We wanted to be brave and quixotic with our journey – we trusted the power of our instruments. Could we go out there and make a life for ourselves without any preconceptions of what it might be? Could our voices and instruments create a pathway? As it turned out, we really could.’
Sound familiar? It’s the lofty romanticism that inspired itinerant troubadours to hobo the Jim Crow South in the 1920s, motivated Bob Dylan to hitch out of Hibbing, and Woody Guthrie to hit the dusty highways of backwoods America. But this time around, the words belong to Jay ‘Ketch’ Secor, fiddler, singer, harmonica, banjo and mandolin player extraordinaire, and main man of Old Crow Medicine Show. Such was the band’s haunting vision when they drove out of Ithaca, New York in 1998, following a quintessential American birthright that promises big sky country and the conviction that if you play your cards right, then who knows? You might just get what you want.
‘It felt the right kind of time to be crossing North America when our band was formed,’ Ketch explains. ‘We set out like a circus, and just set up on a street corner and start playing; every time you met people and somebody had a party, or knew a bar that would hire you. We’ve played everything from retirement homes, to Indian reservations to package stores, everywhere that could be played,’ he reflects without irony. ‘We were a nine piece with three different cars at one point. We’d pull over and sleep at the side of the road and someone might go ahead and try and set something up in the next town. There was a lot of walking into bars and saying, “We’re here! You didn’t know that you booked a string band from Virginia and Texas, but you did and we’re here.” It was like the Blues Brothers showing up in that chicken house and I don’t know if it would work now; there were no web pages or social media outlets to build up hype and hysteria, just you on a street corner. No posters, no stage.’
Since then Old Crow Medicine Show has seduced audiences with short and impossibly catchy songs, taken from a ragbag of primal influences – old timey bluegrass, Mississippi string bands, jug bands and folk. The result is a rambunctious, good time romp that’s seen the six-piece storm the hallowed inner sanctum of the Grand Ole’ Opry, and watch ‘Wagon Wheel’ – a song on which Ketch shares credits with his idol Bob Dylan – approach platinum sales status. ‘It’s a dream come true to have borrowed a Bob Dylan song and then convince your hero that he wrote it with you!’
Altogether good going for a band led by Ketch and his best buddy Christopher ‘Critter’ Fuqua, two guys that started out playing banjo on the small town streets of Harrisonburg, Virginia.
‘When Critter and I were 14-years-old we were the only banjo players in town without beards and old trucks. Now probably the majority of banjo players out there don’t have beards or drive old trucks, because they’re from Brooklyn, went to Ivy League colleges and have a day job in web design,’ Ketch snorts.
‘I grew up listening to Pete Seeger and I pined for banjo playing, but the first song I ever learnt to play on the guitar at about 12-years-old was a Phil Ochs tune; I guess in the social aspect of music I was a little protest kid, but the first thing I really gravitated towards was playing rock n’ roll with heavy distortion on my guitar in a garage band with Critter – that was our introduction to music together, rocking out!’ he laughs. ‘Shortly after that, when I began to play the banjo, it became very clear to me that I should play folk music. It was like the banjo picked me up rather than the other way – there was no choice.’
By the time he turned 18, Ketch was already playing harmonica, mandolin and a fiddle that he purchased in a local pawnshop. ‘It was cheap but I always felt that the quality of the player was more important than the quality of the instrument. I think that buying expensive instruments is a bit over-rated; it’s all about what you put into them. I always beat on a guitar and a banjo and it wasn’t until recently that I started to care about the quality of a good vintage instrument. Most of my fiddles were factory-made in Germany from the 1920s after the First World War. There were some great fiddles being made then,’ Ketch adds. ‘I also use a 1968 Martin D-18 and Critter plays a Gibson Hummingbird and Gibson RB banjos. I’ve always felt like twice the instrument that I’ve held in my arms; it’s the voice behind it that counts because that’s what people are hearing.’
The band’s first real break happened when they were heard by Doc Watson busking outside a pharmacy in Boone, North Carolina – the very same spot where the legendary guitarist had himself played five decades earlier. Watson invited the band to play at his prestigious Merle Fest, an appearance that led to led to them relocating to Music City, USA.
‘I don’t think we would have had much of a chance if we continued playing 90s music,’ Ketch muses on his early days with Critter in their grunge garage band, ‘But we found ourselves a little opening in the door; they left it open in Nashville, just a crack in the early 2000s for our band to get on the Opry and get ourselves a record deal. There wasn’t enough luck for us to get on the TV, but slowly, over the last 15 years, we’ve managed to last and we’ve seen our scene grow tremendously.’
So how much do you think the success of O Brother, Where Art Thou in 2000 helped you along the way? ‘I think Oh Brother made an older generation aware that the music was still happening,’ he asserts. ‘But the people that bought into O, Brother weren’t the “Brooklynite” banjo thumpers. I just thought, “Damn, people are going to hear new versions of these songs and they’re not going to hear the old ones.” We’d already drunk the Kool-Aid,’ he enthuses. ‘But what the movie did was make the record companies think, “Hey, we don’t need Britney Spears or Taylor Swift, we can make money out of guys with banjos and fiddles doing harmony singing.” I attribute the rise of string bands and similar outfits to a real pride in authenticity, something that’s the antithesis of the cultural phenomenon of the 21st century, you know? All the high-speed internet and instant connectivity between everyone… When you play our kind of music, you’re aware that it’s something old-fashioned and archaic, and you’re going out on a limb.’
True to form, the band’s last album Carry Me Back wears its influences very much on its sleeve. Ketch laughs when I mention that one particular track, ‘We Don’t Grow Tobacco Round Here No More’, bears more than a passing resemblance to a tune by the Mississippi Sheiks.
‘What I loved about them was that they took a lot of liberties; they were just a string band that wanted to entertain white people at corn shuckin’ frolics, and the boys that made up that band made an amalgamation of sounds. We learnt how to steal from Bob Dylan stealing from Liam Clancy – take from the best. If you’re a fiddle player why would you steal from Alison Krauss when you can go back to Anne Molly Jackson and get the real deal, all that raw shit?’
Spontaneity and an ability to busk on a street corner without the support of a lighting rig or PA crew still lies at the heart of Old Crow Medicine Show’s work ethic. In 2011, along with Mumford and Sons, they travelled on a vintage train from Oakland, California, to New Orleans, playing six concerts along the route. ‘Woody and Doc would have been proud of us!’ Ketch laughs.
‘I love those boys and I’m so excited about the way they’ve bolstered the scene,’ he says of Mumford And Sons. ‘They’re the pinnacle of this type of roots music, and I’m not surprised that it should be an English band,’ he adds. ‘Back in the 60s it was British bands that told people to go listen to Fred McDowell, the Beatles copied Jerry Lee Lewis and everyone said, “Wow – here’s a bunch of English boys that sound like Memphis but they sound so sweet!” Lonnie Donegan even hung out with Leadbelly, we’re so tied up with the British isles, we’re like a bunch of bastard children that got together with runaway slaves and our baby was rock and roll!’
Old Crow Medicine Show’s Carry Me Back is out now.