Old Crow Medicine Show Has Evolved Since Its 'Hand-to-Mouth' Early Days

click to enlarge Old Crow Medicine Show Has Evolved Since Its 'Hand-to-Mouth' Early Days
Danny Clinch
Old Crow Medicine Show singer-multi-instrumentalist Ketch Secor and singer-guitarist Critter Fuqua started playing music together when they were in seventh grade. Back then, however, the guys didn’t play the old-time folk and fiddle music for which Old Crow is known. They both picked up the guitar when they were in their teens and listened to bands such as Guns N' Roses and Nirvana.

They’d eventually gravitate toward Bob Dylan and would form Old Crow some 20 years ago — not that the band marked its 20th anniversary in any significant manner.

“I thought maybe souvenir belt buckles would be the right thing, but we’ll see,” says Secor from Chicago during a recent phone interview. The band performs at 7 p.m. on Friday, July 13, at House of Blues. Singer-songwriter Dom Flemons of Carolina Chocolate Drops fame opens the show. “Maybe we’ll get watches. I never thought the band would be around for 20 years, but I didn’t know I would be alive for 20 years when I was 18. I just didn’t ever think about it. We were so hand-to-mouth for the first ten years. There wasn’t time to think about the future, and we weren’t really interested either.”

Last year, the Country Music Hall of Fame contacted the band about paying homage to Dylan, who was the subject of an exhibit that chronicled how the singer-songwriter changed the perception of Nashville when he went there in 1966 to record Blonde on Blonde. They asked the band to play the album in its entirety during a two-night stand. (A few years back, Old Crow famously completed Dylan’s rough demo of "Rock Me Mamma" and rechristened it “Wagon Wheel," turning it into a huge hit in the process).

“I like that the gig came from a museum,” says Secor. “It’s important for museums to be expansive in their work, particularly in regard to country music, which has had a myopic self-reflection. That’s a problem because it’s not narrow. It’s hugely more expansive than the current narrative. They could have asked us to talk about hillbilly black string bands, and we could have done that. Or we could have made a record bringing the Memphis jug bands into the country music story. Or we could have talked about Cajun music or South Texan polka music and about how that’s part of the country music fabric."

Secor says that Dylan triggered "the forces that led to Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris and Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney make albums in Nashville."

The band even recorded the tribute shows and last year issued a live album that captured the best of their interpretations of the songs on the classic album.

“Honestly, I’m the most proud of that album as any,” says Secor. “All the songs are masterpieces, unquestionably. What we got to do was the fine tuning, which was really fun. We got to envision all of the songs again.”

Earlier this year, the band also issued the new studio album, Volunteer.

Secor says the album contains a mix of old and new tracks.

“Like all Old Crow records, there’s something left in the suitcase from the last trip and there’s the couple of new socks you put in for this trip,” he says. “It’s a mixed bag.”

The group recorded with producer Dave Cobb (Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton, Jamey Johnson), who’s become Nashville’s go-to guy for acts that hearken back to country’s original spirit.

“I can’t remember if Dave called us or if we called him,” says Secor. “It was an obvious choice that we get in the studio with Dave Cobb and see what he’s had for us. It’s the first time I’ve worked with a produce at the zenith of his impact. We worked with other producers who were at different places in their careers, but I’ve never worked with the ‘it’ producer. It was great. He’s a genuine human being. His presence settles you, and it’s great for Nashville that Dave Cobb is shining.”

With its hiccupping vocals and twangy guitars, “A World Away” almost has a calypso vibe to it as it celebrates “standin’ at the gates of the Promised Land.” It's one of many standout tracks on the disc.

“I’ve always wanted to sing songs about the current migratory patterns,” says Secor when asked about the track. “You can call it the refugee crisis. That sounds a little too shocking. These are human migration stories, and they’ve been happening for millennia. The forces that cause them are no different than sharecroppers for sharecroppers leaving Mississippi in 1915 as they are for Guatemalan refugees fleeing violence and economic collapse and heading to Trump’s wall. I wanted to write a song that was like a Jerry Jeff Walker’s ¡Viva Terlingua! Instead of 'Pasture of Plenty' or 'Deportation,' this one is kind of a party song.”

As its title implies, “Child of the Mississippi,” a bluesy number with a hint of banjo and cooing harmony vocals, celebrates the river that's inspired so many writers and musicians.

“I lived in New Orleans when I was a kid, and I thought of the river as the embodiment of the gods that we learned about in church," says Secor. "I thought about the river in these baptismal terms. In the church, it didn’t make that much sense to me, but here was this godlike body of water that kept renewing itself. It was right on the street near me and hemmed in by these beautiful green contours. I could run around on the levees all day. The river and its relationship to the town and my childhood felt very intimate, and that’s where the heart of that song comes from.”

Secor says he’s looking forward to the House of Blues gig if only because he knows the band can play some of its more rocking tunes at the venue.

“House of Blues in Cleveland is a very balls-to-the-wall venue, and we have plenty of music that fits that environment,” he says with a laugh.

About The Author

Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected]
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