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Music

Old Crow Medicine Show Sing on Through Total Devastation

Jedd Beaudoin
Photo: Morgan Jahnig / Courtesy Lucky Bird Media

Social unrest, a global pandemic, and an industry that has forever been changed? No problem. Old Crow Medicine Show's Ketch Secor stares down the future.

Old Crow Medicine Show entered 2020 a different band than they had been in 2019. Founding member Critter Fuqua left the group for the second time after a New Year's Eve gig at the Ryman in Nashville. Ketch Secor, who co-founded the group in 1998 with Fuqua, opted to move forward with a new version of OCMS and prepared himself for a season of touring. Then the COVID-19 pandemic happened, effectively putting the band's spring calendar to an end. And, like most bands, Old Crow watched their 2020 touring cycle move through the expected route of postponements and cancellations.

But the group's indefatigable spirit remains intact. They issued the single "Nashville Rising" by April, then followed it with "Quarantined", a humorous, old-timey number that name-checked the CDC and came complete with a video featuring Secor performing solo (and, appropriately enough, wearing a surgical mask). Were the circumstances less tragic, one could refer to them as a topical songwriter's dream: A season of political pandering, governmental missteps, and racial riots have provided plenty of fodder for those in the musical community. Perhaps it's less of a dream than a reason to be hopeful and to recall that music can serve as an agent of change.

June saw the group release a video for the 2008 tune "Motel in Memphis" to raise money for Gideon's Army, dedicated to non-violent solutions to community problems. That was followed by a brand-new single, "Pray For America", a song that speaks to the current moment with requisite clarity and an eye toward healing.

But Old Crow Medicine Show have long lived on a pendulum of gravity and levity. If penning and releasing songs about social unrest and environmental devastation seems a bit heavy, Secor reminds his fan base that he remains a consummate entertainer. He's been hosting the Hartland Hootenanny from his Nashville home on Saturdays, singing songs, telling jokes, and enjoying the company (from a distance) of Chuck Mead, the War and Treaty, and Sierra Ferrell among others. If, after the quarantine, there's an audience for a Hee-Haw revival or a throng that wants to see the Hartland Hootenanny continue, Secor may very well have found himself a new side hustle.

Ostensibly on the line to discuss the recent singles and other Old Crow Medicine Show activity, Secor was more than happy to discuss his life in quarantine as well as his reactions to social unrest in his adopted hometown and the future of live music in America.

***

What was 2020 looking like for you before the pandemic?

It was the most exciting year. We had a new lineup, a whole bunch of great shows all over the country. Some really sought-after gigs. Then we came to a super-stressful moment. We were booked to open arenas for Darius Rucker in England and Ireland. It seemed like the most counter-intuitive thing to get on the airplane. That was right around March 18. The tour wasn't canceled. We were obliged to do it, and, at the last moment, we said, "We don't care how much we lose." That set the tone for the rest of the year. We don't care how much we lose as long as we're safe. We've been governed by that since then.

fire by google104 (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

Did your property sustain any damage during the Nashville tornado?

I had no property damage at all. That was such a surprise because I'm only two blocks away from total devastation. Since COVID, there's been no work, so I'm still two blocks from standing piles of rubble, homes that are still abandoned, broken glass. It's sort of fitting that there's been some wanton destruction on top of all this. Now that the courthouse is smoldering across the river, there's all the more reason to say, "Let's pray for America, y'all."

You wrote "Nashville Rising" pretty close to the start of all of this and in the immediate aftermath of the tornado.

I wanted to speak up for my neighborhood and city and try to raise awareness and money. Then we had the quarantine hit. We had to think really quick to get into a recording studio. We made a video that my kids helped shoot. We put a call out to the community to get some images. We've raised some significant funds for the Community Foundation. Topical songwriting is so at the heart of folk music, and that's the kind of country music I'm most interested in: The songs that champion the cause of the people.

You also released a video for "Motel in Memphis". It really struck me because the day I saw it, I had been talking to soul legend Eddie Floyd. He was describing writing all these great songs with Steve Cropper at the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King was ultimately assassinated. It's strange to think about how this one place gave birth to such beauty and such anguish.

Nashville is down the road from this other city, Memphis. The Lorraine Motel, just as you were saying, is the place of a terrible assassination but is also this place where a bunch of groovy songs got written. Memphis is that kind of a town. It's a town with a terrible history of bigotry and racial violence, systematic racial oppression, police brutality. They've had the firehoses turned on for centuries in that city on the bluff. But it's also been one of the most important cities for a black cultural renaissance, and it's the birthplace of rock 'n' roll.

It just goes to show that great beauty comes out of great pain. I can only hope that the change that awaits our country will be worth all the sacrifice that we've made and all of the hardship that we're enduring now.

What are the conversations that you're having with your children about this moment in history?

The biggest role that I've played with my children in terms of getting through all of this is being the homeschool parent. It was amazing. We had desks set up and a chalkboard. We had a great chapel program, did a lot of spiritual learning. I started a school in my neighborhood, so I'm really involved in education as an agent of change.

