Old Crow Medicine Show co-founder and frontman Ketch Secor is always busy. In September, Secor and flatpicking master Molly Tuttle co-hosted the Annual IBMA Bluegrass Music Awards, a brief respite from the ongoing national tour Secor and Old Crow are currently on. They hit the road earlier this year after releasing Jubilee, their latest record, celebrating 25 years as a band. With a few recent lineup changes, their energy is still fresh and exciting — and in this exclusive BGS interview, Secor explains that you really just have to see them live to fully understand and appreciate the bit.
This will be the second tour with the current lineup, right? What do you think will be different with touring Jubilee?
Ketch Secor: In typical Old Crow fashion, an 11th-hour lineup change occurred as we were putting the finishing touches on this album. We’ve hired two new players, and that’s Dante’ Pope on drums and piano, and PJ George as a utility player, so with these two additional players we have yet another iteration of Old Crow that has subtle differences from any other one we’ve had before. This kind of thing just makes it fun. That fluidity of the lineup has made it a lot more palatable — it’s still Flagstaff in the fall, but getting to see it with somebody who’s never been before, and getting to share the stage with people who bring out something new in you musically.
I feel like music for the old-time string band – and maybe this is the same for bluegrass – but music is really relational. It’s about who you’re with. I play different with different people. The pitcher isn’t gonna play differently because of who the shortstop is, but in a string band, the fiddler’s following a groove that the banjo sets, and if there’s a great mandolin player with chops then the fiddler is going to weave in and out of something differently.
How did you choose the guest appearances on this album, like Sierra Ferrell and Mavis Staples?
KS: That kind of thing just evolves. Making records in the 21st century, collaborations are what’s on the menu more so than when we were kids. We didn’t think about who was going to be the guests when we were kids. For Sierra, we thought that song needed something, and we realized it was a duet. I’d been sitting on that one for a couple years. I rewrote it as a duet, and we called the best woman to sing on a cock-fighting song — we called out to West Virginia.
Why are collaborations more necessary now?
KS: If I could be frank, it’s because labels are trying to do anything they can to sell albums. It adds to social media platforms. It increases the scope in ways that are much more specific to these times than just making great music. When Lita Ford came out with Ozzy Osbourne, that probably had a different purpose to it than it does today. Independent labels are taking a cue from hip-hop artists who experiment with this all the time. Bluegrass and old-time and traditional music tends to be 10 years behind those types of styles, so it makes sense that nowadays we’re all making collaborative contributions.
Were there any surprising or touching moments working with Willie Watson in the studio again? Was the chemistry there after 12 years?
KS: Yeah, I think that having Willie back is just important to the ethos of Old Crow Medicine Show, and celebrating its 25th anniversary. We’ve been working together since COVID on some things from live streams to concert appearances, and this was sort of the next frontier for Old Crow and Willie in burying the hatchet and making music together. When you’re in a 25-year-old band you get a lot of ex-boyfriends. Hindsight is 20/20, and I just know that nowadays it’s better to be back on stage together.
How has your fiddling changed over the years? What are some of the areas you focus on when you practice? Old-time is known for being scrubby, but there’s a lot more going on there.
KS: Well, it’s changed over the years as I’ve gotten to be a lot better and gutsier as a violin player. I play it harder and stronger and faster than I did when I was 18 when I learned. For 25 or some years it’s been my dance partner. At the quarter century mark as a violin player, I feel like I know my partner well. I know where to take it, where on the neck to go. I know how to get the sounds that I’m looking for.
But I’m not a player who practices. My practice is just playing 95 concerts a year for 25 years and making 15 records in that period of time and being a special guest on 50 other records. I’ve grown up like a plant in the window when it comes to my violin playing. I see where the light is and I’ve grown towards it, and it’s bushier and brighter than it used to be when I was just a little twig. It just keeps growing all the time, but it’s not because I’m changing anything. There’s no additive to the soil.
You play old-time, but do you ever try other genres?
KS: I’ve played a few jazz gigs, but it’s not what I do well. I listen to all manner of songs. As a fiddle player, I like to think about all of the music that I’m channeling into the way I play, and a lot of it is traditional fiddle music, but a lot of it’s not. I feel like there’s Public Enemy and Nirvana and Bosco and the Carter Family, and other things that are not fiddle playing in my playing. But mostly what there is in my fiddle playing is mileage. It’s experience. It’s rust. It’s calcified. That’s the case with people who’ve played music for a lifetime. They get better not because they’re doing something different, but because they’re doing the same thing again and again.
You mentioned that folk music should be topical — not kept in a museum case. Do you think that kind of folk has a special place in the world right now given the political and economic hard times we’ve been seeing?
KS: I think that anybody who’s making genuine art has a reflection of the world around in that work. We the artists are sort of like poetic mirrors of what we see. There’s lot of songs now that reflect the discord, either in a lamentation or in a protest or in just a pure reflection. My music tends to talk about the plight of the people who are most associated with this music, so that can be the people of the Southern Highlands. It can be the hardship of the African American co-inventors of this music. But I’m also a real vessel for global topics, and I say that because when I read the news it’s almost like it starts riding on my back. So I’m thinking about flood waters in Libya and earthquakes in Morocco and school shootings in Nashville. To me they’re all part of a human struggle to find peace in the world.
What change do you hope comes about from songs like “Allegheny Lullaby?” How do people take that sentiment and make it actionable?
KS: That’s a song about a limitation of choice. That’s a matter of equity or inequity. So the equitable solution is: More choice. It’s widening the spectrum of options for people who live in the coal district, and that’s a very doable action item. It’s just a hard thing to do and live the exact same way, without a change in economics, but that’s the story of the American people. We adapt. And so I think the natural adaptation cycle in the Southern Highlands is in flux right now because of some strident efforts to hold it back. The results of those actions are that you got an opioid epidemic, a fentanyl epidemic — so many dysfunctions. I’m looking forward to the people eventually standing up and getting what they need. I wouldn’t put it past the people to get that. They got it before. They unionized in those situations and fought for livable wages, and they can do it again.
You talk a lot about nature, like mountains and feral critters, in your music. Is that an intentional part of folk or where does that come from?
KS: When I think about what made [American music] so rich, I know it’s the land and the soil and the people and the stories. So to evoke the same is just a natural link in the chain forged anew. And that’s all I’m doing. I’m just singing about the rivers that mean something to me when I sing them. I don’t think you’re ever going to get tired of thinking about the Big Sandy River, no matter if it’s clean or dirty. It’s called the Big Sandy, doesn’t that sound like freedom?
What do you hope listeners will take away from this album?
KS: You know, we make music because we’re a live band. We make albums because we’re a live act. Come and see us. If you like this record, go buy a ticket. We’re coming to your town; we have for a quarter of a century. We loved you then, and we love you even more now. And if you hear something on this record you like, then that’s just one more reason to come buy that ticket and see us when we come to your community and make a unique and special community in yours for one night. This is an age-old P.T. Barnum routine. The hat is magic, the ring is heavenly. Once you gaze on what lies behind the curtain, you will be dazzled. That’s where the magic is. The album is a big arrow.
Photo Credit: Joshua Black Wilkins