Ketch Secor Talks Old Crow Medicine Show, Songwriting, Launching an Elementary School

Ketch Secor, front man and principle songwriter for the famed Americana band, Old Crow Medicine Show, has been keeping himself busy during his time sheltering in place in Nashville, Tennessee. Secor, a bundle of energy, has been releasing regular episodes of his “Hartland Hootenanny” digital series and today the songwriter also released a new video for his latest song, “Quarantined.”

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Secor, whose presence runs the gamut between artist, historian and philanthropist, has his fingers in many proverbial pies, including chartering a new elementary school in his hometown (more on this later).

We caught up with the golden-throated, rubbery-voiced singer to ask him how he first came to play and love music, how he maintains his high energy levels, how busking changed his life and much more.

When did you first start to play music?

Oh, well, let’s see. My first performances were in vocal groups. I was a member of the 1984 group, Young Singers of Missouri – oh, yeah! We sang at a Sears and Roebuck out in La Due on this side of St. Louis. Then I was in school plays for a while. So, I learned about the stage from that. And when I was about nine, so about 1988, I got a [mouth harp] and I could play that.

What drew you to old time music?

I got into old time when I was about 14 or 15. 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.

The banjo is such a forgiving instrument.

Yeah and the big difference that I learned was claw hammer instead of bluegrass rules. So, that was a real fork in the road for me was learning the claw hammer style. I think if I had learned bluegrass rules, I probably would have gone back to folk music and I probably wouldn’t have learned about old time string band music until much later. Bluegrass was just really complicated. I didn’t have the chops. I wasn’t a virtuosic player. I wasn’t interested – I didn’t want to practice. I wanted to travel and I wanted to write and I wanted to meet people.

How did you go about developing your unique voice?

It really began in the church. That’s where I sang the most. I really wanted to be a Vienna choirboy. I really loved choirs. I really loved singing. I remember when I was a kid singing harmony with my little sister in the car on the way driving up to Washington D.C. We sang, “Home on the Range.” She started singing and I found the harmony part right away and I fell right in. It was a real natural feeling.

Then I learned a lot about singing from being a street performer. Because that’s what I did for a really long time. In my teens and twenties, I played a lot as a busker. So, that was an opportunity to learn how to blend the singing voice with the excited barker, you know, circus announcer type of personality. Sort of like the combining of a singing voice with vaudevillian excitement.

You have this magnetic and also very incredible energy on stage. Does that energy show up in your day-to-day life as well?

I get a lot of pots on the stove and they all often boil at the same time and I kind of thrive on it. So, it’s a little bit manic, just a little bit. It feels manageable. But it’s a high-metabolic kind of spirit that is stuffed into me and it kind of bursts out, you know? I love pretty hard, too. And I empathize pretty hard and it keeps me pretty busy! But I keep piling it on. I know through the quarantine experience, it’s been crazy how busy I’ve managed to stay in total isolation.

Are you spending a lot of energy on music-related things?

With the music thing, I would definitely be doing nothing right now, I wouldn’t have to be talking to you or the other press outlets that I’ve spoken with in the past couple of days specific to some upcoming projects, because I didn’t have to make those upcoming projects. I could easily just say, “Oh, I’m going to take a break.” But I feel that making music in this time is just so important, for me. If anybody else likes it, that’s great. But mostly, I’m just doing it because I have to keep artistically busy. I’m so busy with other stuff, too. You know, I started a school, so I’m really crazy busy with that. Having a non-profit in this time is a real complicated thing.

Can you talk about the school at all?

Oh, I’m a chairman of the board and the founder of an elementary school here in Nashville. It’s something I’ve been working on for, like, eight years. It’s my charity work and it keeps me crazy busy because, it turns out, building a school is super hard and complicated. I also got kids, so I’m running a quarantine home school right now. So, that’s got me pretty slammed. But, you know, through it all, you know, I’m also writing a couple of books and I’m doing a TV show and I’m just sort of keeping myself entertained. It’s a great thing. I feel that I’m so lucky to be riding this out. I feel like I’d love to be able to share that spirit with other people. Because so many other people are having such a tough time right now.

When you were busking in the early days, did you think about your future in music?

I think, for me, when I got started, the motivator for busking and, you know, what I thought of the Old Crow was that I wanted to have a really big adventure so I’d have something to write down later. That I’d have some kind of – that I would have gained some sort of authority to be able to understand and communicate something about America and something about the music from this country. It was a feeling of, “Oh, I’m going to go to school. I’m a journeyman now and I want to be the master someday but that’s unfathomable now.” “Now” meaning when I was 20 but it’s still unfathomable now at 42.

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.

You’ve talked about embodying spirits or personalities of other artists when you write new song. An example of this is “Wagon Wheel.” Can you talk about what transpires creatively when you do this work?

The “Wagon Wheel” story is sort of different than those things. 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.

Now that I can approach it more methodically and less accidentally, like, bumping into it, I find that embodying the kind of songs, the kind of characters, has a lot to do with having amassed that education through travel. I really understand a lot of different kinds of people. It’s like sometimes it feels like I can see the wavelengths or the sound waves of people. They got a hum to ‘em.

Right now I’m thinking a lot about this one prison. Well, it’s two prisons actually. There’s two prisons here in the United States that have the highest concentration of COVID-19 per capital as anywhere on earth. They’re right here in Tennessee. And I knew about them before because I’m interested in the big house. I think it’s one of the most important places for music. One of these days I’m going to figure out how to get some music there in a big way. I think that’s one of my overarching goals here is to know that – is to put some good medicine into the prison system with good music.

