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In The Rear-View: Ketch Secor on 25 years of Old Crow Medicine Show

Monday, 30 October 2023 Written by Simon Ramsay

Photo: Joshua Black Wilkins

Considering the turbulent factors involved, it’s a minor miracle any band has managed to survive in the music business for more than two decades. But where that thought mainly springs from witnessing more conventional and accessible acts battling to last the distance, if we turn our focus to old time Americana string band Old Crow Medicine Show, the only word to describe their 25 year triumph over the odds is phenomenal.

When this revisionist ensemble first arrived in Nashville at the end of last century, after being discovered busking by bluegrass icon Doc Watson, even the most adept mystic couldn’t have foreseen that a ramshackle street gang, performing traditional old time music, would become a bona fide institution in the city. They certainly wouldn’t have predicted them bagging a Grammy award for Wagon Wheel, a co-write of sorts with Bob Dylan later popularised by Darius Rucker, a  signature number that became an American music standard at a time when such things no longer exist.

Factor into that the continued fluidity of their line up, as well as pop-country’s domination of modern day Music Row, and their ongoing success is clearly a testament to an unquenchable thirst for timeless authentic music, kinetic vaudevillian live shows and the dedication of everyone who’s passed through the ranks. Frontman, songwriter and last remaining original member Ketch Secor, a classic raconteur who’s heroically steered this ship from the start and continues to ensure their standards never drop, has seen it all. 

Crafted by a brand new line up that sounds as potent as any in the band’s history, last year’s ‘Paint This Town’ has been followed up in double quick time by the recently released ‘Jubilee’. A sprawling, eclectic and infectious blend of rabble rousers, poignant folk ballads and socially conscious lyrics, it delivers everything you’d expect from the band and so much more. With Old Crow Medicine Show about to return to the UK for a run of shows, we caught up with Secor to hear about the construction of ‘Jubilee’, why he feels controversial topics need to be addressed in music and what the band’s long term future might look like beyond his tenure.

Prior to releasing ‘Paint This Town’ you said you’d recorded two new albums. Is ‘Jubilee’ the second effort from those sessions or was there a change of plan after the new line up had been out touring together?

We did the first record more or less through the pandemic, masked up, socially distanced, but also with a line up with a lot of guys that were relatively new to Old Crow and hadn’t had much road time. So the cohesiveness I see on ‘Jubilee’ reflects the fact we went out on the road and figured out what our strengths are. And traditional music became more of a common denominator after we’d had that road experience together. But let’s just say I think of ‘Jubilee’ as a companion to ‘Paint This Town’. It’s like it’s the more traditional side of the same coin. 

Album opener Jubilee Jones is a labour song revolving around the titular character. Why do you feel labour songs are so important? What can they accomplish, or what do you want them to accomplish? 

Well, I grew up listening to bands like The Wheelers, singers like Joan Baez and Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston and Josh White. These artists all recorded music that spoke to labour unrest and the importance of unity as it referred to labour unions. Growing up in the 1980s and ‘90s in the south, there were no unions. I didn’t know what a union was. My dad wasn’t a union labourer, he was a teacher. I didn’t have a reference point for what this thing they were talking about in such powerful terms was, but the music made me feel, ‘Yeah, this is the stuff.’ I felt such a loyalty to the way the music made me feel and loved the idea of music taking a direct line to the American worker, to elevate the worker and to call other workers together. 

Then I learned more about the way the labour movement organised people and saw the labour movement was the army I would have joined if I’d been the warring type. It was an army of solidarity for the common good for some of the most important people in America and, growing up in the south where labour has not been organised, I can see the dysfunction of that. People who work up north might make twice the minimum wage that they make down south, but people down south have shorter lives, higher infant mortality rates, lower rates of education. 

We just die sooner and get paid less down here so that discrepancy causes you to wonder how much of that has to do with organised labour. For musicians to be the ones that talk about exploitation instead of…I mean, the politicians do it sometimes. The newspapers do it sometimes. But when songs do it that’s what hooks you. I didn’t learn about labour and the importance of the labour movement and solidarity from CNN and Newsweek. I didn’t learn about it from President Clinton or Reagan or Bush or W. Bush or Obama. I learned about it from Pete Seeger.       

You always tackle topical matters in your music and haven’t been afraid to address controversial issues. But does that also come at the cost of alienating people of different political persuasions, or getting ignorant types, usually via social media, telling you to stick to music?

Yeah, we sure have felt that a lot lately because there was a terrible murder in Nashville in a school and we took a stand. We recorded a song called Louder than Guns and sang at a vigil with the first lady, Jill Biden, and got on the news, media, CNN talking about the need for peace. We chose it as a moment we weren’t going to sit idly by but, instead, were going to keep talking about it and now we talk about it almost every night. I’ve got the names of three dead children and three dead teachers scratched into my violin in case I forget. We’re singing about it because it happened in our town. We weren’t singing about it before, but it happened and it’s gonna happen in your town and it’s gonna happen in every town in America until it stops. 

