Old Crow Medicine Show: For The People

By: Sarah Hagerman

Old Crow Medicine Show by Danny Clinch
"Around the country there are people that are going through the motions of living," Ketch Secor (fiddle, banjo, harmonica) of Old Crow Medicine Show reflects. "Living in this day and era is so powered by consuming. Consuming has in many cases replaced some of the more gen-U-ine [his syllabic emphasis] facets of living. And I think that that's probably going to be what destroys us all - when we become a culture that only knows how to purchase, to buy, to take, to receive. And it's of vital importance that music and art stand against that way of living, that we be the anti-consumer. And if we are to be consumed, since we create a commodity as artists, [it's important] that our commodity is something of soulful nourishment. I got turned on as a kid by music, and it rattled all through me and it changed me. I think that even though it was a different time - and the times have changed so rapidly since the time that I was seeing Dylan and the Dead and Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen - in this time we can still create that sort of environment, where you can come to a show and leave a whole lot lighter."

Secor and his bandmates in OCMS – whose current lineup is Willie Watson (guitar, banjo, vocals), Kevin Hayes (guitjo, vocals), Gil Landry (resonator guitar, guitar, banjo, vocals) and Morgan Jahnig (upright bass) (at the time of writing Critter Fuqua is, according to Secor, "Taking an extended break. The road is not so good to him.") - create the antithesis of music as pretty product. Rambunctious, slightly chaotic and unapologetically earthy, there's not much slickness to them, save for a bit of spit and polish. To strive for authenticity, if often helps to get yourself dirty and a little uncomfortable, go without luxury, or even perceived necessity, for a while.

When the band moved to Nashville in October 2000, they left a purposefully simple, rough existence on a mountain outside Boone, North Carolina for another kind of ardor.

"It really was a continuation of what was happening all along," Secor says. "We always kind of had our sights set on Nashville, the capital of country music. But the kind of life that we moved into was so similar to the one we'd left. We left the sheep and the pig at home but we still had country living, bacon and biscuits for breakfast and beer all day. We were on the fringe. We were all living in this kind of kooky house in this terrible ghetto with a lot of drug deals and prostitution going on outside. So it was a bit of a harsh reality after coming from that idyllic life on the mountain. But the mountain was pretty gritty, too. It might have had some scenic vistas that Nashville ain't got but it had the same kind of hard edge."

Old Crow Medicine Show
Eight years later, they continue to call Music City home, but are also still self-described "freaks" in the scene. "I'm not there a lot," Secor says of the Nashville music industry. As we speak, he's walking through a construction site in St. Louis, Missouri, and I can hear the wind whipping through the phone. OCMS are booked to play The Pageant this night and I'm catching him in this window before stage time. "I'm more likely to be found wandering around a construction site like I am now. Of course, Nashville's got their share of those."

"Big country and all, it hasn't really turned its face to look at us, accept us, take us in. It's kind of in its own world and we're in ours. We got in the door at some of those places and we played for all those dudes six years ago, and they didn't sign us, so we haven't had to go back. But recently our new album debuted on the country charts at No. 7, and I think that was cause for them to look at us and look at themselves and hopefully ask themselves the question, 'Who's playing country music here?' Is it the boys who came to town in the Cadillac and played the Opry with the banjos and the fiddles and the big dog house bass? Or is it these dudes who have been hanging around the mall for so long that they look like the stores they shop in? They sing songs that sound good to shop, songs that sing well in elevators and parking lots and theme parks. You know, I like country music a whole lot. I love country music, but I just got too turned on by Jerry [Garcia] to give too much credit to country music of the 1990s."

Continue reading for more on Old Crow Medicine Show...

 
I got turned on as a kid by music, and it rattled all through me and it changed me. I think that even though it was a different time - and the times have changed so rapidly since the time that I was seeing Dylan and the Dead and Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen - in this time we can still create that sort of environment, where you can come to a show and leave a whole lot lighter.

