Old Crow Medicine Show Plays the Ann Arbor Folk Festival

Old Crow Medicine Show will be playing at the Ann Arbor Folk Festival on Jan. 26.

Founding member Ketch Secor had no shortage of topics he was ready to discuss when he phoned in for a recent interview.

There was, of course, another round of touring that was just starting, a new Old Crow album that’s on the way and a pair of new band members that have come on board in time for this year’s tour. But perhaps what was most top of mind for Secor was the tragic shooting that had recently happened at Nashville’s Covenant School that left three nine-year-old children and three adults dead.

“Right now, I’m just thinking so much about my beloved Nashville, where I have two school-age children. My kids are the same age as the three children who were murdered in their classrooms at Covenant School,” Secor said. “My children both did active shooter training this week in their schools. And my daughter, I said ‘How was it?’ And she said, ‘Well, it was pretty scary, especially because when I got behind the desk, my butt was sticking out. So there wasn’t enough room for me. I just got an unlucky number. I probably would have been killed.’

“The fact that this is a generation of children that is reeling with questions about the world in these terms, and the fact that the f***ing adults, if you can call them that, are doing nothing about it is a shame, is a black mark on society,” he continued.

For now, Secor, the lead singer, fiddle and banjo player and chief songwriter in Old Crow, has to shift at least some of his attention away from that tragedy to music and the endeavors at hand for his band.

And when it comes to that, Secor has many reasons to feel good about where things stand for his band 25 years into a career that has seen Old Crow Medicine Show become an influential force in roots music and a leader in the resurgence of string bands on the music scene.

The band returned from the pandemic with a reshuffled lineup – Mike Harris (banjo/guitar), Mason Via (guitar) and drummer Jerry Pentecost replaced Chance McCoy, Joe Andrews and Charlie Worsham — and their own newly outfitted studio located just north of Nashville. That’s where the latest edition of Old Crow made their critically acclaimed 2022 album, “Paint This Town,” and now the new album, “Jubilee.” Those accomplishments, and most significantly, the ability to tour again, have re-energized Old Crow Medicine Show, Secor said.

“I just think it (the new energy) had more to do with COVID and being able to work again,” he said. “And then the new lineup, a new producer (Matt Ross-Spang), the studio we were in, that we’re working out of now that’s something that we own, that’s been a big factor in the kind of collective spirit of the band. There’s a lot of renewal that happened out of the COVID experience.

“It kind of reminded me of the earliest days of Old Crow Medicine Show,” he said, “just that kind of hustle up your kill and going into the towns as a busker and not knowing what lay in store behind the city limits sign, that unknown quality of ‘Well, what’s next, boys? I guess we’ll find out.’”

Secor isn’t exaggerating when he talks of Old Crow’s beginnings as a busking band. The band members cut their teeth and began shaping their sound – a blend of old-time string band folk, bluegrass, country and other traditional roots sounds mixed with rock and a modern energy – playing on streets in communities around the country.

It was during one of these impromptu performances in Boone, North Carolina, that folk/bluegrass legend Doc Watson saw Old Crow and invited the group to play Merlefest, the popular Wilkesboro, North Carolina music festival named for his late son, Merle Watson.

That appearance gave Old Crow the momentum to start building a touring base, to later on get a record deal and in 2004 release their debut album “O.C.M.S.” That album contained the song “Wagon Wheel,” a song Bob Dylan started writing, but didn’t finish, for the soundtrack of the 1973 film “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.” Secor had heard the tune on Dylan bootlegs and decided to finish the song, eventually getting Dylan’s blessing to release it on “O.C.M.S.”

“Wagon Wheel” caught on and became a signature song for Old Crow, gradually amassing sales and downloads on the way to topping the one million mark in 2013. That was the year Darius Rucker covered the tune and turned it into a chart-topping country hit that further raised awareness of Old Crow Medicine Show,” while providing the band with a welcome income infusion.

Seven Old Crow Medicine Show albums have followed “O.C.M.S.” Where “Paint This Town” leaned strongly toward frisky and catchy material, “Jubilee” has more of an even balance between energetic songs (“Keel Over and Die” and “Ballad of Jubilee Jones and rustic ballads (“Allegheny Lullaby,” “Daughter of the Highlands” and “Miles Away”).

Secor said “Jubilee” finds today’s edition of Old Crow finding their stride.

“The first album (“Paint This Town”) was kind of a get your sea legs and let’s figure out what this is like. Then the second was now let’s make a record where we write all of the material together,” he said. “Mike and Mason and Jerry are all writers on the new album in ways they weren’t as much on the first album. And it’s again produced by ourselves along with Matt Ross-Spang. So it is a little bit more acoustic, a little less of a rocking record for Old Crow, a few more banjos on it.”

Since finishing “Jubilee,” Old Crow has gone through yet another rejiggering of the band lineup. Pentecost has moved on and been replaced by Dante Pope, while multi-instrumentalist P.J. George III has joined to create a seven-man lineup that also includes Secor, Morgan Jahnig (bass), Cory Younts (keyboards), Harris and Via.

The latest version of the band will still sound like Old Crow live, Secor said, and the group plans to stock the shows with everything from new and old original songs to covers to sometimes even a song or two related to whatever city the band is playing in on a given night.

“As long as the canon of song is Old Crow music and I’m up there to continue the through line for the past 25 years, it’s Old Crow Medicine Show,” Secor said. “Whatever it is, as long as there are fiddles and banjos and I’m up there and Morgan’s up there, and whoever else is in the Old Crow Medicine Show is up there, and (if) there’s bones playing and there are mandolins and harmony singing and a whole bunch of smiling faces in front of you, then you’ve got yourself a Medicine show.”

Alan Sculley
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