Five questions with: Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor

Old Crow Medicine Show

Paramount Theatre Cedar Rapids — Saturday, June 30 at 8 p.m.

Old Crow Medicine Show plays Cedar Rapids’ Paramount Theatre on Saturday, June 30. — photo by Danny Clinch

Old Crow Medicine Show will be bringing their Grammy winning presentation of traditional American music to the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids on June 30, 2018, starting at 8 p.m. Tickets are $29.50-47.50. The band is touring behind Volunteer, released this past April under Columbia Nashville. It comes close on the heels of their live album Blonde on Blonde, a track-by-track recording of Dylan’s landmark classic. I had the pleasure of speaking with Ketch Secor, one of the founders and primary engines that moves the band, earlier in June:

What are the two most necessary ingredients of the band’s success — the things that you had in the beginning times of the band that have grown and expanded and helped you mature in your career?

Maybe the traditional music that we’ve played … it is an unusual kind of music to get hooked on performing, and it made requirements on us as a band. We couldn’t grow in any direction we wanted — it was already ordained by the music. The biggest piece of what traditional music does is set you apart from the mainstream. You’re tasked with something, you hobble yourself to it but strengthen yourself because you’re operating in a deep well — the bucket brigade goes to the deepest well.

It isn’t just old time music but all American roots music forms — when you play them, you embody them and they embody you. When this happens, there’s a whole narrative that happened to us. We lived roots music. Our lifestyle was so close to our heroes; it was as close as you could get to it. We didn’t pick cotton, and if we’d been a band in a region where there was cotton we’d have picked it. We picked tobacco.

When you bring the music into your heart, it changes you. It changed me, and it brought me in touch with a feeling of the unsung all around me that needed a mouthpiece to stand above it — a field beneath a parking lot.

What are the things that have contributed to the most significant changes to the band? What obstacles or impediments do you wish you could have cleared through more quickly? What additions or alterations are the most welcome?

One of the bigger changes to the band was success — it has been happening incrementally all along, but it never happened suddenly. It was a steady thing. We were constantly getting better, and it was being noted by others and sent back to us so there was a constant feeling of growth.

When you busk, you make the music and the tip jar is filled — that’s the cornerstone of the entire music business. We began in this elemental way and it started from there. We started with live radio before we could do a show in a bar, much less a recording studio. It felt like Loretta Lynn — but in 1999, in Ontario. We were seeking adventures, and we found them.

The challenges deal with the members of the band — we’re a motley crew, wailers. It’s more than a year at sea, it’s been twenty. With the personalities attracted to the personality of the lifestyle required to succeed in the business when you’re this band, and you’ve already hobbled yourself and armed yourself with the primitive music scene — those attracted to it are crazy as loons. We’re all crazy in this band — and that’s been the hardest challenge.

What elements do you think makes Volunteer an excellent addition to the band’s discography? What songs do you think convert best to your live performance? What about them do you think resonates with the band?

We’re always writing new songs. The studio isn’t where we spend most of our time — we get into it and it is a different world. It’s like you’re used to walking in the field and suddenly you’re in a cave. I always thought of it as an opportunity to remind listeners about why they cared about our music in the first place. When I write songs, I think about what will sound good out of a jacked-up Ford F150 as much as I do about what comes out of a dude’s iPod shuffle at the airport.

… I’m not all that excited about playing “new” music. There’s new music right around the corner too. New music gets old as soon as you write it down. It’s this constant — my head is constantly turned by sound and story, and my ears are constantly tricked by new arriving awarenesses. I’m dissatisfied with the time capsule that symbolizes that moment, that encounter. When you hear it and get turned on, it’s hard to put down what that really means, what it feels like to get turned on.

You hear something and you get googly-eyed, but then you’re trying to make the music that gets other people googly-eyed. But I also know that nobody will get it the way I get it. I like to play with that, too—to put things into songs that are just for nerds, a historical reference or name or place that nobody has thought about.

A lot of the songs on the new record come from thoughts I have about being a kid. Like “Child of the Mississippi” — I lived around there, I thought of the river as a friend, I thought it was the holiest place in my world. I knew that it was more spiritual than the church or the Jewish community center or the Mardi Gras parade. The river was holier than all those other things put together. I still think that, but I don’t think it with the same impression that it first left on me. It has a lot of other songs — “Whirlwind” has a lot of relationships, my friend’s grandparents, but also my life and marriage, or the band’s life.

… sometimes songwriting can be clairvoyant. I never had seen most of the town I named in “Wagon Wheel” — but I sure wrote my ticket with that song.

For you, personally, what’s the most exciting part of what you contribute to the band? Which of the many instruments you play do you most enjoy? What do you think is the most necessary instrument to the OCMS sound?

This goes back to the street corner — someone had to call them in. Once they were called in, we all could do our craft, and do it equally. The guy who called them in had a special role. I’m doing that now — the same fervor. The same gesticulations. I’m doing that same dance, I did it at Bonnaroo. It’s a role — not every band has it, or needs it, but a good busking outfit does. A band that was going to be able to network the music business for 20 years with a bunch of crazy brothers-in-arms playing old time music beyond the mainstream — someone needed to talk to these folks, remember names. I booked shows, set prices, paid everyone — I did that. It was part of that same voice, too. At the core, [the band is] me and Critter [Fuqua] — it’s that relationship and the nature of it. We were the same way when we were 13.

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