Old Crow Medicine Show: Young Men, Old Music

The Quintet Has Gone From Busking to Touring With Merle Haggard

A few years ago, the five young guys in Old Crow Medicine Show wanted to make history, and they thought they knew exactly how to do it.

“We wanted to break the world’s record for longest song played,” says singer-guitarist Ketch Secor. “We didn’t want to research it or anything. We just wanted to go out and do it because we were that guy. We had that instinct that just wanted to go out and do it. So we had this plan and we were going to get on a flatbed and be towed up to Washington D.C., to wherever the Guinness Book of Records is, and we would play nonstop the whole way. I always thought it’d be funny because we’d have to use catheters and have some kind of drainage tank or something.”

That plan didn’t pan out, so they did the next best thing — built a loyal following with monthly shows at Nashville’s famous bluegrass club, the Station Inn.

Asked what they learned there, Secor replies, “How to make Nashville home. How to make a crowd in Nashville be our crowd. … It’s been a captive test audience for us because we don’t have anywhere else that we’re playing as regularly as we play here. The Station Inn, more than any other series of gigs that I’ve ever done, has taught me the showmanship and the craft and how to hold a crowd. If you could have seen us there when we first started doing that gig three years ago, we were not a very captivating bunch of guys, and we’ve learned a lot there.”

The band got its start five years ago, busking on Nashville street corners. They released a few albums of old-time string-band music on their own, which were kind of sloppy but wholly endearing. As their visibility grew, they picked up a gig performing on the Opry Plaza, directly in front of the Grand Ole Opry House. Before long, they were invited to the Opry stage. Nashville producer David Rawlings, who is Gillian Welch’s musical partner, liked them enough to helm their debut album, O.C.M.S., which was partly recorded in historic RCA Studio B and partly in the highly regarded Woodland Studios in east Nashville.

“The music that we’re playing is at the foundation of bluegrass,” Secor says. “Bluegrass is a music that has a lifespan and lifetime because it has a beginning, but our music doesn’t have a beginning. Our music reflects the pre-radio music. Bluegrass became so popular because the guys in the old-time [string bands] didn’t want to play the old-time anymore, and they were captivated by this very fast, very complicated hillbilly jazz.”

He continues, “It’s just like you drive around north Nashville and they’re not listening to Big Boy Crudup even though Big Boy Crudup grew up on those streets and is probably the grandfather to a lot of those kids. You know, they’re not listening to blues music in black America, so why would they listen to old-time music in hillbilly America?”

At least a few folks in hillbilly America heard that old-time music last summer, as OCMS spent a brief time on the Electric Barnyard tour, opening shows for Merle Haggard and Marty Stuart.

“Marty routed it through all towns I’d never heard of,” Secor says. “I’m a geographer. I study maps, and I love maps. I love knowing where everything is. He took me to places that I’d never dreamed I’d go to — the dustiest, driest towns in the West. Places that are so small that the largest building is the grain elevator, and that’s really all you can see for miles.”

O.C.M.S. arrived in U.S. stores on Feb. 10, but it will also be released in the United Kingdom, Japan and the United Arab Emirates, among other countries, in the coming months. Secor is enthusiastic about the prospect of taking their music to those far-flung locations even if the album is the only way they can get there for now.

“When I think about the Station Inn and then I think about putting on a show like that in front of an all Muslim audience in like Qatar, that is so exciting to me,” Secor says. “It’s surreal, it’s weird, it’s tripped out and it’s challenging. I’d be really challenged to make a bunch of guys from Yemen want to listen to ‘Cotton Eyed Joe.’”