Old Crow Medicine Show: A Spoonful of Sugar…
With optimism and humor, Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor leads his band through the COVID-19 era.
Ketch Secor’s plane just landed In Key West, Fla., and while he’s quick to joke about his status as a “largely unemployed” musician, it feels like he’s never been busier.
The Old Crow Medicine Show founder is in the Sunshine State to offer his songwriting skills to an anonymous, “big-name” country star. “I don’t know if it’s announced yet,” he says of his mysterious employer. “So I hesitate to talk too much about it.”
Additionally, he is in the middle of spearheading several projects for the Episcopal School of Nashville, an independent co-educational elementary school he helped launch in 2016. Since then, enrollment has grown from 16 to “about 100” and, when Secor’s not retro-fitting their new school building, the Grammy-winner is helping his own kids with remote learning.
“We celebrated Ramadan, we did math and we talked about photosynthesis, so I’ve learned a lot,” he grins.
Since crossing over into the festival mainstream with “Wagon Wheel” (a reworking of a lost Bob Dylan ditty that has grown into a sing-along staple), Old Crow has become one of country music’s greatest success stories, playing old-time, tongue-in-cheek twang for fans of all ages and backgrounds. The ensemble’s 2014 LP, Remedy scored them a Grammy for Best Folk Album, and the musicians have long since blossomed into Grand Ole Opry regulars, perhaps the country genre’s tell-tale barometer of success.
Secor surmises that the global pandemic is the longest that he’s gone without touring since his teenage years. But, thankfully, his zany Hartland Hootenanny livestream has filled the void, helping him expound the boundless energy he usually reserves for onstage. In April, Secor started filming the Hootenanny at the band’s Hartland Studios in East Nashville, just as the world was coming to grips with the sobering realities of COVID-19. For the Old Crow frontman, it’s a chance to use his imagination and offer some kitschy live content directly to fans. (He also mentions that serendipitously getting his first-ever smartphone in late 2019 has been a big help in staying connected during the quarantine.)
“I approached my Old Crow guys and said, ‘I really want to start a show that’s a cross between the Grand Ole Opry and Pee-wee’s Playhouse,’” Secor explains. “I took a whole bunch of crazy crap from my garage: memorabilia, an old stained-glass window from the school, and a whole bunch of posters and 78s. I just tacked it all up on the wall, got my staple gun out, tore out pieces of old sheet music and made a funny-looking backdrop. I sort of made the office of my dreams. When I was 12, I dreamed of a space like this, full of kookiness and a great record collection. I probably also dreamed that there would be cigarettes and whiskey there too, and there is!”
Hartland Hootenanny’s 20-plus episodes have boasted guests such as Molly Tuttle, Billy Strings, The War and Treaty, and Jim Lauderdale, as well as many of Secor’s Old Crow bandmates. Its variety-show format weaves together skits, live music and square dancing, while still keeping its pulse on some of 2020’s toughest realities.
“Believe me, we’re in a time where it is really hard to find something to hold on to,” explains Old Crow percussionist Jerry Pentecost, the band’s newest recruit. “[The Hartland Hootenanny] is a brilliant way to just interact, be visible, be aware. Ketch talks about real issues. I have a tremendous amount of respect for him and everything that he’s doing.”
Adds Secor: “It’s not preachy in terms of a particular ideology, but I really like that the show is thematically oriented toward, ‘Hey, let’s all laugh about the fact that we’re trapped in this together,’ and ‘Hey, let’s make a bunch of funny jokes about the topical stuff that’s going on.’”
Indeed, many musicians today are tasked with sorting through the ups and downs of the current sociopolitical environment, and Secor himself has written quite a few tunes about these troubling times. “Quarantined,” for one, channels the Hartland Hootenanny side of Secor—in his words, it sounds akin to “if Jimmy Rodgers was around in the COVID era”—thanks to cheeky lyrics like, “I’d like to kiss you but I’m quarantined.”
“Pray for America,” however, is much more sobering. Partially inspired by classic U.S. anthems like “God Bless America” and “This Land Is Your Land,” Secor laments, “When the firmest faith is shaken fast/ By a fear that’s creeping in/ Pray for America/ Our promised land.”
The earliest of these reactionary tracks is “Nashville Rising,” which Old Crow Medicine Show wrote and released in record time, in an effort to raise money toward rebuilding Music City after a devastating tornado outbreak in March.
