Fuqua, school friend and future bandmate, first brought home a Bob Dylanbootleg from a family trip to London containing a rough outtake called "Rock Me, Mama" (from the "Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid" soundtrack sessions) and passed it to Secor.[i 3] Not "so much a song as a sketch, crudely recorded featuring most prominently a stomping boot, the candy-coated chorus and a mumbled verse that was hard to make out", the tune kept going through Secor's mind. A few months later, while attending Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, and "feeling homesick for the South," he added verses about "hitchhiking his way home full of romantic notions put in his head by the Beat poets and, most of all, Dylan." Dylan was a major influence on the young musician, as he puts it:
"I listened to Bob Dylan and nothing else. Nothin' but Bob for four years. It was like schooling. Every album and every outtake of every album and every live record I could get my hands on and every show I could go see live. I was a teenager who was really turned on to Bob."
The Dylan outtake, generally titled "Rock Me Mama", came out of recording sessions for the Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid movie soundtrack (1973) in Burbank, California. Secor says it ". . was an outtake of something he had mumbled out on one of those tapes. I sang it all around the country from about 17 to 26, before I ever even thought, 'oh I better look into this.'"
When Secor sought copyright on the song in 2003 to release it on O.C.M.S. in (2004), he discovered Dylan credited the phrase “Rock me, mama” to bluesmanArthur “Big Boy” Crudup, who likely got it from a Big Bill Broonzy recording. As Secor says: "In a way, it’s taken something like 85 years to get completed." Secor and Dylan signed a co-writing agreement, and share copyright[w 5] on the song; agreeing to a "50-50 split in authorship."
Secor later met Dylan’s son, Jakob, who said "it made sense that I was a teenager when I did that, because no one in their 30s would have the guts to try to write a Bob Dylan song." The song would be an early entry in the group's catalog when it formed a few years later. Officially released twice, on an early EP and their second album ("O.C.M.S." in 2004), the song would become the group's signature song—going gold in 2011 and platinum in 2013.
Upstate New York/Canada/North Carolina
After the breakup of the Route 11 Boys, Secor attended Ithaca College.:5 He brought Fuqua up to New York State, where they met Willie Watson. Watson dissolved The Funnest Game and they assembled players all around Ithaca, New York "where there is a very lively old-time music scene",[n 3] including Kevin Hayes:5 They recorded an album that they could sell on the road—a cassette of ten songs called Trans:mission. Fuqua says of the influence of that region . .
'Ithaca and that surrounding area was a big influence on us. We wouldn’t be here without a lot of the people we met there, like Richie Stearns, the Red Hots and Mac Benford. All those old-time banjo players brought the music from the South back up to New York, and it was kind of a hotbed.'
The group left Ithaca for their Trans:mission tour in October 1998. They busked their way west across Canada and circled back east again in the Spring of 1999 when they moved into a farmhouse on Beech Mountain, near Boone, North Carolina. They were embraced by the Appalachian community, and their repertoire of old-time songs grew as they played with local musicians."
Boone Drug (left) looking west down King Street, Boone, North Carolina; where the group had their big busking break.
Sculpture of Doc Watson at the corner King and Depot Streets in Boone, North Carolina; he would invite Old Crow to perform at MerleFest after hearing them at his "old corner".
One day the group were busking outside a pharmacy called Boone Drug—"playing on Doc’s old corner" where he'd "started playing in the 1950s" on King Street in Boone, North Carolina[i 1]—when the daughter of folk-country legend Doc Watson (d. May 29, 2012) heard them.[n 4] Certain her father would be impressed, she led the blind musician over for a listen. The group "struck up 'Oh My Little Darling', a well-known old-time song they thought Doc would like." When they finished, he said: "Boys, that was some of the most authentic old-time music I've heard in a long while. You almost got me crying." Doc invited the band to participate in his annual MerleFest music festival[n 5] in Wilkesboro, North Carolina[i 4] (for 2000).[w 2]:2000
To Secor: "That gig changed our lives and we look to it as a pivotal turning point as Old Crow Medicine Show.[i 5] He and Fuqua have written a song "about Doc Watson. About being on the corner in Boone and him discovering us. It honors Doc and the high country blues sound."[i 6]
Busking has "always been our heart and soul," claims Secor. "Our performance comes out of all those years spent cutting our teeth on the street corner." The earliest beginnings of the group involved busking in the Northeast U.S., attracting fresh talent. Guitjo player Kevin Hayes—originally from Haverhill, Massachusetts—was in Bar Harbor, Maine raking blueberries when he encountered Secor "on the street in front of a jewelry store playing the banjo.":5 Bassist Morgan Jahnig joined the group[n 6] as a result of a "random" encounter with early Old Crow performing on the streets of Nashville in 2000.[i 7] Guitarist Gill Landry first met the group in 2000 while both were street performing during Mardi Gras in New Orleans, joining full-time in 2007.[i 8]
To promote Carry Me Back Home (2012), the group did a series of "guerilla" shows around Nashville, including busking in front of the Ryman Auditorium where they performed "Sewanee Mountain Catfight" for an "unsuspecting crowd of tourists."
