Old Crow Medicine Show‘s latest album, Live at the Ryman, arrives on 4 October and celebrates the group’s relationship not only with country music’s most sacred institution but the outfit’s rich back catalogue. The group have had a difficult relationship with country music: Not always slotting easily in beside many of Nashville’s contemporary artists but in many ways owing much to the sounds of the city’s past.
Featuring the group’s classic, “Wagon Wheel” as well as renditions of “Take ‘Em Away”, and “Sweet Amarillo”, American music classics, such as “CC Rider”, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”, and “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man” (with Margot Price), the LP celebrates much of what Old Crow Medicine Show have long done: Blend the sounds of America’s past with its present and maybe even its future.
Frontman Ketch Secor, speaking from his Nashville home says, “When I was playing open mics it was about ‘Rocky Top’ and ‘Heart of Gold’. Those were great songs. They always got you a big round of applause. Somebody would buy you a drink.”
Today, one can almost count on “Wagon Wheel” being sung at two coffeehouses and three bars on any given night in any given city. “The fact that now those open mics feature a song that my band has a hand in is a wonderful feeling,” Secor continues. “But it’s nothing new. It’s just a continuation. Every generation has to come up with their version of it. I think ‘Heart of Gold’ is a much better song. But what if you never heard it? What if what you heard instead is ‘Wagon Wheel’?”
His band’s continued relationship with country music is highlighted by the singer’s involvement in Ken Burns’ Country Music documentary. He appears prominently in the first episode and was an advisor on the project, reading early scripts and traveling to New Hampshire for early screenings. Secor says that it was especially thrilling given Burns’ impact on his formative years.
“I was watching The Civil War on PBS in the Shenandoah Valley, where I grew up, and learning all about why the cul-de-sac up the street from the high school was named for a battlefield and why the echoes of the battlefield were on every road sign and every creek,” he says. “Ken helped me to see that the past wasn’t past. That it wasn’t even gone. That it was right there. That, along with the music, kind of made me what I am. Being a small part of Ken’s movie is, for me, a full circle of a childhood feeling of want and lust and excitement that has returned to me now.”
An attentive and fascinating conversationalist, he’s given to occasional quips (“I’m more interested in selling banjos than records”) as well as detailed observations on everything from poverty to drug addiction. He remains enthusiastic about his band 20 years after its inception and optimistic about its future, though he doesn’t give specifics about what will happen once the group closes out the year with two more shows at the Ryman.
What made this the right time to make an album at the Ryman?
The Ryman is just part of our story. You can’t talk about Old Crow without talking about the Ryman. It just made sense to make a record from its hallowed stage.
When did you finally get to walk through the doors and play it for the first time?
The first time we played there was for a radio show at 7:00 in the morning. I don’t know how we got that gig, but it was a great one. I don’t think we slept the night before out of anticipation and liquor, which was a pretty fierce combination in those days. Our first legit show was when we played the Grand Ole Opry and made our debut in January 2001.
That’s not a night you forget.
Critter [Fuqua] threw up in the trash can right before we went on. My mother was in the audience. We sang two songs that had always filled our tip jar on the curb. We played them and got a standing ovation. I was wearing a railroad conductor’s hat from Conrail, which had been out of business for a long time. Kevin [Hayes] was wearing eyeglasses that had belonged to Lucille Ball. We were in good company.
Did you feel embraced by the country community or was it, “Who are these guys?”
That’s been an ongoing relationship. We weren’t going to be anybody’s first pick for their team. We spent a lot of time hanging out by the punchbowl waiting for somebody to ask us to dance. But as the years have gone by two things have happened: One, we figured out how to dance with ourselves. Two, Nashville started paying attention to us.
The Ryman is a place that has a history. When you play rooms like that around the country are you trying to soak that in as well as just turning up for a gig?
I’ve been able to hit some of the great spots around the country and around the world that have contributed to the legacy of country music. They’re often the funniest places too because it’s not necessarily about velvet seats. I remember playing in the summer heat of the San Joaquin Valley in 100-plus temperatures with Merle Haggard, where you could smell the garlic people had been picking all day. That felt like the Ryman, one of the places of the country music landscape.
I feel that musicians sometimes become historians by default. Do you feel that that’s something Old Crow has taken up?
I think that for our band it’s been particularly acute, that relationship to the past and that torch-passing motion. All the music that everybody plays is inherited. The shared commonwealth of song means that we are always standing on the shoulders of giants. Not all musicians have the nature to want to go back and understand where it came from or pay reverence. That’s not the job for everybody, but it certainly has been for us.
What was the impetus for writing “Methamphetamine”?
The Grim Reaper, known as addiction, has ridden on our tour bus for 20 years. It has appeared in the alleys behind our concerts. Sometimes it’s waited in the lobbies of the hotels we’re staying in. In the old days, when we were in an old junk car or in a van, there was always a dark force lurking. I could see it in my friends who died along the way.
