Old Crow Medicine Show: Growing at the Speed of Asparagus

Amy Jacques on November 26, 2014

Ketch Secor is dressed in a blue pearl snap shirt with white piping, jeans and worn leather cowboy boots. His hair is slightly tousled, and he has a wad of dip in his lower gum. He speaks slowly and with intent, pausing often in thought—his vocal delivery echoing the cadence of some of his songs and lyrics, almost as if it’s a spoken word poem. Sitting backstage before his band’s headlining show at New York’s Central Park SummerStage, he comes off as earnest, passionate and well learned.

Secor has the road-worn look of a musician who’s traveled many miles, but also the sincerity and wide-eyed wonder of someone much younger, just seeing it all for the first time. And maybe that’s because only now—after 16 years with Old Crow Medicine show— he’s finally entered the pop-culture consciousness, and he continues to see “it” differently over and over. He doesn’t really believe in technology but he champions pass-along value, face-to-face conver- sations, and handing down stories through generations, times and places.

“I actually don’t put a lot of stock into the computer as a source for music,” he says as an album by blues singer and banjo player Karen Dalton blasts over the venue’s loudspeaker. “I think that with folk music, it’s so much more powerful to discover what your older brother’s listening to. Music is such an emotional expression. It is almost spiritual, the way it draws you in—like a sermon.”

He pauses before mentioning his band’s signature song, “Wagon Wheel,” a slow-burn anthem that he built from the scraps of an unreleased Bob Dylan ditty called “Rock Me Mama,” intended for the 1973 soundtrack to the Western film Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid.

“A song like that stays with you because you’ve heard it in a coffee shop or some cute girl was singing it on a street corner with a dog on a hemp leash when you were 14,” he says with a laugh before changing the subject to his beloved Atlanta Braves baseball club.

At 36 years old, the multi-instrumentalist (fiddle, harmonica, banjo, vocals) has already traveled much of the world and festival circuit playing to sold-out crowds, received platinum certification for “Wagon Wheel” and been inducted into Music City’s famed Grand Ole Opry—all since he and Critter Fuqua (slide guitar, banjo, guitar, vocals) founded Old Crow Medicine Show at age 19 in Upstate New York.

“It all feels like it was yesterday—the songs that we wrote back then,” Secor says of Old Crow’s early days. “I had this relationship with those songs, and I still sing them every night. It’s like asparagus. It takes about three to four years from when you put your seeds in the ground to when you can start eating it the next spring—you have to invest in it and keep working on it. There are crops that come through stages in their development before harvest time. And the way that we’ve kind of cultivated the landscape in the past 16 years, there are places that are ready to reap and there are places where we’re still sowing.”

Secor speaks in long, somewhat rambling metaphors and cloaked references that recall the narratives made famous by the folkies who served as his original inspiration. He has a low-key demeanor and slow, Southern drawl, yet describes his band’s ascent with a sense of sharp, business suavity.

“It’s exciting on a night-to-night level to be able to cross the country and see what we’ve done before and to know almost immediately what we need to do,” he muses. “From the earliest days of this band, Critter and I were playing street corners anywhere that we could get to in a car, and it was really limitless. Once you get in the door— that’s when the game starts. But when you’re on the curb, you’re a free agent.”

Old Crow Medicine Show’s roots date back to the 1990s when Secor, who is originally from the South, and Fuqua first started playing music together as middle school students in Harrisonburg, Va. Secor drifted North as a teenager to attend the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy—where he overlapped, for a time, with future Arcade Fire leader Win Butler—and Ithaca College. During his time in the Northeast, he met future Old Crow members Kevin Hayes and Willie Watson. Along with Secor, they hit the road, picking up musicians and odd jobs along the way.

They landed in the Appalachian Mountain town of Boone, N.C., and busked on street corners until legendary folk artist Doc Watson eventually discovered the group and slated them for his local folk festival MerleFest. While already a great inspiration, Watson also became a great mentor to the band he found on the very corner where he’d played 50 years prior.

“Doc actually picked that spot because he could plug in there,” Secor says. “Doc was a rock and roller, but he learned that he couldn’t make a living playing rock and roll and became a folk singer. He made the music of those hills accessible to people in the North in the 1960s—the bearded 18 year olds who were getting ready to dislike their government but hadn’t yet. Doc whispered in our ears and we felt the responsibility to carry that on.”