-Ketch Secor

 
Photo by: Danny Clinch

Rock and Roll Fantasy, Folk Music Mission

Old Crow Medicine Show by A. Farrington
The Grateful Dead came up more than a few times in our conversation, with Secor calling them "a huge influence on the Old Crow Medicine Show." Although its maybe not the first association to pop up in a lot of folk's minds, latest album Tennessee Pusher (released September 22 on Nettwerk Records) certainly taps that influence more overtly than O.C.M.S. (2004) or Big Iron World (2006) did, although that spirit has always hovered in the songwriting and in how the band looks to the past. Produced by Don Was, who has worked with Dylan, The Rolling Stones and Willie Nelson among countless others, all cuts on Tennessee Pusher are original songs save one, and the addition of (gasp) drums and organ definitely adds some rock strut.

Although they came to the Henson Recording Studios in Hollywood with songs penned, ready to record, Secor explains that the sound of the album "has a lot to do with Don Was, you know, whereas those records we made with Dave Rawlings were more stripped down, more bare like a Gillian Welch record. That's an important step we were able to take and I'm really grateful to Dave for that. But in working with Don I think we were able to go a bit more rock & roll and live out more of our Grateful Dead kind of vibe fantasies."

But this isn't some abandonment of the "old sounds," as Secor is quick to point out. "If you come to our shows, you see that we haven't left anything behind. Rather, we've just absorbed more," Secor says. "We're a lot more schooled than when we were just getting started. We are still playing so much traditional music. We don't have drums or organs on the stage like we do on the record."

"I think we did lose some of the bluegrass conservatism, just like how hot new country was never that accepting of us," Secor mentions. "I think bluegrass is open to us being part of the crowd. We had the number one bluegrass album for 50 weeks with that last album and this one is holding strong at number one too. But I think, if you like Ralph Stanley, or if you like contemporary bluegrass or you're really into Blue Highway, or you're really into The Reno Brothers, you know, there's a kind of 'conservatude' that follows bluegrass music that we are very much not a part of because we are so much wilder and so much wilier. We look like freaks compared to the bluegrass scene. See, there's country people and there's bluegrass people, and they're not often the same. I mean, I like getting down with the good old boys, and I'm grateful that our audiences have them [and] are inclusive of the country boys. So much of the songs that are on the new record are for them. But because we haven't done it with that bluegrass plaintiveness, we've probably lost some of the people that want to hear a great flat pick solo. We're not going to give that to you."

Old Crow Medicine Show by Aaron Farrington
Regardless, a meaty, ragtag thump resonates throughout the record, but with an inclusive, progressive step, an eye turned as much to Workingman's Dead as to the old time/jug band swagger of their earlier records. Most importantly, Tennessee Pusher hits us where we live and breathe - in the mood swings of this uneasy time. It encapsulates moments of drug-fueled darkness ("Methamphetamine"), sighs of regret ("The Greatest Hustler of All," where Watson's vocal delivery crackles with heartache that recalls Jerry Garcia more than a bit) and resonant uplift that still brushes against the bittersweet ("Caroline," the album's closer, ends with Secor singing, "But I'd say you do just fine/ You do just fine, oh Caroline"). The album pulls vivid characters and snapshots out of the forgotten landscape of trailer parks, off-the-map dirt roads and black market economies. Seductive hustlers, addicts, dealers, even a saucy gal with a BBQ joint (or is it?) populate their grainy reel. Casting this lens is, as Secor envisions it, an ethical imperative of the band:

"You really have to walk in the footsteps of the people who make up folk music in order to sing about them, in order to use their bodies as vessels to bring your message across. Authenticity is something that you get through time, through walking down a rocky road, wearing holes in the soles of your shoes. If you walk enough miles and absorb enough of the world around you, then when you go to speak you've got something to say that's bigger than just your body or your mouth or your lexicon. That's what the music of Old Crow is trying to be, something bigger than just the five of us put together, singing and sawing and banging on the banjo. [We are] trying to disturb the sterility and stir it up."

Continue reading for more on Old Crow Medicine Show...

 
Authenticity is something that you get through time, through walking down a rocky road, wearing holes in the soles of your shoes. If you walk enough miles and absorb enough of the world around you, then when you go to speak you've got something to say that's bigger than just your body or your mouth or your lexicon. That's what the music of Old Crow is trying to be, something bigger than just the five of us put together, singing and sawing and banging on the banjo. [We are] trying to disturb the sterility and stir it up.