I could see it most acutely in the community of people around us when we first went into the mountains to live. It was powerful to move up to East Tennessee and West North Carolina in the late part of the 1990s. We arrived in the first part of the prescription addiction scene. When we were up there, all you could get was Lortab and Valium and Percocet. It was a great high for everybody up there who, in a generation before, had chosen dirt weed and corn whiskey. It wasn’t Oxycontin. That hadn’t come yet. There was no crystal meth.
I saw these people around me clamoring to the available pharmaceuticals. It was like the audience was all warmed up like they’d sat through the openers and got excited about the headliner. When I would go back to these places that I had lived before, the difference was appalling. Guys who had been pill-poppers and would run across state lines had once managed to keep their kids in school. Suddenly, those guys were going to jail for the rest of their lives, and their kids were dead. That’s how grim and stark the reality was. That was in just a few years time.
Have you heard from people who have said, “That spoke to me and what I’m going through with my friends and my own family”?
Because we were playing this music that had fiddles and banjos, we attracted people who remembered those elements of their own culture and inheritance. There was often a Vietnam vet with us. That was an archetype. There was a guy like that in Nashville. There was a guy like that in East Tennessee and a guy like that up in Ithaca, where our band first got started. There was always this certain type of person who would come out of the woodwork for a band like ours.
Often, they were wrestling with the issue of being the inheritors but never having picked it up. “Daddy played the fiddle real good. I never did learn, but I get to watch you boys.” We were exposed to these characters, and we saw a lot of them struggle with addiction, and a sad number of them lose that battle.
It feels really personal, but I don’t think you need to have a personal relationship to addiction to see that this is an epidemic that has targeted the most American of Americans. The hardest-working people, the poorest people, the most isolated people. People who really believe in what their granddaddy done. The destruction that these drugs have created in Appalachia is a terrible sin for our nation to stand by and not look squarely in the face. We have to say, “If this is happening in West Virginia, then it must be stopped right now.”
But I think it’s a lot easier to say, “That’s happening in West Virginia. Let them sort it out.”
There is this tradition of musicians speaking out about social issues. In a way, I almost think of you as a teacher, guiding an audience to contemplate these issues. There are some singers whose convictions never become apparent.
I never felt like the teacher. I felt like the student. What was stirred up in me by my teachers was ever-loving powerful. If there’s any sort of educational piece of it, it’s just me wanting to give to others what was given to me. When I was a kid, I learned to play the music of the Civil Rights movement. When I was really young. Like, 12. The first song I ever learned to play was about the murder of Medgar Evers in Meridian, Mississippi in the early 1960s.
How does a kid in 1991, when Nirvana’s Nevermind just came out, and he waited all night to get it at the record store, decide the first song he’s going to play is about Medgar Evers? The reason it was is the same reason that the song got written: Outside perspectives have been a really important part of telling the stories of unsung heroes or religious, hardworking folk.
Phil Ochs sang this song about Medgar Evers. Phil ain’t from Meridian, Mississippi. Phil ain’t a black man. What gives him the authority to tell this story? I don’t know if he has the authority, but he made a song, and other people heard it. It’s this broadside effect, the way that music can tell the news.
I think that music does a much better job of telling the news than the news. The news, I think, really wants to tell its viewers to buy Advil and to take a trip on Southwest Airlines. Music wants to tell you so much more than just the story. It wants you to know what it smelled like on the battlefield and what fear tastes like in your mouth. The imagery of songcraft allows for, I think, a much more complete picture.
I think about hearing Jackson Browne and Bruce Cockburn singing about what was happening in Nicaragua in the 1980s and that eventually informing my decision to join Amnesty International. I knew those guys weren’t Nicaraguan, but I knew they could feel what was going on there.
I think some people just feel it. I didn’t know where Nicaragua was, but I knew I wanted the U.S. out of it. That was at age 10. I remember going to Orange Julius at the mall with a friend who just wanted to talk about the latest movies. I wanted to talk about the Sandinistas. I guess I just came out a rabble-rouser. I came out thinking that the hardest-working people are never going to get their shot because it’s rigged. There’s only a couple of rungs on the ladder, and they don’t lead out of El Salvador.
All bands weather storms. What’s the way forward for Old Crow from where you’re at now?
The worst storms are the ones that loom off the coast. You don’t know where it’s going to make land. The best storms are the ones that just come and get you quick. Usually, those ones, there’s not much you can do about them anyway. I think life is made up of a lot of recovery. Recovery is active. There’s no preparation. You just gotta do it. I think you can bet that Old Crow will keep on doing it, no matter where the storm lands.
Photo: Crackerfarm / Courtesy of All Eyes Media