See Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Sweet Amarillo”

Remedy, Old Crow Medicine Show’s just-released album, fortifies innovative instrumentation (“Brushy Mountain Conjugal Trailer”) with sharp songwriting (“Sweet Amarillo”). The superb string band launched their record release tour Tuesday (July 1) at the Grand Ole Opry.

“We’re the newest members of the Opry, and it’s the most wonderful thing,” bandleader Ketch Secor says. “There’s no other accolade by comparison, and as a fiddle player, there is no higher honor in the land that is country music.”

See the band’s new video for “Sweet Amarillo” at the end of this exclusive interview.

CMT Edge: Describe how the new album took shape.

Secor: We took a little bit longer this time and spent some time on the pre-production and working through all the songs, making demos. We ended up over at [Nashville’s] Blackbird Studios, which was a really great place to work. We used [producer] Ted Hutt again, who had helped us make our last album.

Describe working with Ted.

Ted’s been a really great sounding board for bouncing off musical ideas. A producer’s a special role with an old-time string band. So much has to do with getting strong sonic value. Hot, new country has so many loud, electric instruments that can create the layers of sound that you need. With acoustic instruments, it’s more difficult to get to the levels where they can compete on the radio with something from Top 40 country. Ted’s able to get an acoustic guitar built in 1931 to sound just as present as Keith Urban’s fancy Stratocaster.

What’s the trick?

It has to do with the signal chain and the right preamps. Acoustic instruments don’t compete with electric. That’s how it goes, but there are a number of things you can do during the recording process that can make an acoustic instrument reach the same level of intensity. As a fiddle player, that’s particularly important.

I’m interested in an old-time sound. I don’t play the whining licks you hear in hot, new country — if you even have a fiddle on the record. Fiddle’s one of the instruments that’s been wholesale removed from current country music. As an old-time fiddle player, I don’t want to lose my style in order to compete with the other sounds.

How much do you wing it in the studio instrumentally?

There’s definitely a lot of winging it. We recorded this album entirely live. … We’re a live band. Unison is our seventh member. It’s one thing to be a big band and playing live, but when you do it together, something else comes out — a spirit. It’s pretty powerful to play live music in the studio. It’s exciting. You’re flying by the seat of your pants when you’re making records with the Old Crow. You have to be present of mind, and it takes a big pot of coffee to stay that way for 15 hours.

How collaborative is your actual songwriting process?

Oh, it’s quite collaborative. Everybody in the band is a co-writer on at least one of the songs on the album. That, of course, is quite opposite of the way things are done here in Nashville, as well, where you have a songwriter team or the songwriter isn’t even in the band. We’re as gregarious in our friendship as we are on the stage. We’re sitting around and thinking up songs on the tour bus, and everybody has a hand in it. It’s a great thing to share.

Tell the story behind writing “Brushy Mountain Conjugal Trailer.”

I wrote that song in a trailer. There’s something that’s actually kind of sexy to me about a trailer. Maybe it’s the aerodynamics. I always wanted to have one of those ham can trailers. That’s the kind I’m picturing, not the Bonnaroo trailer.

I’ve lived in Tennessee for a while, and I’m familiar with Brushy Mountain penitentiary, but I don’t think it’s even open anymore. It just seemed to me that it’d be a novel idea, having grown up in the shadow of Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison and San Quentin albums, for there to be a new prison rock ’n’ roll song, a new hillbilly style of “Jailhouse Rock,” something that was sexy. We can afford to be a bit more overt than “Jailhouse Rock.” Back in the ’50s, you weren’t really able to have a conjugal trailer.

What songwriters do you draw from?

Bob Dylan is the greatest country music songwriter of all time, whether country music knows that or not. Bob Dylan opened up America’s ears and changed song craft forever. We’re all writing and singing and listening to interpretations of Bob Dylan’s very masterful 1,001 songs.

I’m also drawing heavily from folk music, particularly a wide variety of the music from the 1920s and ’30s, including stars of the Opry like Roy Acuff and his adaptation of hillbilly music to make it more present. That’s always been an important influence on the songwriting of this very much old-time string band.

Describe how “Sweet Amarillo” took shape.

We got an email from Bob Dylan’s manager saying congratulations right around the time Darius Rucker had a No. 1 single with “Wagon Wheel.” It’s not every day that country music recognizes this great pioneer and huge influence, Bob Dylan. Bob doesn’t have many No. 1 songs in any genres. So it was a big deal to get one.

Bob realized that and sent us a note, and a couple of weeks later, he sent a demo and said, “Here’s a song that I never really finished. It was recorded a few days after ’Rock Me Mama.’ Give it a try. We’d like the boys, the Old Crows to give it whirl.”

It must feel good to be the guys Bob Dylan pitches songs toward.

It’s quite amazing to me. Bob very much cleaned out his dresser drawer and found a scrap and said [in a Dylan voice], “Here, try this.” Just to hear that is the stuff that dreams are made of. I couldn’t even write a script. The audience wouldn’t believe it. “Oh, yeah, then Bob Dylan called and said, ’OK, finish this song now.'”

So I finished the song with Old Crow, and we sent it back to Bob and he said, “Hey, that sounds great, but I think Ketch should play the fiddle, not the harmonica, and I think the chorus needs to come in at the eighth bar, not the 16th.” We did exactly what Bob said, and it’s like the song sprouted wings and flew.