Old Crow Medicine Show dispenses the right potion

Dan MacIntosh, March 2004

When you listen to Old Crow Medicine Show's new album, "O.C.M.S.," you hear a little string band music here and a touch of bluegrass there, which leaves it a few giant steps away from much of today's country music mainstream.

So just because this Nashville act has just put out an album on the relatively large non-country Nettwerk Records, it nevertheless harbors no illusions about becoming some kind of a voice for anybody's generation. .

"If you're real people, doing real things, you can only connect with a certain number of people," admits Ketch Secor, the fiddler for this five-piece group, which also includes Willie Watson, Critter Fuqua, Kevin Hayes and Morgan Jahnig. "Kids just aren't going to accept it. But if you can get through to the few that are on the fringe, that are ready to be welcomed in, it's a pretty cool feeling when you can turn somebody on."

Even after a show that Secor calls the group's worst ever gig, these Old Crows were still able to reach at least one impressionable young mind.

"The most difficult gig I ever played with the O.C.M.S. was on the Pine Ridge Reservation (in South Dakota)," Secor remembers. "We played at Little Wounds High School, and it was the toughest crowd I've ever played to. Playing to Indian kids...it takes your breath away to play to these guys because there's so much angst in the crowd. Whenever you're playing for high school kids, there's lots of aggression, angst, confusion and all the shit that goes on with people of that age group. But when you're playing to the poorest kids in the poorest county in our country - they're the poorest socioeconomic group - and you've got a bunch of white guys trying to tell them about old time fiddle music, it was pretty rough. They spat on us. They blew up condoms, and they tossed them around like balloons. They took a dime and wrote things into the paint on our car."

"But at the same time," Secor continues, "there was a kid that came up to me after the show - a kid named Luke Brokenrope - who said that his grandfather was a fiddler, and that they come from a long line of square dance people and square dancing and fiddle music has been amalgamated into Indian culture since a long time ago - especially with Western Indians. The fiddle became an instrument that was widely used and played. But not anymore, these kids like rap music. But this guy remembered that we were part of bringing that circle back for this kid."

This aged circle of musical traditions that Old Crow Medicine Show upholds is bruised, broken and worn in more than a few places. Yet it's still a living and breathing entity. And sometimes, its odd circumstances leave Old Crow Medicine Show feeling like strangers in its very own homeland..

"Well, because there isn't really a set place for us - us guys that are playing like variations of bluegrass and variations of old time music - and because there isn't really a set box for us to fit into, we tend to sort of float between the bluegrass festival world and the clubs alternative country and rock acts are playing at," says Secor, trying to explain how this group tours.Although its traditional roots are amply displayed on disc, Old Crow members are not at all ignorant about the wide variety of music that is out there..

"Critter, who's our banjo player, grew up with a real love of AC/DC, and he's a real master of rock guitar styling," Secor shares. "He can read all that tablature. He can play note-for-note all that Yngwie Malmsteen stuff."

The band's bio may name-drop everything from Nirvana to Public Enemy as its inspirations, but Secor, at least, sticks closest to the group's more acoustic heroes.

"I'm the guy who came at this with maybe the strongest background in the folk music," he explains. "I grew up (listening to) Pete Seeger and my mother, who played a little guitar and loved the folk revival stuff. So I grew up with all those Newport Broadside records. And I also have a real love of Stevie Wonder and some Motown stuff."

The members of this group first met in New York. (That's the state of New York, by the way and not the famous metropolitan city of the same name).

"It makes sense," Secor explains, "when you know the story of Ithaca, N.Y. There's more old time music in Ithaca than in anywhere in the Appalachians. Being raised around the old time music community in North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia, we always heard about Ithaca because there are so many string bands up there. None of them (the string bands) were from there, but they all gravitated there because after these players went down to North Carolina to play with the old greats, they had to go somewhere, so they went straight to Ithaca. So Ithaca became this place where the music was more traditional than where the music was (originally) from, (and) where the music was from, everything turned to bluegrass."

"So these old timers were the last old guys holding onto old time music. And all the kids were playing bluegrass music - which is radio music, as far as old timers are concerned. That (bluegrass) music has prospered because of radio in the '30s and the commercialization of country. These outsiders from the colleges, and these folk revivalists and people like that from California and New York and Boston would come to the mountains and find these old guys, and then take the music up Ithaca, N.Y. and hold onto it real tight so that the music there remained straighter than the shit back in North Carolina. So when we got to Ithaca and were a string band, we were one of lots and lots of other people playing variations of old time music."

Its Indian reservation show may have been its worst concert experience, but Old Crow Medicine Show has also had its share of good fortune, as well, such as the day it met Doc Watson by chance.

