What began on a street corner in Boone, North Carolina over 15 years ago has now come full circle for the Grammy Award-winning, genre-bending string band Old Crow Medicine Show. Discovered busking outside a pharmacy by Doc Watson and best known for their platinum single “Wagon Wheel,” the band has built up both a fan following and an extensive musical library over the past decade.
Since their debut album in 2004, O.C.M.S., the band released four more recordings: Big Iron World (2006), Tennessee Pusher (2008), Carry Me Back (2012) and Remedy (2014). They also released a number of shorter works, most recently their EP Brushy Mountain Conjugal Trailer in early 2015. Despite the volume and quality of their work, the group is still best known for “Wagon Wheel,” thanks to a legacy that, when it was written, was 30 years in the making.
Lead singer Ketch Secor crafted the famous country hit from a scrap left over from Bob Dylan. Gifted a bootleg of the soundtrack session for the film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid featuring a chorus of “Rock Me, Mama” courtesy of Dylan, Secor built the song dreaming of home in the South while at boarding school in New Hampshire. Secor and Dylan agreed to split authorship of the song, which went gold in 2011 and platinum in 2013. Since then, the song has been covered by a number of artists, most notably by Darius Rucker.
While “Wagon Wheel” has been the most successful, it is not the only song that Secor owes to Dylan. The most popular song on Remedy, which won the 2015 Grammy for Best Folk Album, was similarly constructed: around the time Rucker’s cover of “Wagon Wheel” began to make waves, Dylan sent Secor another song that he left incomplete, which eventually became “Sweet Amarillo.”
Although the band owes much to Dylan, they are also successful in their own right. What makes Old Crow Medicine Show so unique and impressive is that they have brought folk and string music into the 21st century. Just as Dylan and other folk artists inspired them, Old Crow Medicine Show inspired new-age folk bands, like Mumford and Sons, to bring that musical style into the forefront of the modern scene.
Old Crow Medicine Show will perform at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta on April 30. Prior to the show, Secor spoke over the phone with The Emory Wheel about their influences, working with Dylan and keeping the wind at their backs.
Jacob Durst, The Emory Wheel: You and “Critter” [Chris Fuqua, slide guitar, banjo and vocals] began playing music together as kids a long time ago. How did you come up with the name Old Crow Medicine Show?
Ketch Secor: It’s a name I coined maybe in summer of ‘98 or summer of ‘97. I remember writing it down in my journal — I think it was actually in ‘97. Yeah, I just thought it would be a good band name. It’s a band that grew out of this consortium of musicians and hangers-on that I was hanging out with, [and if] we were able to get our act together, [O.C.M.S.] would be a good moniker. I wanted a band name that would reflect the old-time string band music that I was really fired up about when I was 18 and 19. It sounded like we were a bunch of old men instead of a bunch of teenagers.
JD: A lot of people have found it hard to define what genre you play these days. Some people have tried country — some folk or bluegrass. How would you define your music?
KS: It’s all of those terms that you mentioned. We definitely played country music and bluegrass music and folk music and rock ‘n’ roll. It’s never been the kind of thing where you can say this is the bin that Old Crow belongs in in the record store. When our band started, [it] was before the term Americana was being used to apply to music. It was more of a quilting term. Americana has sort of come to be known as this catch-all term, sort of this lint-grab in the spin cycle of American music. If you spin out of the mainstream, you get caught up in Americana. I just don’t think it’s that credible of a genre. If you [have] Johnny Cash and Old Crow and Flaco Jimenez and the [The Blind] Boys of Alabama all in the same genre, then the whole damn world’s Americana.
If I had to give a term, I would say that we are a rock ‘n’ roll string band. The defining part of our band — our sound, our genre — is the fact that we are in a string band which is a term that isn’t used very much anymore, but it refers to a band that is all string driven. We are a band, but I play the fiddle in that band. It’s not a country band; it’s not a bluegrass band. It’s a string band.
JD: You have credited Bob Dylan with influencing how you wrote a lot of your music, especially when you were younger. Do you see Old Crow as following in his footsteps in folk music and bringing folk music and bringing this “genre-less” music into the 21st century?
KS: We learned a lot from Bob [Dylan] and will continue to. Bob’s just shapeshifting style. [He’s a] topical protest singer singing about Medgar Evers, and then the next minute [he’s] singing on this kaleidoscopic acid trip of visions of Johanna. And then he’s singing country music that’s got more twang than the Grand Ole Opry. And then he’s a born-again Christian.
It’s a hell of a ride with Bob. Bob’s casting a pretty wide net as a fisherman of folks, and I think that’s what we’re trying to do, too. We were singing Prince this week, and Merle [Haggard] the week before that.
Prince and Merle Haggard have a lot more in common than they don’t, and that true musicianship is a force that knows no class distinction, genre distinction, race [or] region. Little Richard and Bob Dylan sure look a lot different but they have an element to them that is exactly the same. As entertainers, they know something. Charlie Chaplin and Bert Williams knew it, too. Prince and Merle Haggard — they’re finally singing their duet together.
JD: As you’ve described to me, there’s a lot going on with your music in terms of [the] lyrical [aspects], with the instruments you use and with the history of your songs. If there was one thing that someone who has never heard your music before should take from seeing you guys play live, what would you want that to be?