Grand Ole Opry
The big busking break led to the act's relocation to Nashville in October 2000.[n 7] At MerleFest, Secor explains, Sally Williams "from the Grand Ole Opry . . invited us to participate in some summer music events at the Grand Ole Opry House doing our street act, our busking, and that’s why we came to Nashville . ."[i 1] Williams first booked them for "an Opryland Plaza outdoor show." In Nashville they were "embraced and mentored" by Marty Stuart, the president of the Grand Ole Opry, who first spied the group at the Nashville-area Uncle Dave Macon Days festival and added them to his "Electric Barnyard old-fashioned country variety package show bus tour" with acts like Merle Haggard, Connie Smith, and BR5-49. Soon they were opening for "everyone from Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton to Ricky Skaggs and Del McCoury . ."
The Ryman Auditorium on 116 5th Avenue North in Nashville, Tennessee, known as "The Mother Church of Country Music".
The group made their Grand Ole Opry debut at the Ryman Auditorium, "The Mother Church of Country Music", in January 2001. Given just four minutes on stage, they played their original "Tear It Down"—a "singing jug-band romp about punishing infidelity"—and received a "rare first-time-out standing ovation, and a call for an encore." In August 2013, Stuart unexpectedly appeared onstage at the Ohio Theatre in Cleveland, where the group was performing, to invite them to become official members of the Opry. They were formally inducted at a special ceremony at the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville, September 17, 2013.
Shortly after their Opry debut, the group signed with Bobby Cudd at Monterey Peninsula Artists,[n 8] who also represented Robert Earl Keen, the Dave Matthews Band, Chris Isaak, Aerosmith, and Fiona Apple. They went on their "first real tour" May 2001, opening for the Del McCoury band. Appearances at the 2003 South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin—a "scene" that's "all about getting behind young artists", as Secor puts it—led to the group being signed by Nettwerk,:2 securing their recording future for the next several years. Their first Nettwerk offering, Old Crow Medicine Show in 2004 (popularly known as O.C.M.S.), was produced by Dave Rawlings and mixes "old blues and jug band music with originals that fit smoothly into the tradition"—including the Fuqua "Take ’em Away"[n 9] and Secor "Wagon Wheel".[n 10] More than 100,000 copies of O.C.M.S. were sold, behind a "rigorous tour schedule and a memorable live show"; what CMT regarded as "an impressive number for a new band that didn't know much about record deals and everything that goes with it."
Big Iron World (2006), another Rawlings production, added a sense of urgency on new songs like "I Hear Them All". They recorded Tennessee Pusher (2008) in Hollywood with producer Don Was, "rocking harder" with "Alabama High Test" and "Methamphetamine". Secor says the band "figured they'd take some leftover material from the first album, add a few traditional songs and suddenly have a new record." But, he says . .
". . it wasn't that easy. Pretty soon, after we realized that that wasn't going to work that way, the gods up above started sending down some lightning bolts of good music and we were able to collect some new material—write some and craft some—that has made the record what it is."
In in August 2011, the group announced they were on hiatus, cancelling three shows scheduled for the following month, with "little word from the band on whether there would continue to be a band."[r 1] Original member Willie Watson left in Fall of 2011, a couple months before Fuqua returned.[i 9]
Recording of their next album had been largely done before the break.
The song "Levi" is "about a soldier who grew up in the wild hillbilly woods of Virginia."[r 2] First Lieutenant Leevi Barnard—from Ararat, Virginia—on his first tour of duty overseas with the National Guard, was "killed by a suicide bomber"[r 2] in Baghdad’s Dora Market in 2009.[i 11] Near the end of the NPR broadcast, where Secor first heard the story in 2009, several of the late lieutenant’s friends, part of the funeral congregation,[i 5] "broke into Barnard’s favorite song" . . "Wagon Wheel". "Genevieve" by Landry is "an evocative eulogy of a Creole queen who steals a young man's heart."[r 2]
"The sound is invigorating on their recordings, but at a live show the fiddle, banjo, and harmonica are practically on fire, creating a crazy, addictive mix of some of the best traditional music America has to offer with the intensity of a modern-day rock show."