For many years, Old Crow Medicine Show took every gig they could. Gradually, they scored spots at popular jam-embraced gatherings, like the inaugural Bonnaroo, and made inroads on the traditional bluegrass circuit. Bluegrass great Del McCoury recently told Relix, “We were both working with the same agent at the time and our agent said, ‘Look, I want to send these guys out to open shows for you.’ They opened a bunch of shows for us and they were really struggling. And now, man, they’re hot!”

After a few grassroots releases, they signed with Nettwerk Music Group and issued a series of Americana/bluegrass favorites like O.C.M.S. (2004), the David Rawlings-produced Big Iron World (2006) and Tennessee Pusher (2008). While each release exposed new fans to the group’s mixture of traditional old-time string music, alt- country attitude and festival-ready energy, “Wagon Wheel” remained the band’s calling card. Secor says that Fuqua first played him a bootleg of “Rock Me Mama” in high school and, soon after, the Old Crow frontman had the guts to use Dylan’s unfinished ideas as the basis for a new song. He added his spin on the song when he was 17—Old Crow recorded the tune for a 2001 EP and unleashed it on the world with O.C.M.S.

“That song is one of those rare ones that took almost a century to come to fruition,” he admits. “When I found out that Bob was willing to publish it with us, he said, ‘I didn’t write that; Arthur Crudup did.’ Arthur Crudup said, ‘I didn’t write that; [Big] Bill Broonzy wrote that.’ Bill’s first recording of the derivative of ‘Rock Me Mama’ is around 1928. That’s a true folk song—one that has gathered a lot of dust on the fender before it ever rolled into your town. And songs like that tend to last longer because they’ve been influenced by such lasting voices.”

However, of all the song’s guardians, Secor gives Dylan the biggest nod: “Most of all, the reason why that song is so popular is because of Bob Dylan and his magical touch. Bob Dylan cast a spell with every song he made, particularly in 1973, when he wrote that chorus. I’m convinced that he put down his legal pad after he wrote that chorus, and he scrapped it because he wrote ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.’ I wrote [‘Wagon Wheel’] because I didn’t know what else to write about when I was 17. So I think it is easy for listeners to put themselves into the hero’s role,” he says of the song’s staying power.

Throughout their lean years, the group’s lineup remained in flux. Of note, in 2007, Fuqua stepped away for a while to work on his sobriety and decided to attend college. Old Crow also recruited Cory Younts, who Secor says puts the “Medicine Show” in the band’s name. “He reminds me of this character called the ‘Grito’ in Tejano music,” he quips. “He’s a guy that would do, like, hat tricks while the band plays.” (In recent years, Younts has divided his time between Old Crow and Jack White’s touring band, The Buzzards.) Yet Old Crow remained in constant motion.

“We had this pack mentality, this sort of blood oath, like we were going to breathe in the songs and exhale them—that we believed in ghosts, spooks and boogers,” he says. “These are the kind of ways that you could take the music into yourself more, making sacrifices to the music, like treating it like a god, and the mythology of the songsters that performed it. If you could do all these things at once, then it sort of made you this journeyman or apprentice to old-time music. I became that and still am that, but now, I’m at a point where there’s all these other bands that are doing things related to it and I’m able to pass it along, just like it was passed down to me.”

It’s a mild summer night outside at Central Park’s SummerStage, and openers Langhorne Slim and Spirit Family Reunion are nearby tuning up in the backstage area. This like-minded lineup speaks volumes about the state of the Americana genre in 2014 as Secor discusses how traditional music, bluegrass, gospel, revival and folk songs have impacted the modern generation. These musicians believe themselves to be the torchbearers of the current scene, play- ing visceral string music and collaborating hootenanny style.

It has been an exciting few years for Old Crow Medicine Show and roots music in general. Though bluegrass and Americana have been popular trends among the hipster set since at least 2000, when the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack was first released, the arena-size successes of Mumford & Sons and The Avett Brothers during the past few years have brought the banjo back to the Billboard charts. Marcus Mumford, in particular, cites Old Crow Medicine Show as his gateway into string music, and he’s helped introduce the band to a new, youthful pop audience. Along with Mumford & Sons and Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, Old Crow participated in 2011’s sit-in friendly Railroad Revival Tour, which was filmed for Emmett Malloy’s documentary Big Easy Express (2012).

“American roots music is on a cyclical journey, so it’ll keep coming around,” Secor explains. “It’s in an orbit that has a natural tendency. There’s a hunger; there’s something that’s not satisfied in the daily dietary needs of humanity. Pop culture has dumbed country music down so much. We just can’t live off the latest blockbuster— that shit’s not nourishing, and we’re smarter than that.”

