“It’s not rocket science making a record,” Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor says by phone. “You could treat it that way, but Old Crow tends to make its best recordings with the same kind, gregarious spirit we have in our live show; it’s what we exhibit in the studio.”
Secor uses words like “gregarious” and coats everything he says with a tone of Southern intellect. Like Old Crow, there’s an air of old-timeness—not in a stuck-in-time kind of way, but a genuine product of its origins. Secor, who founded Old Crow with Critter Fuqua, is from Harrisonburg, Virginia. While they’ve had two decades playing in Old Crow, he credits their growth musically to the journey and rich sounds of hundreds of years of the American-folk canon.
The “wildest” songs that are unpredictable by nature are those old-timey tunes and style that lend themselves to explosive performances Old Crow is known for.
“Old-time music has less constraints when it comes to the music,” Secor details. “You can ‘yip’ where you want to. You can bark. You can show your teeth a little on the fiddle. Lately, I’ve been working on a drooling thing, which has been kind of fun.”
“Wait … what is a ‘drooling thing’?” I have to interrupt.
“Well, it only works if you’re in the front row or you have a jumbotron,” he notes. “I like the ‘drooling fiddler.’ You know, those musicians who look entranced? So if I happen to get into a trance and I happen to drool, I’m not going to slurp it back up again—it’s all part of the show.”
In the past Secor has described playing on stage like a foot race, not a marathon, like “running after the pistol shot.”
“I play like I’ve got the pistol,” he quips. “And we all do. . . . There’s something about acoustic music trying to be ‘in your face,’ which is by nature kind of an oxymoron. You can do this by invoking the ‘fifth Beatle’ of OCMS, which is intensity and fervor. There’s the song, the playing of it and the crowd, but then there’s a wildness we evoked early on and continue to do.”
The story of Old Crow as a band is the quintessential country-music story. It’s riddled with the trappings and architectural events from meeting their hero, Doc Watson, to busking and playing for the hat. All create a story, as well as build their genre and history. Their 20-year journey most recently has culminated in their latest album “Volunteer” (April 2018).
Recorded in RCA’s iconic Studio A, with producer Dave Cobb (Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell), a known facilitator of “great vibes” in Nashville, the record has a suave polish.
“Dave has a real coolness about him,” Secor says, with emphasis on a low, drawn-out “cool.” “He’s the kind of producer that operates on vibe and spirit, which tends to keep the music flowin’ and those seem to be the master takes.”
There’s a kind of divinity to making it in the music business these days. Rather than culling talent from artists who’ve built up a traditional fanbase, a TV-driven “Star Search” system determines success these days. “You’d like to think that the cream rises to the top,” Secor notes, “but the way the music business seems to work, often the cream is discarded and homogeneity reins.”
“Old Hickory” is a track that sort of roots for the underdog in the music industry. Inspired by Willie Nelson’s “Me and Paul,” which celebrates the sidekick rather than the hero of the story, “Old Hickory” was written in the same spirit.
“I spent a lot of time around ‘Cowboy’ Jack Clement,” Secor explains. “He talked a lot about this guy Billy Lee Riley, who had this hit in the 1950s, and it was a song about Mars and martians coming to earth. He was the kind of spirit that would have been a big star if it hadn’t been for Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash … but there just wasn’t room. And in today’s world, Billy Lee Riley, at 25 years old, he’d be a big star. I always liked those stories of ‘the ones that got away’ or the ones that didn’t make it. Plus, I’m coming from a world wherein the 20 years of making music with Old Crow, I’ve seen so many people not get to the place that we got to that were better than us, better songwriters, better singers … that’s just how it works. So it was good to make a new kind of hero with those kind of concepts.”
“Look Away” encompasses all of the skills of Old Crow as songwriters and performers. There’s history and utilization of older forms of folk songs to widen the scope of country music. “For me, ‘Look Away’ says ‘I Wish I Was in Dixie’ is a song worth knowing and understanding its full weight baggage,” Secor explains. “It’s one of the heaviest songs out there, it’s one of the most important songs in America and it should be written and rewritten a thousand times. . . . It’s like the Confederate monuments: I’m not interested in the retold narrative. . . . There’s a reality that needs to be reinvestigated and not re-glorified.”
From an early age in high school, Secor was always one to take literary criticism to heart. There was more to T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” than just words on a page, for example. Written and interpreted in many languages, the body of work is deeper and always there to investigate and learn from—but that’s not essential to appreciate it. The masses might only really need a pull quote for a shared appreciation.
Secor doesn’t see Old Crow and its music as revolutionary in country, or any genre for that matter. Not everyone wants or needs a history lesson. For some folks Old Crow is the band that just sings “Wagon Wheel”—and that’s OK with Secor.
“That’s all we need to be for a lot of people,” he notes. “I tend to operate on multiple levels at once and I like entertainment that operates on multiple levels. I like social criticism as a kind of wit; and if a song has that, whether you get it or not, it’s there.”