The Revival of Old Crow Medicine Show

Young Band Finds Its Way in Big Iron World

Old Crow Medicine Show may hold the record for the fastest music video shoot of the year — about an hour of playing music on a busy New York City street corner, amid a flurry of both interested and oblivious urbanites, and that’s it.

Singer-guitarist Ketch Secor says that they definitely made the corner storekeeper mad — at first anyway. He ended up selling about $30 worth of newspapers. Plus, one of New York’s finest hassled the band for pretty much the whole shoot. “But it was all over really quick,” Secor says. Directed by rock photographer Danny Clinch, the band shot two takes of “Down Home Girl” and two takes of Woody Guthrie’s “Union Maid” and that was that.

“Nothing was staged,” Secor says. “We just did what we do when we get out there. We’re sort of pretty good now at knowing how to set up on a street corner anywhere and do our thing.”

To say the least. Old Crow first made a name for itself in the 1990s by busking around Nashville, gradually earning enough of a reputation to start playing gigs around town. Before long, their lively monthly shows at the bluegrass club Station Inn became a hot ticket among the young and in-the-know. Their early, independently released albums reflected their rough-around-the-edges musicianship — you might have wondered if they had just picked up their instruments for the first time that night — but those discs also captured their exuberance on stage, as well as an invigorating new perspective on old-time music. (The five guys in Old Crow are sometimes tagged as bluegrass musicians, but they don’t label themselves that way personally.)

In 2004, they released a more polished album, O.C.M.S., on Nettwerk Records, which included more accessible songs like “Wagon Wheel” (now their signature song) and “Tell It to Me.” With a rigorous tour schedule and a memorable live show, they sold more than 100,000 copies of O.C.M.S. — an impressive number for a new band that didn’t know much about record deals and everything that goes with it.

“I kind of felt like we looked boring and serious in the photo shoot we did before O.C.M.S. came out. But we really didn’t know about doing photo shoots then, so we were stiff,” Secor says. “They brought us a bunch of clothes that we would never wear, that we wore. I think with experience comes a more relaxed attitude toward these kind of things. Now they’re not nearly as important or aggravating as they once were.”

Their second album, Big Iron World, was released on Nettwerk in August. Naturally, expectations were high. Secor says the band — including Willie Watson, Critter Fuqua, Kevin Hayes and Morgan Jahnig — figured they’d take some leftover material from the first album, add a few traditional songs and suddenly have a new record.

“And it wasn’t that easy,” Secor says. “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.”

Secor and Fuqua wrote some of the new songs in Charlottesville, Va., where Secor lived at the time, which explains “James River Blues” and “New Virginia Creeper.” The sense of place is a crucial element of Old Crow’s music, not to mention their mission. Secor can (and often does) passionately describe how a region’s history can shape its native music and his dedication persistently finds its way into the band’s songs and stage banter.

“Playing traditional American music, playing roots music, is an act which brings you closer to your country, your state, your county,” Secor says. “Old Crow is always trying to remind you where you are, where you’re from, where you’re going and what it took you to get there.”

The band will headline an extensive U.S. tour next year, with possible dates in the U.K. and beyond. Secor also hopes the band will get to Australia since he’s already given a dozen interviews to the Australian press in the last month. And he’s grateful that the fans will likely be promoting Big Iron World as much the band does — a true sign of grassroots success.

“I think that the people are going to do something themselves, which is a pretty cool place to be and a great position for our band,” Secor says. “The people are excited about the music. They’re excited about having new songs to sing and to play for their friends and their family when they’re driving around. New songs to identify themselves with. New songs to apply to the issues that face them. So a lot of it won’t be anything I’m doing, or anything that Old Crow is plotting out or some new Web site redesign or something. Rather, it’s just that (because of) the strength of the last album, there are people in anticipation of embracing this collection of songs. So my job really is to make the next collection of songs that’s equally embraceable.”

The band’s onstage fervor is so contagious it’s not unrealistic that some fans may follow the journey into the intimidating world of early American music. But where to start?

“If you already love music, you should really just go for it and go back to the raw, weird, deep, toothy, gummy, crazy stuff. That’s what got me excited,” Secor says. But he’s also quick to recommend Woody Guthrie, the Carter Family and early Bob Dylan.

“I think artists like that — that point you back, that themselves are not denying that they are rooted in something, that the music and the art that they make is not their own — those artists will send you back down the line. And then you can find out for yourself what makes music so magical in this country.”