"We just knew we wanted to combine the technical side of the old sound with the energy of a Nirvana," states Fuqua.[i 13] Starting from old-time music in the Appalachian hills, the group found themselves "making a foray into electric instruments and 'really knocking up the rock 'n' roll tree' on their 2008 release 'Tennessee Pusher'." On the documentary "Big Easy Express" about the Railroad Revival Tour with Mumford & Sons and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros they "practice(d) a complementary variation of folk" bringing "a pleasingly smoky amalgam of country, bluegrass, and blues."[r 7] With "Carry Me Back" (2012) they've "circled back to the original sound that so excited (Secor) and Fuqua as kids . . full of old-timey string sounds updated for the 21st century — sing-a-longs that lift the soul, ballads that rend the heart and a few moments of pure exhilaration."
"It takes a lot to figure out how to keep one foot in old time and one foot in all time. It’s a bit of a dance to be rooted and modern at the same time. I think we’ve figured out how to write those songs that sound like they were sung by some campfire 85 years ago, but sound good blasted from the stereo of a Ford Ranchero in a Burger King parking lot somewhere outside of Enid."
Early on the group didn't perform songs they’d written, instead drawing on a storehouse of pre-war jug band, string band, minstrel show, blues and folk fare. As with other young groups in the genre, driven by all that punk music energy, they played this old material "fast and hard". When they started writing original material they distinguished themselves "from the crowded field of New Wave string bands as genuine stars. And both groups have done it by writing new songs more ambitious than mere rewrites of old hillbilly and blues numbers." Songs they write often have a socially-conscious theme, such as "I Hear Them All", "Ways Of Man", "Ain’t It Enough", and "Levi".
Secor admits to developing "the habit of writing what he calls 'stolen melody songs'"—in much the same way he'd created "Wagon Wheel", carrying on in the folk tradition—"like when he penned fresh, war tax-themed lyrics to a tune that had already passed through other wholesale re-writes during its descent from old-time Scots-Irishballadry." Dave Rawlings states: "I’ve always thought that a really important thing that the Old Crow Medicine Show brought to the table was new songs—some reinterpreted old ones, some really nicely written and brand new—with the old flavor, but also with that vitality."
Gill Landry plays resonator guitar with Old Crow Medicine Show at 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. on August 2, 2012.
Naming his major influences, Secor states: "Certainly, Bob Dylan . . Bob Dylan . . Bob Dylan. More than anything else. More than any book or song or story or play. The work and the recorded work of Bob Dylan. It’s the most profound influence on me. And then the other people that really influenced me tend to be the same people who influenced Bob Dylan."[i 1] Fuqua concurs on Dylan's influence:
"He's a link to Woody Guthrie, who's a link to an even earlier form of American music history. He's . . a great doorway for all sorts of artists because he's not just folk, or just rock. . . I think bands like us, Mumford and Sons, and Gillian Welch and David Rawlings are sort of doing what he has done before, in that we take our own experiences and observations and put them into songs made of traditional, American roots form. That form is still a great vehicle for songs, whether the song is about love, the Iraq War or anything else."[i 14]
"While it would be going a bit far to say Old Crow sparked a full-blown folk revival, these guys have contributed mightily to a major shift in youthful attitudes toward ownership, authenticity and what it means to feel included in a musical experience: lyrics don’t have to be strict autobiography to connect; songs don’t have to be entirely original to showcase originality; and younger generations need not turn up their noses at music that doesn’t treat them like they’re at the center of the universe."
When Secor, Fuqua, and company first got together "old-timey pickers their age were few and far between. Modern rock was still a force to be reckoned with. Now hard-driving string bands are where it’s at." Fuqua recalls:
"When we started the band in ’98, you didn’t see anybody our age playing banjos or upright basses or fiddles, or playing this music. I mean, you did if you went to the fiddle festivals at Mt. Airy or in Galax, Virginia. But . . now you throw a stone in any direction . . you’ll hit someone in a band who’s . . playing banjo or playing these old-time tunes."