KS: I hope that anyone who comes to see us would come to realize quickly that they were witnessing an unbridled and true human act. Think about that, college kids. This is why you go to school; this is what you learn. I didn’t go to school, but I spent 15 to 20 years of my twenties and teenager years and thirties trying to figure out how to do this trick. So, when you see me do the trick, you can see that I’m good at the trick. But, also, I want you to know that I worked really hard to do it, and that you can do it, too. In fact, everybody can do this trick. This is the kind of trick [that is] sort of like [riding] a unicycle and juggling at the same time. I’m trying to entertain people, but I’ve left a trail. The place that I was and the place that I am aren’t that far apart, and you can see my footsteps. And, if you want to do something like this, you can do it, too. You can do this for any vocation. I feel that for the 18 to 22-year-old college [students] at Emory University, what Old Crow can show you is that [if you] work your ass off and believe in something, and if it’s true that you’ve got the wind at your back, you can totally circumnavigate the world.
JD: Speaking of getting the wind at your back, you’re scheduled to play MerleFest tomorrow night, which was your first big shot. What’s it like coming back all these years later to a place where it all began for you guys?
KS: I’m in that line of work where I’m coming back all the time. I could say the same thing about the Fox or the Variety Playhouse or that brewpub we play in Alpharetta. I’m always going back, and that’s something that Merle Haggard and Prince knew really well. Prince played his last show at the Fox Theatre. But he also played his 251st show and 671st show and 1,100th show [there]. You just keep coming back, and the places don’t change, but you do. And then also you don’t. And it’s kind of great that way. You can really see for yourself how far you’ve come, and how you haven’t come far at all. You’re still standing there with your guitar strapped to you, trying to write a song, trying to figure out a new lick or a new trick. It’s great to have these sort of touchstones in the past. In performance, when you’re on the national or international circuit, you’re always going back to that place that you were yesterday … like I’m in the coalfields of Kentucky today. I’ve got a dude coming up saying, “Remember when you were here last?” to be reminded of all that. Political figures come and go. [There’s] always been music. And there will always be music.
JD: Much of your music has built off of what other artists have done and then experimenting with that. Your hit single “Wagon Wheel” has been covered by a number of artists. What’s it like having other people experiment with one of the first songs you wrote and letting that grow out there in the world?
KS: It gives me great pleasure to have supplied the campfires of our National Parks with a new song that young and old can sing around the fire. So the coffee shop and singer/songwriter nights and the street corners and other places where amateur musicians are performing that there’s another song in the canon. When I was a kid, the song was “Heart of Gold” by Neil Young. That was the song that I looked to. That’s the song I wanted to learn how to play, that I wanted to play at the coffeehouse. I’d do anything to sing “Heart of Gold.” That’s the song that made me want to get to work.
I’m really glad to have made a song that has inspired people similarly. As far as the song being “genre-bending,” honestly, I’ve never really heard any version of it that sounds that different from the original. What I really see with that song is that it was exposed to other people [with] their [own] decisions or approaches to it. It’s sort of [like] that YouTube video or “chat-room special” in which a dude sets his camera and strums the chords and sings along. I think that, with Darius Rucker’s big hit on it, it’s that kind of hit, too, and even [when] that emo-band [Against Me! covered] it, it sounds like me at 17. I think the fact that everyone is enjoying getting a piece of this stolen Bob Dylan song is the charm of it. It’s like I climbed up Bob Dylan’s Mt. Olympus and stole a little bit of fire and brought it down to the villagers, and now everyone wants to get burned.
JD: You were inspired to write “Wagon Wheel” by Bob Dylan. You also worked with him in writing the song “Sweet Amarillo.” Do you see anymore collaboration with Dylan in the future, or do you think this was the last time?
KS: I feel really fortunate to have any sort of collaboration with a master like [him]. It’s like if I was a playwright, and Shakespeare said, “Do you want to work on some dialogue?” It’s pretty cool to get to write, even with 40 years between the pen strokes with Bob Dylan. My next Bob collaboration is a little different. We’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of an album that was made in Nashville called Blonde on Blonde [released by Dylan in 1966]. It was pop music’s first double album. Before that there were only jazz double albums, and Bob Dylan was the guy who said, “How about a pop music double album?” It was before The White Album [referring to the album The Beatles (1968) by The Beatles], which was a very important double album. Bob was way ahead of it, and so was Nashville.
I’m enjoying this project because I’m getting to celebrate this sort of forward thinking and progressive force in my own city [Nashville], which is not typically considered a forward-thinking or progressive town. We are a place of tradition. Rock ‘n’ rollers didn’t come to Nashville until after Bob Dylan showed them how. It’s been really fun and soul-satisfying to get to work on this project even though Bob has nothing to do with it.
JD: Your last piece of music was your EP Brushy Mountain Conjugal Trailer, released in early 2015. Is the next piece of music we can expect from the band this work with Blonde on Blonde or is there something else coming?
KS: We’ll be in the studio in May making a new album with David Cobb, our producer. I don’t know when that will come out or what will be on it … Working on Blonde on Blonde, I know what pre-med people are going through. What it takes to be able to recite a double album by Bob Dylan, especially where the songs are eight or 11 minutes long, 12-verse songs. It makes you feel a little like Homer reciting [The Odyssey].