Every kid right now needs to be talking about the experience of African Americans in our society, particularly as they relate to upward social mobility and downward oppression, particularly from law enforcement. My kids go to a school that has a focus on diversity and inclusion. My daughter knows that Dr. King was murdered at the Lorraine Motel because her dad sings about it. She knows that Black lives matter.

Not everybody has that opportunity to share that with their kids. I think it's important that Old Crow be a voice for people who don't have these experiences, who don't have a school like that, who don't live as close to Memphis. We've all got a job to do, and we've all been asked to do for others right now.

The organization, Gideon's Army, that we're raising money for with our video is really great through some racial reconciliation work I'm doing in Nashville. They are frontline activists.

Was the property damage that occurred in Nashville during recent protest unexpected or do you feel that there were tensions that were teeming for a long time?

You have to look at it in two ways: There's the peaceful protest of thousands right downtown, doing really important work as peaceful protestors, exercising their First Amendment rights. Then, later on, there's a much different sort of protest. I understand people's flaring passions, and I understand hostilities and resentment toward law enforcement that people must be feeling. But I stand squarely in the camp of civil disobedience and peaceful protest being inalienable rights and must be exercised.

Setting shit on fire and spray-painting dirty words? That's not my jam. That was a part that was a surprise to me that we would have that part of the expression. That it would go south and there would be looting on lower Broadway, that the Ryman would be damaged. I didn't know that our community was feeling that hostile. I had just come from "Nashville Rising".

When I was doing tornado relief, I was parking my school bus next to trucks with Trump stickers on them, and then we were all picking up rubble together. It didn't matter what you thought about gay marriage or if you thought Black lives matter or all lives matter or if you liked Trump or Biden. We all had a job to do. So, I was surprised to see how polarizing anti-police brutality marches could be.

I don't know what's going on with the violence part of it, but in my city, that's been very much quelled. There was this one Saturday night when things got out of hand. But it hasn't returned to that since. There have been numerous other protests that have been peaceful.

Right.

I think the best way to answer that question if you don't mind me answering it again, is this: I went to see congressman John Lewis, who came to Nashville recently. His book, March,was the first graphic novel to win the National Book Award. In that book, he spends some time writing about Nashville because, when congressman Lewis was a kid, he came to Nashville to learn civil disobedience, to learn peaceful protest, and to join the Civil Rights movement.

Nashville, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, was a proving ground for the methodology for the Civil Rights movement. It was considered a safe city. It wasn't the Deep South. It wasn't Mississippi. It was a place of academia, of higher learning with numerous historically black colleges and universities. You would get assaulted at Woolworth's like you would in any other town, but you wouldn't be bombed. That held somewhat true in the exercises that happened at American Baptist Seminary and at Fisk University. I've been surprised by the violence considering where we are.

I feel that my generation failed in many ways. Growing up, I had hope that racism would be largely something of the past by this point. But I think that belief that we were better than previous generations was a kind of magical thinking: If we aren't actively racist, this will just all go away. But unless you put real action behind that, it's meaningless.

I keep telling my kids, "This is up to you. You're the ones that are going to have to do it. I'm sorry for that. We failed. I apologize for this failure." I think that they're going to be able to do a better job. I grew up in a time that was far too apathetic. If you have people believing that Dr. King's dream is being dreamed, but it's not supported by their actions, they're not opening up their businesses to minority job placement opportunities; they're not creating access or upward mobility.

If we're all just going to go back to the suburbs, nothing's going to change. Having a Black president is supposed to mean that incarceration rates have somehow become level? Go to a predominately Black neighborhood here, and you'll see the same old realities. It's hard to get up and out of that. You see a lot of hungry eyes. I wish things looked better.

How does Old Crow move forward with the platform that it has?

Given that we have the honor of having a platform is to invite disenfranchised voices to join the chorus. I've already had a chance to say a lot of cool stuff, and I could keep saying it, or I can help others say it. Tomorrow, on NPR, I'm giving the mic to Jerry Pentecost. Giving an opportunity to our African American collaborator means that there's a richer story there. I invite people to investigate how their organizations are helping or hurting that cause. Who among us is creating the access point to power?

What do you think about when you think about the future of live music?

I was never going to allow myself a break. It's my livelihood. I can't afford to take that long a break. I'm on the edge now of wondering how long it is before properties are repossessed. How much longer are we going to be able to keep paying our crew members. But I have great faith that people are always going to want to see live music or listen to music on record. I hope that someday the streaming services will be able to fork over a more equitable share of the monies generated through those mediums.

We're probably all going to have to take a big pay cut. I've seen my marquee cut in half. We have offers in some places this summer. I don't understand how a global pandemic would have political affiliations, but apparently there are some places where you can continue to put on shows. I'm not sure if we're going to do those shows or not. I'm on the fence about it. I want the money, need the money. On the other side, I know that the audience has had to wait and will keep waiting. I sense that they're not going to give up on us just because we're not going to show up in their backyards this summer.

Most of all, I'm happy and honored that I'm in a band that's 21 years old. The person that has really high stakes here is the guy in the band that's been around a couple of years. Maybe they're making their first or second record. It's like the restaurant business: The ones that fail are the ones that are cool and innovative, not the one that's got the established real estate. We're an established band that's not going to die because the industry changes. I hope it doesn't hurt the bands that had it in them to go as far as we have.


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