Old Crow Medicine Show began performing on street corners in upstate New York and found an early home in Boone, NC, but Ketch Secor considers himself a Virginian at heart. He was raised in Harrisonburg and he speaks with ease about everything from drinking Starr Hill beer to busking under the marquee of the Paramount Theater in Charlottesville, so it’s a homecoming of sorts this weekend as the group returns to Central Virginia to play on Friday September 17th at Music at Maymont and September 18th at Augusta Expo in a fundraiser for the MaDee Project.
From the beginning, the group’s energetic street performances and collective ethos set them apart from other acts and endeared them to North Carolina locals, which led to their first break – a chance meeting with flatpicking legend Doc Watson followed by a breakthrough appearance at Merlefest and interest from major labels and Nashville executives, but as Secor explains this collective spirit made them outliers in Nashville:
“Nashville is ruggedly individualistic; there are frankly not a lot of bands in Nashville. There are sole purveyors. Collectivity was always a foundational piece of the band. When we started we were doing farm work together, sharing collective money pools, profit sharing and those kinds of things always set us aside.”
That collective spirit extended to the lineup, which has long featured a rotating cast of players with everyone from David Rawlings to legendary sideman Bucky Baxter taking a turn in the band. Now twenty three years in, Secor likens the group to a ball club (“We’re always trying to build that pennant winning combination of great reliever, infield, management.”) with a continually evolving sound and lineup. When asked about the sonic terrain the group might explore in the future, he mentions everything from classic country crooners Tennessee Ernie Ford and Red Foley to Tejano rhythms and glee club recordings from historically black colleges of the 1920s.
Hand in hand with his own exploration of diverse styles of American roots music, Secor also talked extensively about the importance of veteran artists like him using their platforms to expand opportunities for the next generation of folk and roots musicians:
“That’s the thing about the folks that make up folk music, we owe it to one another to build equity within our ranks, to open doors for others, particularly for those who have been historically disenfranchised from a seat at the table.”
Towards the end of our conversation the topic drifts to “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”, the traditional hymn popularized by the Carter Family now considered a symbol for the endurance of folk music traditions. He says he likes the hanging question implied in the title because it reminds us of the work that needs to be done to pass on these traditions.
“I think it’s best to approach the subject with a questioning mind,” he says, “ but I like the thought that efforts of the past will not be lost on the future.”
See Old Crow Medicine Show this weekend at Music at Maymont in Richmond on Friday September 17th and Saturday September 18th at Augusta Expo.