-Ketch Secor

 

Secor doesn't necessarily see OCMS as activist musicians, but rather storytellers in the folk tradition.

Old Crow Medicine Show
"There's the cause, there's like working for peace and justice, but I look at it from a purely musical standpoint. Here you have this opportunity to tell the stories of the castoff and the walked-over and stepped-on. I feel like folk music has always had an important role among the people, as far as being a sounding board for their wants and their desires. It's a stage for their hunger and their calls [against] inequity and injustice," says Secor. "I'm tapped into that, hearing all the protest music of the 1960's and loving Woody Guthrie so much and Pete Seeger. So that's certainly made it into what I want to talk about with music. See, if you're playing fiddle and the banjo you're really playing the music of the people. And if you're singing about getting fucked up in a bar in Colorado, well I mean sure, it depends on where you're at, but if you're talking about some ski town and everyone is playing 1600 beats per second, then it's not really the music of the people now is it? I'm all for the psychedelia of it all. I'm into that too, but when you get down to it, I want to provide something a little more nourishing. You need protein in your diet. You need substance in your music. It's not enough just to sing a pretty song if it doesn't mean anything."

He pauses briefly, and then says rather wistfully, "But if it means love, well you're doing alright. If you can transmit love through music, then that's what it's all about."

Goodness Floats

The band is too recognizable these days to hit the streets like it used to, although, as Secor explains, "Sometimes we still do. It tends to be a little bit more ironic when we do because so many times that we busk people are like, 'Hey, you're the Old Crow Medicine Show! I just paid 23 dollars to see you. What does it cost me now?' So we don't really do a lot of busking [as a group] but on our own, as individuals, [we do]. I've probably played five times on the street corner since 2008 [began]. I like to go back there and get right with the busker gods and make sure I'm still worthy of my spot. I love to see the reactions. Mostly though, people are bored, especially in Nashville. They are here to see country music and then here it is right in front of them and they hold on to their pocket books a little tighter and walk fast."

Old Crow Medicine Show by Aaron Farrington
Busking brings us full circle to a little under ten years ago, to Boone, North Carolina. Doc Watson's daughter spotted a band of "gen-U-ine" troubadours playing outside the pharmacy downtown, guys who had only a few months earlier busked their way across Canada. Some have called these incidents in the band's history lucky breaks, but those breaks were grasped with calloused, worn fingers. In the end, it only comes from real work.

"When people ask, 'How'd you make it work for you?' I always tell 'em, 'You just got to hit the road, just pound the pavement relentlessly. Just go out there and learn, with a kind of journeyman politics [about] being that small level artist on the road.' You just learn so much from traveling, from playing little gigs, from sleeping in people's houses, making those kinds of connections. And those are the things that in the end will lead to your success. It's not about the famous people that you played for, it's definitely not about the people that your management set up for you to play with [or] the times you played at radio stations or the time you played at Capital Records in the lobby. It ain't about that. You might have caught a break but the break was a long time coming if you were true."

"I feel like the goodness tends to float to the surface if it doesn't snuff itself out first," he continues. "We were always going to be on the road to some better place, to something big, as long as we didn't self immolate. And we managed to keep from destructing, which was tested numerous times and is still; you still gotta be wary of it. But bands at the ten-year mark have put a lot behind them just to get that far. Now, it's not about Americana music, it's not about bluegrass, it's not about any of that. It's about one band that people really dig. For a while, in the beginning, it was all about Bob [Dylan] and Jerry, but after ten years it starts becoming about you, and that's when that authenticity card really comes in. It's really important that when it is about you [that] your heart is in the right place."


Old Crow Medicine Show - "Wagon Wheel"

And for a great version of "Minglewood Blues" from Austin City Limits go here.

Old Crow Medicine Show is on tour now. Dates available here.

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Comments

moephishH2O starstarstarstarstar Thu 11/13/2008 01:34PM
+5 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

moephishH2O

Caught them on Tuesday in Eugene for the first time and I was blown away! What a great show! I could not believe how packed the McDonald Theater was for a Tuesday night show. Keller tonight and MMW on Saturday!

panicpanicpanic! starstarstarstarstar Thu 11/13/2008 01:59PM
+2 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

panicpanicpanic!

yea these guys are great live, def check em out if they come your way

mandobird starstarstarstarstar Thu 11/13/2008 02:06PM
+3 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

mandobird

Great read on a great band, Love the new album, keep it up Old Crow.

