My Page: Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor ‘Fiddler on the Drums’
photo credit: Kit Wood
I got a snare and some drumsticks for my 12th birthday, and it took me only a week to decide that I wasn’t a drummer. It could have been apparent even sooner considering my complete lack of coordination. I remember jamming upstairs above my friend’s garage, disengaging the snare, shouting 1-2-3 and banging out a punk song I’d written called “Djibouti”— boasting lyrics that only a sixth grader could write—when my buddy abruptly stopped the song and reminded me to play the backbeat. What the hell was a backbeat I wondered?
I’ve never really understood drummers. Their musical knowledge seems to come from a different plane than the one I’m on with my fiddle or my banjo. I know we hold the same core understanding of music, but, sometimes, it feels like maybe we pray to different Gods in the musical pantheon. One difference is that I always wrote songs. So, to me, rhythm meant the same as meter. Drummers deal in groove, but—especially since I gravitated toward old-time music and bluegrass instruments early on—I’ve often found myself relying on the banjo player to fill that role in my bands.
However, drums can also make your sound feel much bigger—that’s a simple fact, even when you are playing in an oldtime string band. And, it wasn’t until we got to Nashville that we actually heard somebody say that the drums didn’t really belong in our type of music. That mentality is remnant of an argument for tradition over modernization that still persists around here among a few more stubborn types. These days, the Nashville establishment might put a snap-track on a big hit, but they used to think that even a simple snare drum didn’t belong in country music. By banning drums at the Opry, on records and on the radio, they were able to keep the genre pure at a time when rock-and-roll posed an existential threat. But when Old Crow first came to town, we collaborated with a number of drummers right away.
I take considerable pride in writing these words: Our first drummer was Gillian Welch, then we moved on to Jim Keltner. The studio was always the place where we brought in a drummer, not the stage (where it actually would have helped a ton in the loud rock rooms we played). Then, about 12 years into the band, we started touring with a drum set; either Critter or Cory would lay down his banjo or mandolin to jump behind the kit. But, though it has been a joy to experiment with drums throughout the life of our nearly 25-year-old band, someone has always inevitably opined, “Drums don’t belong in your music.”
Old Crow had already been together some 22 years before we decided to hire our first drummer. That’s when I sat down with Jerry Pentecost at the Sky Blue coffee house. I wanted to meet this Nashville drummer that I’d heard so many people talking about. It was a cold winter day and he kept his dog zipped up in his parka. We talked about a lot of things at that meeting and found a quick rapport; a year later, he was a full-time member of Old Crow.
During the past couple of years, Jerry’s been much more than simply a drummer for Old Crow. He’s become an important voice in the band, onstage and off. Our new album, Paint This Town includes his first lead vocal performance on a song we coauthored with Molly Tuttle called “DeFord Rides Again.” It’s about the famed Black harmonica wizard and pioneer of the Nashville scene, who was later outcast and discredited by the genre he helped give birth to.
In fact, Paint This Town is filled with fruit that has ripened since our band grew a new branch thanks to Jerry. Songs like “Painkiller,” “John Brown’s Dream” and “Used To Be A Mountain” live on that familiar, rough hewn edge of hillbilly and punk-rock music. It’s the same sound that I first scrambled up when I tried to rock out on the drums, only to learn how to rock out on the fiddle instead.
Drummers and fiddlers have different ways of tapping the source, but music is a true vine, and that means that you can dig up a groove no matter what instrument you’re playing. From its earliest beginnings, American roots music has always been a conversation between melody and rhythm. Once, backstage at the historic Merriweather Post Pavilion, I was tuning up while Levon Helm was about to go onstage. His family was also standing side stage, and his daughter Amy passed his baby grandson to him behind the kit. As Levon bounced the child on his knee, I scratched out a little tune on the fiddle to the rhythm of the boy’s bounce. Pretty soon after, Levon cracked a smile at me and joined in on a cymbal, then snare, with his arms around the little grandchild in his lap. He bounced on Grandpa’s kick leg and stared at me, mesmerized by the beat of the bow. It was just an old drum and violin weaving in and out, but there was something in that moment that felt electric—the two primal elements of song, melody and rhythm, dancing alongside each other in joyous complement.
Ketch Secor is a founding member of Old Crow Medicine Show. The veteran roots group released their seventh studio album, Paint This Town, on April 22 via ATO.