Behind the Traveling Band Name: Old Crow Medicine Show

For as strange as it is, the name just rolls off your tongue. And if you close your eyes, you can imagine an old cart coming up the dusty road to town. A doohickey swings on top—what is that? Before you know it, the caravan has rolled up and you can hear the music.

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Indeed, the often-fantastical seeming folk band Old Crow Medicine Show engenders these visions. Why? Well, you’ll have to keep reading to find out. The best answer to any question, after all, deserves a little dazzling.

Miracle Cures (or, What Happens When You Ban the Theater)

For as long as there’s been currency, there have been people trying to swindle others out of it. But as the hands of time turned, it became more common and even expected to see dubious traveling “salesmen” trying to turn a homespun potion into a buck. In the Dark Ages in Europe, when theater was banned from society, performances became part of the sales pitch in the marketplace. Having nowhere else to dazzle onlookers, barkers, gymnastic artisans and more helped sell miracle cures (snake oil, anyone?) and other elixirs to wide-eyed (rural) townspeople, enamored by the spectacle of it all.

While this practice became illegal in the American colonies in 1772, it has and will always exist in some form or another. Where once they traveled by horse, now it’s another method.

Old Time Music

Old Crow Medicine Show’s frontman Ketch Secor has been a fan of old-time music since he was a teenager. “I got into old time when I was about 14 or 15,” he told American Songwriter in 2020. “I’d played a bunch of punk rock but I’d grown up with this sense of belonging in the space of folk songs. So, Pete Segar was a big influence on me. I listened to a lot of his records. By the time I was 14 or 15, I’d played a lot of Phil Ochs music and a lot of Bob Dylan music.

“So, those sent me back to Woody Guthrie, and then Woody Guthrie sent me back to the music of the 1920s. Really, I just wanted to play the banjo. The banjo was my gateway into old-time music, which I first started playing and listening to when I was about 15.”

A fan of the old-time stuff, it’s no wonder Secor’s imagination went to these traveling miracle cure salesmen when deciding on a moniker for his musical group.

The Circus

Secor elaborated on his love of old-time traditions, especially when it comes to entertainment. He said, “I wanted to join the circus. When I was a kid, I read a book called, Toby Tyler, and it was all about a kid that runs away and joins the circus. That’s what I wanted to do. But the circus by the time it came to me, I mean, nobody wanted to join the circus. You had to live in Florida all year round. Nobody rode the train anymore. You had to live in an R.V.

“So, I didn’t want to join the circus-circus. I wanted to make a circus that was like the circus that I wanted to join. But I didn’t see one. Nobody asked me to be in one. So, I asked others to be in mine.”

With that instinct, the name was born.

Today

Today, the Nashville-based group, which Secor started in 1998 and bluegrass artist Doc Watson discovered when the band was busking, has become a global success thanks to its string-based rock music, as Secor notes. “Wagon Wheel” rose to fame thanks to its co-write with Bob Dylan.

“The ‘Wagon Wheel’ story is sort of different than those things,” Secor told American Songwriter. “Or, I don’t know, maybe it’s not. When I was 17 and I wrote that song, everything about my learning was about Bob Dylan. It was like I was trying to get—it was like I was taking AP Bob. It was like I was trying to get a degree in Bob and the last thing you had to do was write a Bob song just like Bob would have done it. So, I mean, I wrote a bunch of songs like that when I was a kid that were re-written songs, stolen songs, or just, like, appropriating songs.”

For Secor, his group has since influenced many others, from Mumford & Sons to the Avett Brothers and more. He helped the world embrace old-time string music again. But that’s no snake oil. That’s real medicine for the band’s many fans.

Photoby Joshua Black Wilkins / Missing Piece Group

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