DELYEAH starstarstarstarstar Thu 11/13/2008 02:29PM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

DELYEAH

Couldn't agree more with the comments above. This band has had me hooked since I first heard their self-titled album. Definitely an incredible live band!

Jukebox Hero Thu 11/13/2008 02:39PM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Jukebox Hero

Their first two albums are some of my all-time and they are phenomenal live, but I can't seem to get into the new album. I am a huge David Rawlings fan, so maybe just miss that influence or maybe I need to give a few more spins. I was extremely psyched and have been a little let down. Anybody else have any feelings on this?

goodB3rger13 Thu 11/13/2008 03:52PM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

goodB3rger13

I feel the same way Jukebox Hero. It's not that I dislike the new album, but it doesn't have the same feel as the first two. My buddy described it as lacking the "rawness". They are badass live though!! Taking my sister and bro-in-law to see them in Charlotte in a few weeks. They just wanna go b/c they like the wagon wheel song...they don't know what they are in for!!!

PWA starstarstarstarstar Thu 11/13/2008 04:05PM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Saw the Saturday Filmore show. It was one of the best Filmore shows I have ever seen! Unbelievable high energy had the place rockin the whole time. US Blues was fucking incredible!

PWA starstarstarstarstar Thu 11/13/2008 04:07PM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

One comment wasn't enough, these guys blew my mind!

TransdermalCelebration starstarstarstarstar Thu 11/13/2008 09:19PM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

TransdermalCelebration

Can't wait to see these guys in Boone!

onearmguitarist starstarstarstarstar Fri 11/14/2008 09:14AM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

onearmguitarist

I rember the 1st time i saw these guys. I was at the roo and they open the 1st day. i didnt know who they were but at the end of the show they were my new favorite band and the fest highlight. ive seen them about 5 times since then and am always blown away. cant wait for tuesday in salt lake! Not many people know but ocms was not there fist album. Eutaw and live are both underrated, if you havent heard them do yourself a favor and pick them up!

sschaffner starstarstarstarstar Fri 11/14/2008 11:02AM
+2 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

sschaffner

well, as if i wasn't a big enough fan already... my respect for these guys just went up a few more notches - good article, and wise words from secor. i think i'd like to go get a drink with him some time, perhaps a whiskey 'n water and a conversation about this years crops. what?

redhed starstarstarstarstar Sat 11/15/2008 05:53AM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

redhed

Amazing band, just saw them in Louisville wth the Felice Bros. who kicked ass as well. I celebrate their entire catalog.

shonuff Sun 11/16/2008 11:56AM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

I saw them last month in Chicago, and they were incredible. After playing two solid hours of bluegrass and country, they came back on stage and played soul rebel. Incredible stuff.

_Sugaree_ starstarstarstar Tue 11/18/2008 09:53AM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

_Sugaree_

O.C.M.S. is pretty f*ckin sweet! Finally saw them back in September, they were great live! Check 'em out if you haven't yet

PickinKind Wed 11/19/2008 02:15PM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

PickinKind

definitely dig these folks. however,ive been to two shows (two yrs ago at canopy club in champaign,il and last month at the pageant in stl). the canopy club show ended around 9:30!! it was $18 with no opener,lame. and the stl show didnt last much longer and that was like $25. good band but damn, try to play a decent set for these upcomming shows. your a good band! show it!

landoflizards starstarstarstarstar Fri 11/28/2008 10:59AM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

landoflizards

*always lift him up and never let him down*

-great read, and a great band

taperwookie starstarstarstar Thu 12/4/2008 01:33PM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

taperwookie

Good article, but you'd think a band that is anti-consumerism, for the people, and influenced by the Grateful Dead would allow recording and trading of live shows. I guess I'll keep saving my $23.

eskay231 Fri 12/12/2008 03:19PM
+1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

funny how this dude claims how much of an influence the grateful dead were, yet they don't let you record.