"We were busking in front of Doc's favorite restaurant," recalls Secor, "and Doc's daughter saw us playing there, and she comes up and says, 'Boy, you guys sound so good. My dad loved this kind of music.' And we're like, whatever. She didn't throw a tip. We're talking about tips, man! So she says, 'I'm going to go get my dad.' So we're like, whatever. She goes away. We don't think nothing about it. And then this woman comes back with her dad, and it's Doc Watson! And this is Nancy Watson, and we didn't know that at the time. And she walks Doc across the street, and we play a tune for Doc, and we play some old time stuff for him. He says, "Son that sounds good. You should play at this festival we have in honor of my son over in West Wilkesboro. Of course, we knew what he was talking about (Merlefest). As far as our connection with Doc, that was pretty much as far as it went. Doc got us that big gig."

This unexpected encounter with Doc Watson is somewhat indicative of how Old Crow Medicine Show's career has gone so far.

"We tend to go past the lines that tend to bring people together, like the press kit and the pitch. We didn't get on the Merlefest because of a pitch; we got it because we met Doc. We got on the Opry the next summer, not because of a pitch or a photo, but because we met Sally Williams at Merlefest and sold her on this idea that they need somebody cool at the Opry, shaking it up and playing on the street like they used to do. To be honest, we weren't that surprised when Doc Watson walked across the street and handed us a gig on July 5 because it seemed like that was the way things tended to work for us."

The Old Crow Medicine Show found a likeminded musical partner when David Rawlings - best known for his partnership with Gillian Welch - agreed to produce the group's new release. And not surprisingly, they hooked up with Rawlings in a most un-music-business-like way.

"How we met Dave and Gil, was another meeting of an organic nature," recalls Secor. "We were playing on the Opry, and Dave and Gil heard us on the radio in their car. It was our Opry debut, and they'd never heard of us before. But they just happened to be listening to the Opry, and that set the course of a friendship that's one of the strongest things we have going for us in Nashville right now."

Although Welch is the obvious focal point of the Rawlings/Welch pairing, true musicians have a deep respect for what Rawlings brings to their collaboration.

"Dave is like us: he knows the solo to (AC/DC's) 'Back In Black,' note-for-note. He knows the intro to 'You Shook Me All Night Long.' He's a music man. He's the kind of guy that knows what Dylan was wearing on the cover of 'Desire,' and he'll wear that to a party. And that's the kind of people we are, too. We just love music. And Dave loves music, and he loves everything about the stories of the players, and he's got so many musical heroes too - like we do. And we happen to share a lot of the same music heroes. So putting us all together - the five guys and Dave - into a room, was just like creating this clubhouse of boyish musicality. It was like going to a ballgame making that record. It was like being at a minor league ballgame, being right on the field practically."

Old Crow was recently a part of last summer's ill-fated Electric Barnyard tour, which found them in the good company of Merle Haggard and Marty Stuart. And even though this was by no means a money-making, blockbuster trek, it was nevertheless a fulfilling experience for these still relatively green musicians..

"Marty Stuart and Merle Haggard and The Strangers were there, and it was just a rocking night of country music. And The Strangers are so sophisticated, too. Watching Merle play is like a Cab Calloway kind of vibe. His band has got such a jazzed up flavor. It's like uptown country. I wouldn't even put it down as country. It's like country is inferior to it. And Merle is such a class act. The best thing about the Electric Barnyard tour was dinner. This was like down home eatin' every night, with Merle Haggard and The Strangers, and Marty and Connie Smith. It was like a country music dream come true."

Now that they're on Nettwerk, Old Crow Medicine Show finds itself sharing a label with Coldplay and Neil Finn. But one wonders what a big record company can do for this band -- one that has already achieved much success independently - that it isn't already doing for itself..

"The biggest thing they can do is put the record out," notes Secor. "That's the thing we had the hardest time with. We've been able to score some high profile gigs without a record contract. And gigs haven't really been an issue for us. We worked 125 of them last year. And we had some real highlights. We did Prairie Home Companion, and we did the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade."

"But we haven't really been able to sell records, except at shows. And Nashville really hasn't come knocking. We played for all of the big shots in Nashville, and they did not know where we're at, and they're not getting where we're at - even with all these gigs and this high profile stuff. They're not willing to take the gamble on a string band. But we found all these Canadians (Nettwerk is a Canadian label) who were (willing to take a chance on us).".

"What we were really pleased with was what they (Nettwerk) were able to do for, and with, The Be Good Tanyas," says Secor. "We'd done some shows with them, and we're all old friends. The Tanyas and us and The Hackensaw Boys, and a couple of other bands, are all a part of this very back to the curb kind of feeling that not everybody's really keyed into yet. I'm not sure if anybody could say that it's bigger than any one particular band or that it's a movement or anything. I don't know if the players themselves (even) know that they're a part of this bigger thing. There are a lot of people that are looking back and making the circle and the return to the music that's the foundation of American country, pop, bluegrass and all of this other stuff; the very foundational elements of the music. That's what we're going back to, but we're bringing something back with us. We're bringing 80 years of all the stuff that's in our heads collectively. We're bringing it back to the source."

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher • countrystandardtime@gmail.com