By Shelby Robinson
In 2000, Old Crow Medicine Show was discovered by folk icon Doc Watson, who invited them to play at MerleFest, helping to launch their career. Just last year, the band won a Grammy, was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry, and their hit “Wagon Wheel” went platinum. We caught up with founding member, fiddle player and singer, Ketch Secor to talk about their success, their ever-changing musical style and what’s next for Old Crow Medicine Show.
NVM: Thanks for talking to me today–
KS: Oh, sure. We’re happy to be coming back to the Old Dominion. I’m a Virginian and I like to play in my home state.
Q: How has the tour been so far?
A: Well everything’s been going great. Now were gearing up for our big run, it’s going to carry us up to the Northeast, by way of Virginia and West Virginia.
Q: What has been your favorite stop or favorite thing about touring in the past?
A: Oh, I like playing in West Virginia, and I just like the welcomed feeling the audience gives you. Even out on the strip malls of Oklahoma City, I can find something redeeming. That’s the trick about touring—finding redemption. Sometimes you gotta look real hard to figure out what redeems a place.”
Q: I know you guys started playing publicly through busking and playing on street corners, is it a big adjustment to be playing these huge venues?
A: No, no its pretty much the same thing, just at a different level, we started as a street corner band and graduated to great big stages, but it’s the same idea. You’re trying to capture someone’s attention and share something with them that is indelible. And you hopefully can have that power, and a moment to lift them up, whether it’s on the curb or out in front of 10,000 people.
Q: Is it hard to keep up your energy during a tour?
A: It’s a real challenge, to maintain, like when you get off the road there’s a real crash. And then nervousness before you head out again, like ‘can I still do it?’ But I’ve been doing it now for I guess like 20 years, since I was a kid, so it’s also what I’ve always wanted to do. Its double-edged you know? Like sometimes you wish that you had a 9-5, and other times you know that you never could hold one—for very long…
Q: “Carry Me Back” seems to have a more old-timey style, what inspired the switch?
A: I wrote those songs about three or four years ago. Three or four years ago I was more interested in exploring more of the roots of American song. You know as a fiddle player and a banjo player, and a professional one at that, I’m always somewhere in between present and the far, far past—in terms of what’s turning me on—there’s rarely anything futuristic about it. I’m usually listening to something from the ’70s, the ’50s or the ’20s. And “Carry Me Back” captures a lot of listening to the music of the ’20s. Our new album, which will come out in July is a little different, it’s pulling more from a rock and roll ‘swagger.’
Q: Is it tough to build your folky sound off of so many things? Blending Old Time, bluegrass and Bob Dylan?
A: All of the sources I’m drawing from have the same kind of groundwater. Whatever Bob Dylan is doing, he’s doing it with a vast knowledge of where all of the music came from. He’s pulling little things out of a hundred years of recorded American song. And that’s more of what I’m trying to do, more than anything else. Distill the voices in my head and make the words come out of my mouth.
Q: Where did you learn bluegrass?
A: I started playing rock and roll when I was a kid, on an electric guitar. When I started picking up folk music, I just found that I could get more people to listen…I guess I was more kind of called to it. You know a lot of players learn from their parents as music gets passed down. As a Virginian, I grew up somewhat exposed to acoustic music; there were bluegrass festivals and jamborees, bluegrass out front of the fire hall in Shenandoah, where I’m from. Mostly, I was crankin’ up Nirvana, Public Enemy and the D.C. band Bad Brains. So I guess I got turned onto folk music and it made all the difference. But that punk-rock conviction never left me.
Q: Why do you think OCMS has had so much success? Especially compared to other bluegrass bands?
A: I think the link to our success might be our longevity. We stuck around, we stuck it out. It’s not easy to live this way. Particularly if you had asked me 10 years ago, then it really wasn’t easy, piled into a (Chevrolet) Suburban driving 700 miles to go play a show that paid $300 then another 12-hour drive after that. Those are the times that will break you. We were just meant to stick around, so we did and part of the gift has been in our staying around, the scene changed. When we first got into this in 1998 and even before that, around Virginia, there just wasn’t much going on. There weren’t a lot of opportunities for an old time string band to you know, have a hit or play arena shows or anything like that. But 15 years later—there is. And I know we had something to do with that, but helping to create that, helping to foster that scene has been really rewarding. When I walk out onto that stage, it is doubly satisfying to see a full house because I know all of the work that went into making it that way.
Q: Where do you hope to go from here?
A: Well I’ve been around the world, and I guess when you’ve been around the world, you either decide to go around again or head back home and I guess I’m trying to do both. I’ll go around a few more times and as long as I can keep playing in Virginia, and the places that I love, then I’ll break some new ground and sell some more records. I’m excited about our opportunity here to have a positive effect on country music, and to alter the present course of country music, which I think is headed up shit’s creek. And I think we might be able to steer it off, get us back up to the hills.
Old Crow Medicine Show will be at the Patriot Center in Fairfax at the end of the month with The Avett Brothers.
Old Crow Medicine Show
Feb. 28 at the Patriot Center
4500 Patriot Circle