Simply stated, Old Crow Medicine Show is a modern-day folk band. They play acoustic instruments in the old-time Appalachian style, sometimes covering traditional tunes and sometimes offering original observations on their travels. But with the energy of a rock band and the ability to craft a hook, they’ve earned fans from all musical avenues.
When they first came to the attention of Doc Watson nearly a decade ago, they were busking for tips on street corners all along the Eastern seaboard. Impressed by the group, Watson invited them to play his annual bluegrass festival, MerleFest, and since then, it’s been a story of growth that includes six albums, international tours and numerous appearances on the Grand Ole Opry. The latest step along that path is a new concert DVD, Live at the Orange Peel and Tennessee Theatre.
Showing off Old Crow’s biggest asset, the concert DVD showcases a musical experience reminiscent of days gone by. No video screens, no pyrotechnics, no props — not even any electric guitars. So how could a show like this make for an interesting film? The answer is that the band creates a community within each concert hall. They feed off the crowd as much as the crowd feeds off them.
“Those forces are very much alive and well in folk music and have a tendency to draw people together and to make you want to sing, to make you want to dance and to make you want to put your arms around somebody,” lead singer Ketch Secor explains. “We had a spirit and the whole audience out there was a part of it as well.”
On top of that spirit, the DVD offers something extra for the discerning fan.
“These shows captured something that we have now done readily almost every night ever since but before, had only done a few times,” says Secor, with excitement in his voice. “It was like we started to move and that our movement was like the sixth member of the band. That our movement was the drummer, that our movement was the hot electric guitar solo that we didn’t have. There was a texture to the movement. There was a structure.”
The band, which will appear at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium on New Year’s Eve for a sold-out show, tours heavily, but until now, the only way to see them without attending a concert was via homemade video. Not satisfied with these amateur videos taken from camera-phones, they filmed Live at the Orange Peel and Tennessee Theatre over two nights in Asheville, N.C., and Knoxville, Tenn., in December 2008. The DVD includes songs from throughout the band’s career like “Tell It to Me,” “Wagon Wheel” and “Down Home Girl,” as well as tracks from their latest album, Tennessee Pusher. Shot in high-definition, the film is as close to a true concert experience as you can get.
“Now we actually have this video that has captured the intensity of us doing our live show, like it has never been seen before,” Secor says. “I’m ecstatic that we have this out there, and most of all, if you want to watch a video of us on your computer, this one is a really great one instead of all those crappy ones. … I’m hoping it will be what people watch, instead of this shaky, 65-feet-away, three-inch garbeledy crap with no audio.”
Secor says that Asheville and Knoxville were easy venue choices but not necessarily the band’s only option.
“Where else would we have made this DVD? We’re from those places. We cut our teeth and played on the street corners in both of those towns for a long time. We paid our rent on the street corners. And we slept on people’s floors all over both of those towns, so it made sense. But it’s funny, the more places we go. … Recently we played America’s largest Quaker university. [We realized], well hell, all of our songs are Quaker songs. And then when we go out to New Mexico, all of our songs are desert rat songs. And when we go out to East Tennessee, all of our songs are from Appalachia. So the more I see it, the more I think we could have made that video anywhere, but Knoxville is really a hometown for us.”
For the DVD, they get an obvious hometown reception. And really, the band is no different than the audience it plays to. Secor and Old Crow have never liked the idea of creating a superhuman persona, which is part of the reason their shows don’t include theatrics. Instead, they pretty much look like regular guys and try to find a way to relate to the crowd through the music and stage banter. One of Secor’s favorite artists, Bob Dylan, had a big influence on this.
“All of this time I’ve just been trying to play shows that were as engaging as Bob Dylan shows, which isn’t really that hard to do because even though I love everything about a good Bob Dylan show, it’s rare that you actually see one,” Secor says. “But going to a bad Bob Dylan show is pretty much just as good as a good Bob Dylan show. … I mean, I remember I saw Bob Dylan in Roanoke and at the end of the show he said, ‘Goodnight, Jackson.’
“It’s a different sort of standard from my roots because with Bob mumbling into the mike from 390 feet was pretty much heaven to me. … And I’m like the total opposite of that. … Here we are practically addressing you by name and talking up a blue street between every song. … I’m not just, ‘Goodnight, Roanoke.’ I’ve got your area code dialed in and I’ve got you on speed-dial, Roanoke. I’m ready to tell you what street you live on.”
That intimate connection to the audience is priority No. 1 for the band, even while they were filming the DVD.
“A lot of times when you’re making these things, the camera is so disruptive that you’re playing to the camera instead of an audience. But then you stick us in front of a whole bunch of crazy East Tennesseans, and it’s like, ‘What camera?’”