To gain some big-picture perspective for this feature on Old Crow Medicine Show — standard-setting old-timey string band of their generation — the Scene thought it might be helpful to speak with a fiddle player who currently takes to the sidewalks with his picking buddies to grab the attention of downtown pedestrians with rip-roaring reels and folk tunes.
"People are fickle, and people have short attention spans," says the fiddler, "Especially in 2012. So if you can get 'em to stop, if you can get 'em to think about something, if you can get 'em to listen with a song, then you've got yourself a keeper. And that's the street-corner test."
The guy's name is Ketch Secor. He happens to also be co-founder and de facto leader of Old Crow. And the performance philosophy he's espousing is a central part of the band's backstory.
"I learned a lot about making music on the street corner, because we just played there so much," says Secor. "It was a great place to get started. One of the reasons that I played the kind of music that I played is that the street was so inviting to a fiddler. You almost felt like you were onstage, being a fiddler on the street. I mean, you played to a much bigger crowd than you were going to in a club. ... And there's just something about playing acoustic music as loud as you can and using your energy and excitement to get people to stop and to form a little horseshoe around you."
Old Crow's audience outgrew the sidewalk years ago, and their fans' devotion is far beyond that of the casual passerby. "Well, we started seeing tattoos on people of our songs," says Secor, "lyrics or imagery from the band. Then we definitely knew."
The same string band that has a certified gold record ("Wagon Wheel," as of late 2011), a new performance documentary with Mumford and Sons and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros and a recently announced cut with a country hit maker (Darius Rucker's putting "Wagon Wheel" on his upcoming album) still gets out there and busks on the street from time to time, like they did at the start. Only now, they occasionally film it. Suffice it to say, Old Crow is a band with an especially strong center of gravity.
The guys are coming off a yearlong performing hiatus, during which they lost a pivotal player (Willie Watson) and regained another (Critter Fuqua). A lot of bands wouldn't have made it through all that intact. Says Secor, "I think in losing Willie, that question certainly came up for everybody. I wasn't sure whether we wanted to keep rocking or not. ... It'll be exciting to go out there in a new form and see what we can do."
Other than wishing Watson well, the Crows haven't commented on his reasons for leaving, but Fuqua — who helped start the group with Secor; the two have been jamming since junior high — is an open book when it comes to his own departure and return. "No, I don't mind talking about it at all," he says good-naturedly. "I mean, I left the band, I guess, in '07, after our European tour. You know, I'm a recovered alcoholic now. Back in the day I couldn't stop drinking. I needed help. So I got into this treatment center in Texas, and my parents live in San Antonio. When I got out of treatment, I knew I couldn't go back doing what I was doing right then, because I had priorities, which No. 1 was to stay in recovery and stay sober. So I moved in a halfway house in Kerrville, then got my own place, then liked Kerrville, liked being near my family, applied to college, got in — 'Oh, I'll do an English degree.' Really healed myself in that four years.
"This past November, when Ketch and I started talking about playing again, it wasn't like I was trying to get back in the band and wasn't well. It was like, 'This is what I want to do again.' The opportunity's still there, and Ketch and I are still wanting to play together. Ketch and I got back together and really focused on just a little duo for a while, then brought Morgan [Jahnig] along and this new guy Chance [McCoy], then the other members [Kevin Hayes and Gill Landry]. So it kinda grew back organically."
Secor was gung ho about doing the Ketch and Critter tour, which included a stop at the pair's old Harrisonburg, Va., haunt. "There's a magnetism between the two of us that is where the heart of the band lies," says Secor. "And for anybody that was affected by the music we made in the past decade, that's really where it's coming from. Willie had a lot to do with it too, with Willie having a fire and a real passion. But really, it starts with Critter and Ketch coming together."
While we're on the subject of magnetic forces, the title of the new album, Carry Me Back, gestures toward more than one variety. The spirit of the new songs — all written by band members, with Jim Lauderdale and Jason White contributing a bit of co-writing — and, in a sense, of the Crows' entire repertoire, is tugged toward the pre-urban migration way-back-when, but also invested in the fragmented, living, breathing here and now. Musically, too, the guys have returned to home base: hearty acoustic revelry, and a potent, polished dose of it at that.
On their last album, 2008's Tennessee Pusher, Old Crow pulled a Dylan and plugged in, but the addition of a '70s, West Coast country-rock-style rhythm section dragged down the tempos and, with them, the overall energy level. "Well, I guess we went down that road," says Secor of Old Crow's decision to circle back on their latest. "On our tour, we started having a bigger band. I started playing keyboards. The boys would bring out electric guitars. It was a lot of fun, but we were just blowing off steam. It's hard to be in a rock 'n' roll string band and face your fiddle every day and say, 'All right, what can we do that we've never done before?'
"I feel like we know what we're good at. We know what we are. We're an old-time string band. So let's be the best damn one that we can be, and let's make a real fine record using what we've got — a record that we could play on the street corner, instead of a record that would take a semi truck to get in place, to get all the light wedges and all the monitors in the right spot. We could go play this record out on the curb right now, and it would move ya."
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