So it seems like a really important thing to do and when they tell you to shut up and sing I tend to say, ‘It’s OK with me if you disagree.’ I like to look at the relationship of Old Crow to its fans as a reflection of a potential shift in the way that Americans look at the stalemate between the two sides. Because when I’m playing music I look out in the crowd and see a guy who has a carry permit, and a guy who thinks there should be an assault rifle ban, and they’re both drinking and waving their mugs together a couple of feet away to the same song. So I know that if you can bring them into the same room you can make a compromise. And that’s all we need here. It’s just about a compromise. It’s not about either one getting what they want. It’s just about what’s in the middle.      

Miles Away is one of my favourites and it features original co-founder Willie Watson. What can you say about that song and why it was the right number for him to appear on?

I wrote that with Molly Tuttle. It was triggered by seeing Gill [Landry] again after a few years and just wanting to look at the past in a different way. It’s one of those 25 year old band type songs in which you have the wherewithal to look out the rear-view and see a whole lot of life and accept what you can’t change about your actions back then. And Willie, as a principal founding member of Old Crow, is the person who I see in the rear-view mirror. Who I don’t see in the driver's seat. I’ve missed him. 

It’s also a complicated relationship and so, during the pandemic, it became really evident that it was a time and opportunity for old love to be rekindled. I’m really glad we’re in a good place now with one of our founding and most formative voices. It just wouldn’t have worked without Willie. We wouldn’t have made it in Nashville. We wouldn’t have been able to make the calibre of records that we did because his voice and presence was just so important to the first 11 years of Old Crow Medicine Show. So it’s been good having him and he’s gonna [open the] UK tour with us.

Would I be right in thinking he’ll guest with you during your set as well?

Yeah, when we get together we think of all kinds of old songs we haven’t done in years. A lot of people in country music are all trying to get the brotherhood harmony. The brother harmony is something that is a real mainstay of the genre. Rarely, it happens around voices that are not kin. But it can happen that way too and I think an example would be Buck Owens and Don Rich. But also Don and Phil Everly. Actual brothers. Spend enough time together on the road and it’s almost like brothers and we’re brothers again. 

In contrast to that one of your newest recruits is Mason Via, who is actually younger than the band itself. What does he bring to the table? 

Mason and I wrote a lot of the songs on the record so he’s been an important voice. He’s a songwriter. You’ve got to pass the torch and expect that the next generation is gonna be informed by the things you’ve learned with your time. If anything, Mason is from the bluegrass and old time music world. Much more so than me. His dad’s a bluegrass songwriter. His mom’s been taking him to shows [since he was young], she’s a Deadhead. But they’re from deep in the thick of it and therefore Mason has a very traditional voice that has helped Old Crow return to its roots. When you hire a new guy, regardless of their age and experience, if they can fasten Old Crow to its source that’s a really final thing. We love working with Mason. He’s a wildman.       

In terms of the high turnover of band members, do you have to audition replacements or have you got such a big knowledge of the scene that you possess a black book of possible candidates that you can call upon?

No, the black book is for if somebody gets sick or has an injury. Actually joining the band is really, really hard. It takes a lot of time and a lightning strike of fate. In the beginning the first members that were in Old Crow all met on street corners. I was in a bar in Harvard playing in front of a jewellery store on the town square and a guy tipped me a dollar, named Kevin Hayes, and then he played for 21 years with me.

I was in New Orleans with the early version of Old Crow in about 2001 and a young street performer from Lake Charles tipped us a dollar and then played for 12 years with us. That was Gill Landry. The only other current original member of the line up, Morgan Jahnig, came up to us in Nashville in the year 2000 when we were playing on a street corner and threw us a buck and he’s been with us ever since. So in the beginning it was the curb that yielded, it bore all the fruit, and now it means other connections. Old time music programmes, fiddlers’ conventions, hearing people on the radio.

Finally, you’ve called yourself the last of the original street corner crew who began the band. Given the ongoing evolution of the group, its importance in Nashville, and the fact that it has always been freshened up by new members, when you hang up your spurs and retire one day does the band retire with you or would you like to see younger guys in the vein of Mason continuing what you started?

It all continues no matter what you call it. I think that the through line to all these years of Old Crow Medicine Show has been me, so it’s hard to imagine what the band would be like without me. But, sure, I’m all for it, and sometimes I wish that could happen now like, ‘Go ahead and take it, man’. Twenty five years of doing it is pretty hard work and, as I get older, doing a hundred shows a year becomes more of a challenge. Especially if you see us play and see how physical it all is. 

They say the Stones move around, well we move around like Cirque du Soleil. This is like getting fired from a cannon so I wouldn’t mind if somebody else played the cannonball for a while. That would be cool but, as it is, I’m resigned to my fate of being the frontman of the band I started 25 years ago and I’m good with that. The wheels keep turning and there’s still so much to explore and opportunities to learn and grow. There are things we’re doing now that I never did before.

Old Crow Medicine Show Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Mon October 30 2023 - LONDON Eventim Apollo
Wed November 01 2023 - GLASGOW Barrowland
Thu November 02 2023 - MANCHESTER Albert Hall
Thu November 16 2023 - CHICAGO Illinois - Salt Shed (USA)
Fri November 17 2023 - NASHVILLE Indiana - Brown County Music Center (USA)
Sat November 18 2023 - GLASGOW Kentucky - Plaza Theater  (USA)
Sat December 30 2023 - NASHVILLE Tennessee - Ryman Auditorium (USA)
Sun December 31 2023 - NASHVILLE Tennessee - Ryman Auditorium (USA)

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