Old Crow’s founding songwriter and singer, Ketch Secor, grew up in Harrisonburg in the hills of the Shenandoah Mountains, the child of parents who listened to a lot of soul (Steve Wonder, Aretha Franklin), but also folk music (Ian and Sylvia, Buffy St. Marie). He began playing with pal Critter Fuqua when they were 12.
At 17 (and everything happens at 17, doesn’t it?), he came across a bootleg of unfinished songs from 1973 that included a snippet of a chorus: Rock me mama like a wagon wheel. Rock me mama any way you feel. Hey mama rock me.
The singer was a guy named Bob Dylan and the snippet was from sessions recorded during the “Pat Garrett and BIlly the Kid” soundtrack.
For whatever reason, the teen decided to finish the song. Why not? He wrote “Wagon Wheel,” sharing credit with Dylan. It’s become the signature tune for Old Crow Medicine Show and a number one hit for Darius Rucker, who covered it in 2013. The Americana band, which made banjo and old time music cool long before anyone heard of Mumford or the Avetts, comes to the nTelos Pavilion on Sunday, May 24.
For Secor, it will be nice to get back to what he calls “one of my favorite places on God’s green Earth.”
Growing up in the western part of the state, he says, “We didn’t really think much about Tidewater. It was like another state. We went to Richmond once on a school field trip and it felt like we were driving to Kansas it was so far.”
The roots of the band’s music are in the hills of Virginia and the valley of upstate New York, where Fuqua and Secor moved when Secor was 18. There, in the hippie sanctuary of Ithaca, they immersed themselves in old time music. “It made sense to go where the action was and surprisingly Ithaca was a hotbed. There were clawhammer banjo players and so much happening there,” he says. “Some really strong bands.”
“It had been a while since any Southern boys had shown up so we had instant appeal,” he adds.
They ate at Moosewood, the pioneering vegetarian cooperative. They drank under age at places. “It was a community that was really willing to show you the way,” Secor says. Half the band met on street corners united by their love of traditional music.
He read “Bound for Glory” by Woody Guthrie and other tales. He picked the brains of local musicians. “Those kinds of stories made me want to go and see where the ribbon of highway was still out there and was it as glorious as Woody described it. The road was part of the deal,” he says. “It wasn’t just about the music. It was about the travel and the development of pack mentality. When you play that kind of music, it turns strangers into kin.”
So they hit the road, landing in a mountain cabin with no running water in North Carolina, where they busked on the streets. Their big break came playing on the streets of Charlotte. A woman came up and asked if they’d be playing for a while longer because her dad liked that kind of music. “I remember it really well,” Secor says. “It was the fifth of July 1999. We had been a band for oh, ten months or something, and we could play about 20 old time tunes pretty good. :
The man the woman went to retrieve was Doc Watson. “We played one for him and he liked it. He listened like he was drinking it in,” Secor adds. “So after we played, it was really quiet before Doc finally spoke and he said it sounded really great and he had a gig for us.”
The gig was MerleFest and that earned them more gigs in Nashville and elsewhere.
That was three years before the band’s first album. Since then, the group has undergone occasional personnel shifts — Fuqua left and then returned; Willie Watson left — and released seven more albums, including the Grammy-winning “Remedy” last year. Darius Rucker likes to say Old Crow is more country than any of the so-called country acts on radio or tour, an easy assertion.
Secor says the first person he saw at the Grammy Awards after winning was Nora Guthrie, Woody’s daughter and the woman who has been the keeper of his archive of lyrics songwriters have been turning into songs over the past 15 years. “She’s always around when you need to run into her,” he says. “She puts it all in beautiful context.”
Winning for an album after all these years seemed right. It wasn’t too soon. They’d earned it.
“It was really validating to have finally won for out music,” he adds.”We felt like we made the best record we’d ever made. It’s been such a gradual process, very sustainable as opposed to having quick success.”
For “Remedy,” another in a fine string of albums, Secor says the band rehearsed more before entering the studio and took time to pick the 12 songs that thematically made sense. “There is something the industriousness of making this record,” he says. “That was really appealing. It was good work.”
The album also reflects the lineup of the past three years, the first time they’re on disc. Was the title a play on Old Crow Medicine Show or a remedy to the current “country” music that will soon be consigned to the dustbin of forgettable pop?
“We figured it was open enough to interpretation,” he says. “Anybody could think what they wanted about it. If you give yourself a title that has a wide range of interpretation, it’s usually a good title. Was it a remedy for country music? I don’t know if we have enough twang in the band to really make a difference. Does it have to do with the old minstrel shows always selling an elixir or is more like the old jug band throwback? It’s presumptuous to think we had any good fix for anybody but ourselves. It fixed us up pretty good. It just made us feel so damn good. It was really rewarding work to see thse songs through to the end, to try to make a joyful noise. “
“Brushy Mountain Conjugal Trailer,” a dobro-fueled opens with the bawdy tale of a last wish with a twist — the executioner wants some, too. “Mean Enough World” is a song out of the Seeger tradition, a plea for a kinder society. “8 Dogs 8 Banjos” is an old-fashioned stomp and “Doc’s Day” pay tribute to pickers. “O Cumberland River” is a paean to the swelling river, while “Brave Boys” is a fiddling tune that pays homage to coal miners’ life.
The emotional centerpiece may be “Dearly Departed Friend,” a slow lament for returning veterans who can’t find comfort back home that recalls John Prine’s “Sam Stone” in its inevitable sadness.
The album also features the second co-write — if you can call it that — between the band and Dylan. While Dylan remains silent, apparently he liked the “co-write” of “Wagon Wheel.”
Dylan’s longtime manager sent over an old scrap of a song called “Sweet Amarillo,” a waltz about a cowboy’s pining search for a one-time lover.
The band sent a demo back and got notes from the great songwriter, who said to move the chorus up in the song and swap the harmonica for a fiddle. “We took Bob’s advice real seriously and it was amazing,” Secor says. “The song really came alive when we did what Bob said to do. It was like Shakespeare taking a look at your play.”
Secor sees Dylan as a country music pioneer, noting the four albums he did in Nashville had an enduring impact on country music. One of the validating things about Rucker’s version of “Wagon Wheel” topping the country charts was getting Dylan back onto that stage.
On the day we talked, Secor was going to see Dylan in Nashville. “I think I always hold out hope he’s going to play it or that I’m going to get the call or we’re going to open for him or see him out by the buses,” he says. “But maybe it’s better not to meet your heroes.”