see."

Most of all, Secor says, he seeks to spread peace through his music, and hopes that he and his fellow bandmates can help create a better society in doing so.

"We're not politicians, so we can't stop the wars that are raging around the world, but I feel dedicated to peace as a performer. We're just banjo players and fiddlers, jug blowers and harmonica players, but I want kids to grow up and have healthy lives, so I'm mindful of that when I play," he concludes.

"When I'm playing music, I can see a better world. I think all of us can use our skill sets in our own different ways to teach peace."

Old Crow Medicine Show plays Dillon Amphitheater, 135 West Lodgepole Street, Dillon, on Friday, June 21 (tickets are $49.50), and Mishawaka Amphitheatre on Saturday, June 22, and Sunday, June 23 (tickets, including two-day passes, are available here).

Can you help us continue to share our stories? Since the beginning, Westword has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver — and we'd like to keep it that way. Our members allow us to continue offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food, and culture with no paywalls.