“You can see the spirit of Nashville in all of the rebuilding efforts,” Secor explains. “There will be a big truck with a Trump sticker next to a little Fiat with a kale sticker. Here, people know how to work together to pick up old debris and make the city a better place. We all pitch in to help each other’s neighbors. I think that going into COVID with that in mind has helped us stay at least a little bit unified, even though these are the most divisive times that anybody could ever imagine. Short of 1861-1865, I can’t think of a more divided time in our history, culturally, and yet, Nashville has endeavored to show the rest of the South, if not the country, that we’re in this together, despite our differences.”
Undoubtedly, a great deal of Nashville’s heart belongs to the Ryman Auditorium, and it has a special meaning to the members of Old Crow as well. Secor guesses that they’ve graced the stage around 60 times, each more meaningful than the last. On Sept. 18, Old Crow ended their COVID-19 live concert hiatus with a socially distant, guest-filled show at the Ryman, inviting Tuttle and Lauderdale out for sit-ins, and even welcoming founding member Willie Watson back into the fold. (Watson left the group in 2011 to focus on a solo career.)
“It’s our spiritual home, the ancestral home of our music,” Secor says of the Ryman. “And what happened there with Willie was just so powerful and really could’ve only happened during this time and because of this time. Being able to re-circle the wagon with a founding member of the band—who’s been out of the band for nine years now and who I haven’t kept up a friendship with—during COVID meant that we were both ready to get back together and see what we sounded like. And it was beautiful. Oh, God, it was so great.”
The show also marked Pentecost’s first Ryman engagement with the band. And, at a moment when Black artists are speaking out more than ever about systemic racism—and the importance of diversity in all aspects of American life—Pentecost is especially happy to be performing with Old Crow Medicine Show.
“I think about where we are in this situation and how far we have to go,” Pentecost says. “Why is it weird that I play country music? Because I’m Black? Why aren’t Black people supposed to play country music? If you trace the history of the main country-music instruments—fiddles and banjos—back all the way, then you’re gonna find images of Black people playing them. A lot of them are African instruments. It just goes to show that, as time has passed, we’ve all been part of this systemic racism. If you only see this one group of people being involved in this one thing, then every other group is just automatically going to say, ‘That’s not for us because I don’t see any people like us there.’ So, I’m really excited by this newer wave of minority artists who are coming up and performing new music and not worrying about what genre it is. I don’t think War and Treaty worry about what genre they’re playing. They just put out great music.”
“Being able to experience the Black Lives Matter protests in Nashville—the burning of our courthouse, the need for racial reconciliation and the need for justice—through the lens of our African-American drummer has been such a powerful blessing during this,” Secor adds. “One of the things that’s so powerful right now is this institutional reckoning about racial injustice—whitesupremacy doctrines, male-supremacy doctrines—as related to the #MeToo movement. But, particularly with the Black Lives Matter movement that’s happening, we have been given a gift. We’re finally able to look in the mirror, as a nation, and do some institutional atonement. I embrace it, and I hope to reflect it back so that other organizations that need it, probably more than we do, can do it. And the one that needs it most—the country-music establishment—has so much work to do. It was so powerful being able to talk about that on my Hootenanny show. It was special to have artists like The War and Treaty, Amythyst Kiah and Dom Flemons on—and to talk about these issues in real time as this was all unfolding.”
Taking in the Florida sunshine, Secor is aware of the long path ahead: for live music, for his children, for his bandmates, for his city. But he finds silver linings everywhere he looks.
“I’ve taken it on as a personal commitment to be optimistic, and to have my optimism be outward,” he explains. “There’s just been lots of opportunities to show it, and I believe in the butterfly effect; that one little ripple in the pond can create the wave. I look to us, the people—not to government on high, grand ideologies or organized religion—to make the ripple. I don’t know if it matters how big a wave one makes because all you gotta do is be in the process of passing it along—passing your energy onto another energy—for it to build. I don’t know how things are gonna wind up, and there have definitely been times when I’ve had considerable doubts about our ability to pull together as a people, to be one. But I’m not letting that hold me back, those little doubts—I’m overwhelmingly [optimistic].”
And who knows? Maybe a new Old Crow LP could come out of this as well.
“We’ll make a new record, and there’ll be touring again or there won’t be but, when there is, we’ll be back at it,” Secor says brightly. “We’ll be renewed through this whole experience because we’ve made the most of it. It always reminds me of Cowboy Jack, who I wish was alive for this. Because Cowboy Jack always said, ‘We’re in the fun business, boys. If we’re not having fun, we’re not doing our jobs.’”