ATLANTA — “Carry Me Back” — the title of the fourth full-length studio recording by Old Crow Medicine Show — is evocative of the folk and old-time music that founding member Ketch Secor has been playing since he was a kid.
“It certainly goes back to our roots as a band,” Secor said during a recent call from a stop on a tour stop.
“Here we are in the 14th year of being Old Crow Medicine Show, having started playing on street corners and driving down to Nashville, Tenn., in a Cadillac, and all those crazy things we did trying to make it. It feels like this album really does return us back to where we come from.”
Where Secor comes from is the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia — a place that’s always figured in the strong Southern sensibility of Old Crow’s music, which is propelled by close harmonies and a host of acoustic string instruments and often features nostalgic lyrics that wade deep into the streams of culture and memory that connect the past and present.
“Nostalgia comes from a Greek root that means sadness,” Secor said when asked about that. “To pine for a long gone day is sad, because you’re supposed to dig the present. But I guess I would argue that this music is present.”
Led by Secor’s reeling fiddle, the new album’s rousing first track, “Carry Me Back To Virginia,” revisits what was once the state song of Virginia and furthers the tradition of more recent Civil War elegies like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” in telling the tragic story of a rebel soldier boy.
“My fascination comes from a boyhood primarily raised in the South,” Secor said. “We traveled a lot. And, in every town, I’d see a boy that looked about my age carved out of stone in the middle of a court house square. I wondered about him.
“I grew up in the valley where the war raged and the high schools were named for Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson and Turner Ashby. The battle was fought out there, just beyond the high school track and field.” Another new song called “Levi” has a poignant connection to one of Secor’s earliest tunes, “Wagon Wheel,” which he wrote before Old Crow existed but has become the band’s often-covered signature song.
Secor snitched the “rock me mama” chorus from a Bob Dylan castoff, and in an odd twist, he now shares a publishing credit with one of his heroes.
“Because of the great back story, it really is a folk song that’s a 100 years in the making,” Secor said. “I finished it from Bob Dylan’s trash heap. But it turns out Bob didn’t lay claim to it, either. He said Arthur Big Boy Crudup wrote it.
“Well, Big Boy said it was from Big Bill Broonzy and that brings us back to 1925 in Chicago. So the song took awhile to get out there. But it’s here now, and I think it always will be.”
“Levi” was inspired by an NPR radio story Secor heard about Levi Barnard, a young American soldier from the mountains of Virginia who was killed in Baghdad. At the funeral, friends paid tribute to Barnard with his favorite song, “Wagon Wheel.”
“I knew I liked him before, then I realized he was out there in some posthumous audience that I always feel like I’m playing for,” Secor said. “In fact, often times I’m more directed toward them than the actual physical audience. I sat down right away and wrote this song, and I’ve since played it for his mother and his grandmother. I think about him every time we perform it, and I know he’d be pleased.”
Besides Dylan, Secor’s other heroes include the Carter family, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Doc Watson, the folk legend who gave Old Crow a leg up when he invited the band to play his annual MerleFest in North Carolina.
“I was always a total folkie, just born in the wrong time,” Secor said. “I often thought that I was born too late for the party. I wanted to be around for Newport Broadside 1964 to get to see Clarence Ashley perform with Doc Watson.
“But I see now that this band was born at the right time because somebody needed to draw the line from Clarence to Doc and Doc to somebody else. It can be us. And we couldn’t be more honored to be a link in the chain that stretches back to the heroes of American song.”