For Old Crow Medicine Show’s fourth studio album, Carry Me Back, the veteran string band doubles down on their traditional roots, drifting deeper into the stories and sounds of yesterday than ever before.
“I wish that I was born about 75 years ago. Then I could have made my debut on the Opry in 1935,” says bandleader Ketch Secor. “But that is not the case, and there is a country music story being told in these times. It’s worth telling, maybe even more so than ever before. People are being displaced, their jobs are being moved far away. The cultural epitome is disappearing. When grandpa dies, it’s sort of like when Porter Wagoner died. That breed of American man, they don’t make them anymore.”
At Old Crow’s raucous concerts, there are still plenty of fans yearning for the boot-stomping simplicity of wooden instruments and lonesome lyrics of old-time country music. And the band has grown over 14 years to become a godfather-like group to newer bands forging a musical revival of stripped-down, acoustic-based country. “Wagon Wheel,” a song Secor wrote when he was 17 from an unfinished Bob Dylan work tape, has become a modern classic and a favorite in barrooms and festivals all over the nation.
On Carry Me Back they bring to life a musical era that searched for deliverance at every turn. As such, some of their most striking new material is of a somber note. “We Don’t Grow Tobacco” traces a changing Southern culture, “Ain’t It Enough” wonders when people will appreciate what they have and “Half Mile Down” remembers a town lost at the bottom of a flooded river valley.
Secor recently called in to CMT.com to introduce the new album, explain why he’s so moved by traditional country and to let us in on the story of one particularly inspiring soldier.
CMT: Old Crow Medicine Show’s lineup has changed a little bit, right?
Secor: Yeah, [guitarist and vocalist] Willie Watson has embarked on a solo thing, and I know it’s going to be great. … We’ve got Critter [Fuqua] back in the band, too, which is really exciting. Critter and I grew up together. Now we’re back on the same stage, and it feels like homecoming. And we got a new guitarist, Chance McCoy. He is a West Virginia native, and we really feel fortunate to have found him.
Is there a new direction that the band is taking as a result?
Really not at all. If anything, we are back to our old street corner-hustlin’ ways, with all that energy and spirit. One thing that’s exciting to me, during the 14 years that we have been making music together, we have seen a tremendous growth and awareness of our kind of music — American roots music. It’s an exciting time as a songwriter to have something to say and a growing audience of listeners. I don’t think there has been a better time to blow a harmonica in America since Roy Acuff joined the Opry.
How do you feel about sometimes being labeled as pioneers of that kind of cultural revival?
Well, we are honored if you want to call us that. To me, the credit is due to a generation previous to us. Especially with the passing of Doc Watson, his legacy is more important than ever.
When you got into old-time music, was it an interest in history that hooked you?
I have always been interested in the history of the music. I am college-educated and I grew up with a range of options at my feet and opportunity. I certainly didn’t grow up picking cotton, like Johnny Cash. But I heard Johnny Cash, and something spoke to me deeply and profoundly. To play traditional music connects you with a force much bigger than yourself, it’s a force that is not of these times. The headlines and the papers, they don’t matter. The music has headlines from 100 and 300 years ago written into the fabric of the sound. To arm yourself with reverberating strings and a folk song, oh man, it’s a hell of a suit of armor to wear.
Do you get that sense that there is something good on the rise? Something that recognizes and respects the old ways of music a little more?
Yeah, I’d like to, but I am a bit of a pessimist. I don’t have a lot of faith in the times. I used to play the music with my eyes closed, and if people like it, that’s so wonderful. If they don’t, I am not going to stop playing it.
On this record, I wrote a lot of songs for people. For example, the song “Levi” is a true story. It’s a song about a soldier who grew up in the wild hillbilly woods of Virginia and, in a last minute decision, joined the United States Army. He went over and spent a few months before he was killed by a suicide bomber. I have been in correspondence with his family, and he was a fan of Old Crow, so he’s got a song now. He really loved that song “Wagon Wheel,” and they sang it at his funeral.
Country music has always been a voice for people who have committed their lives to sacrifice, whether it’s picking cotton or holding cover and fighting in a war. But some of the songs that are on the radio today that address the story of the soldiers are just so damn “rah-rah-rah.” I wanted to be more intimate for the guys because I know them. I get letters from Afghanistan. It’s really meaningful to them to a get a letter back with a bumper sticker in it that they can put on their pack. And I always tell them what the weather is, or if I saw a pretty girl at a red light, because that’s the stuff you miss. It’s not all that talk about all the eagles soaring. I don’t like that kind of song, and I am out to undo that kind of song.