Unfortunately, after years of hard living and playing small clubs on the road, less than four months after the railroad tour, things seemed to fall apart. The group posted to their website: “Old Crow Medicine Show is on hiatus as we seek health and wellness over the coming months.” The situation looked bleak, but Secor decided to revisit the band’s blueprints and hit the road for an acoustic outing with Fuqua. Their connection was palpable and, shortly after the band ended their brief break, they brought Fuqua back into the fold. Fuqua participated in the final sessions for Carry Me Back, which came out in 2012 on ATO, a label co-founded by early Old Crow supporter Dave Matthews. (A few months before Old Crow regrouped with Fuqua, they parted ways with Willie Watson, who is now pursuing a solo career.)

Then, the perfect storm hit: As the band was gearing up to enjoy their newfound role as godfathers of festival-ready Americana, Darius Rucker recorded a country version of “Wagon Wheel” and turned the almost- century old number into one of the biggest hits of the year. Around this same time, Irish singer Nathan Carter also covered the song on his release Wagon Wheel, which saw massive success in the Irish singles and U.K. country charts, and as a pop chart crossover.

“It’s such the perfect country song,” Rucker told the Associated Press last year. “When we were cutting it, all we had [to model it on] was this perfect bluegrass song. I couldn’t do it as a bluegrass song. It’s just not me. So if we were going to do it, we had to make it a 1950s country song. I’m not shocked at how successful it’s been, but I didn’t expect it.”

It speaks to many different types of people and has become a force bigger than itself, spanning cultures and genres—heard at college tailgates, at weddings and even on TV. The song has turned into somewhat of a “Freebird” of its generation, so popular and omnipresent that it has even been banned from certain bars.

Sixteen years after he originally formed Old Crow, Secor has planted roots in Nashville, Tenn., and the group recently released their eighth studio record, Remedy. A reunion album of sorts, Remedy marks Fuqua’s true return to the studio with the band, and the group’s first full-length since Rucker took “Wagon Wheel” to the top of the charts. Dylan also helped out and gave Secor and Fuqua another lost track from around the time of “Wagon Wheel” to work with, “Sweet Amarillo.”

“I learned a lot from David Rawlings and Gillian Welch about how to use the legs of American folk music to support the tale that I wanted to tell,” Secor reflects. “That’s a skill that everybody in this consortium of people is interested in. Bob stole songs that were 200 years old or older, and he stole forms and put them on top of ancient songs.

With this record, I’ve gotten to a point where I can do that sort of second nature— to be a conduit for the older musical forms that come out of my mouth and sound like they are Old Crow songs. This feels like the best Old Crow collection that we’ve made. We think a lot about our audience with the things we choose to sing about. We set standards early on with our first couple of records: We need party songs, songs about getting high, songs where somebody’s always gotta die and songs where somebody always needs be loved. And you always have to have a dog.”

Despite their newfound popularity, Old Crow are adamant about maintaining the “Medicine Show” part of their name. The troupe—whose lineup currently includes Secor, Fuqua, Hayes, Younts, Morgan Jahnig, Gill Landry and Chance McCoy— traces the values of their show back to 19th-century circus entertainers. One way that Old Crow Medicine Show have main- tained their minstrel roots is by covering city-specific songs on each stop during their current tour to relate to the local community. On this night in Manhattan, they took on Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Only Living Boy in New York.” When they played outside Burlington, Vt., this past July, they decided to dust off “Poor Heart” and “Lawn Boy,” two songs by Phish, which several members of Old Crow followed in their youth.

“Cory had been on the road with Phish for like 200 shows, and when I was a kid, I didn’t go to nearly that many but I went to a few Phish shows and I saw the Dead twice,” Secor says with a hint of pride. “Gill went to Dead shows—he had a couple of years on us, and he spent his teenage years in Seattle. I was 16, had dreadlocks and lived in Virginia—I went to see Phish because they were present. They played Richmond and they played D.C. We knew all the words to all these Phish songs—it was really fun to learn them again and pick ones that would work for our band. It’s part of paying homage to the places that you are.”

Though he has finally made it to harvest season in a popular music scene, Secor feels that his time with Old Crow Medicine Show is only getting started. Like Dylan before him, he plans to tour with the group into his golden years.

“I’m in a long-term committed relation- ship with Old Crow Medicine Show,” Secor says. “I’d like to see it over the course of a long time—where it’s been, what it has become. It’s all part of a love for music and a career that I could see on the horizon when I was a teenager. And so, I just think about it in the long term. I could see it in 26 years. I haven’t run out of things to say—that wellspring keeps bubbling up.”