To Americana Music Association (AMA) President Jed Hilly, the historic path of Americana music passes through the group: "The baton is passed from Emmylou Harris to Gillian Welch and David Rawlings to Old Crow Medicine Show to the Avett Brothers." Emmylou Harris was, in fact . .
". . among the gateway artists who helped Mumford and bandmates Ben Lovett, Ted Dwane and Winston Marshall discover their love for American roots music. It started with the 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' soundtrack . . That eventually led them to the Old Crow Medicine Show and then deep immersion in old-timey sounds from America's long-neglected past."
"You can't swing a cat these days without hitting a hipster with a banjo in his hands. At least part of the credit for this phenomenon goes to Old Crow Medicine Show."
Marcus Mumford, front man of Mumford & Sons, recognizes the group's influence: "I first heard Old Crow’s music when I was, like, 16, 17, and that really got me into, like, folk music, bluegrass. I mean, I’d listened to a lot of Dylan, but I hadn’t really ventured into the country world so much. So Old Crow were the band that made me fall in love with country music." Mumford acknowledges in "Big Easy Express", Emmett Malloy's "moving documentary" about the vintage train tour they'd invited Old Crow to join them on, that "the band inspired them to pick up the banjo and start their now famous country nights in London."
"Wagon Wheel", by Bob Dylan and Ketch Secor, was nominated as Song of the Year for the 47th Annual Country Music Association Awards Single of the Year, along with "I Drive Your Truck" (Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington, Jimmy Yeary), "Mama's Broken Heart" (Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, Kacey Musgraves), "Merry Go 'Round" (Kacey Musgraves, Josh Osborne, Shane McAnally), and "Pontoon" (Natalie Hemby, Luke Laird, Barry Dean). Darius Rucker's version was nominated for Single of the Year along with Florida Georgia Line ("Cruise"), Tim McGraw with Taylor Swift & Keith Urban ("Highway Don't Care"), Miranda Lambert ("Mama's Broken Heart"), and Kacey Musgraves ("Merry Go 'Round").[l 7] Rucker sang the song to close out the televised CMA awards ceremony November 6, 2013.
Old Crow Medicine Show performed on the soundtrack for the film Transamerica in 2005, which was nominated for a number of awards—including two Academy Award nominations—winning several around the world. "Critter" Fuqua wrote "Take 'Em Away" while "We're All in This Together" was written by Ketch Secor and Willie Watson.[w 23]
They appeared in the PBS American Roots Music series; "In the Valley Where Time Stands Still", a film about the history of the Renfro Valley Barn Dance;[w 14] and "Bluegrass Journey", a portrait of the contemporary bluegrass scene.[w 24]
Old Crow Medicine Show performed "Take 'Em Away" (by Fuqua) and "We're All in This Together" (by Secor and Watson) on the soundtrack for the filmTransamerica (2005). The film was nominated for a number of awards—including two Oscars—winning several worldwide.[w 23]
Secor wrote, arranged, and performs "Send No Angels" with Lani Marsh on Our Christmas Present: 2008,[w 27] a fundraising album for Our Community Place in Harrisonburg, Virginia as a favor to founder/director Ron Copeland, who was owner of Little Grill when/where his and Fuqua's music careers began.:4b[i 10]
^A "thirty-year-old friend who had actually grown up playing old-time music, lived in an unheated room off the kitchen" at Dickerson Pike, where the group first lived in Nashville, and "occasionally played with the band" including their Opry debut.
^A "young folksy kind of jam element acoustic band that was really popular in the southern tier region of New York State. ." as Secor describes it. Watson "was playing shows statewide by the time he was sixteen" with "this group that had some congas and some clawhammer banjo . .":7
^"Ithaca is known far and wide as a hotbed of what’s called old-time music," says Pete "Dr. Banjo" Wernick. Adds Mac Benford: "Ithaca for 40 years has been a center of old time music, nationally."
^Secor recounts: "In the year 2000, his daughter heard us play outside of his favorite restaurant, the Boone Drug. Doc had something he liked on the menu at the Drug, so he was often there."[i 2]
^when Ben Gould "had a baby, and couldn't swing it down south", according to Secor.:7
^They first "occupied an inexpensive two-story house on a dead-end peninsula squeezed on three sides by highways, where the drone of passing cars was constant" on Dickerson Pike in E. Nashville "a thoroughfare best known for its whoring, drugging ways."
^They would soon sign with Norm Parenteau, a Nashville agent who worked with Gillian Welch and Alison Krauss.