Every time we wrote letters to prisoners, every time I learned another story from the Big House, I just felt more and more motivated to do something about it. So, I’ve written a lot of songs about crime. A lot of times I have fun with it and it will be tongue-in-cheek kind of songs. I’ve also written a lot of songs about people that have died. Or died in the song. I guess, you know, in the song craft realm, I’m trying to get in to the primal notions of people.

I love to follow their stories and I hope each one of these types of songs, these character songs I write, is kind of like an epitaph. I’ve done a lot of “here lies” kind of songs. To memorialize others. Whether they’re real or imagine or based on people that I think need to be liberated. So, maybe it’s the feeling that if you put somebody into a song that no part of their life ever seemed eternal, that the song might help them gain some, you know, immortality.

You’ve talked about the idea that Old Crow is a rock and roll band but that you play string instruments. Given that, what transpires creatively when you indulge those rock and roll sensibilities through the stringed instruments?

I guess it’s like an old school rock and roll kind of a thing, the feeling of switching from acoustic to electric. We didn’t actually switch – we do sometimes and we’ve definitely grown, our show’s bigger and there’s a lot more electric instruments. One thing I noticed when I was a kid – I think Critter was the one who pointed this out to me, my longtime partner – he said, “You play everything like it was a banjo.” And then recently somebody on social media reached out to me and was asking me about my violin bow stroke. And that’s the kind of thing I never think about because I’m a self-taught player on pretty much all my instruments. I just have my way of doing things.

I don’t consider myself an instrumentalist, really, even though I play a bunch of stuff. I’m just sort of hanging on, often times for dear life. It’s like the motions are all the same. I sort of play everything like an accordion, back-and-forth and back-and-forth, but I’m not a very good accordion player. So, if it’s true that I play everything like a – oh, I know, because this dude said my bow stroke was, he was talking about it as down-down-up. And down-down-up is claw hammer banjo. And I never thought about it. But it’s true. I’m totally playing the banjo on the fiddle. I’m also playing the banjo on the guitar with my strum pattern.

Does it feel like a translation from rock and roll music to bluegrass using these stringed instruments?

When I was 15-years-old, I took my electric guitar and I ripped all the frets out with a pair of pliers and I got sandpaper from a hardware store and I filed down the neck and I drove in a nail and I turned it into an electric banjo. I put it on heavy distortion and I played just rock and roll on my electric banjo. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do with that. But then I heard some other musicians who sounded like that, too. Like a guy from Ithaca, New York, named Richie Stearns. It was like I was just destined to meet some of the people who would really help me to figure out what it is I wanted to do and the pathway just continued to unfold.

I think a lot about artists like Doc Watson. He’s so known for being an acoustic musician. He’s like one of the nation’s premiere – you think acoustic guitar, you think Doc Watson. But the truth is when Doc was playing on the streets of Boone [North Carolina], just like Old Crow played on the streets of Boone 40 years later. When Doc was doing it in 1959, he was doing it with an amp because he was an electric guitar player, because he wanted to rock like Merle Travis, not play his dad’s folk music.

So, when we got to the curb 40 years later in 1999 and played the same curb, we were playing it super, super traditional and that was our way of saying, “Fuck rock and roll! We’re going to take it up a notch! We’re going to go back!” That’s even more rock and roll than rock and roll and that’s been the ethos from the start, man. We wanted to be more rock and rock than rock and roll so we couldn’t play rock and roll because fuck rock and roll!

You know a great deal about the history of music. When you realized there was a whole universe to discover, what did that do for your mind?

I learned it almost instinctively. It came really quick. It was the same feeling that – I knew I could go to a junk store and buy some old antique and not even know what it was for and then meet somebody who would tell me what it was. Like, I collected old pocket watches and then I met somebody who liked to fix them. It’s just like, everything kept – I kept meeting a lot of old people when I was really young, like shop owners, people that play dominos. I was just always talking to people.

As I got older and learned about people like John Cohen – John Cohen, he’s my hero. All I ever wanted to do was to be like Mike Seeger or John Cohen. And yet when I came of age, you know, Roscoe Holcomb had been dead since I was born, Furry Lewis, anybody that I had dreamed – my kind of dream was to meet Gus Cannon in Memphis, Tennessee in 1959 and be the skinny white kid with the tape recorder. That’s what I wanted.

Yet, by the time I came of age and was the same age that John Cohen was when he went to eastern Kentucky, if I had gone to eastern Kentucky, and I sort of did, because I went to Appalachia at 18, just like John Cohen did at 18, but he did it 30 years before me and what he encountered was this really rich music that was at a crossroads. What I encountered was a whole lot of old folk and nobody young because they had all left. And this funny little vacuum in which crank was about to arrive, people still made corn whiskey, none of the musicians were professional or recordable, but they were part of the story.

And even though I didn’t meet people like Roscoe Holcomb, I met old women who still knew how to make apple butter and that’s the same thing, really. Because there was a time in which the music really stemmed from an inheritance. But then there’s also a time when the inheritance ceased and I somehow drew myself into the will.

You’ve grown from loving music to playing it on the street corners to becoming famous. Do you have time to feel proud about that?

The kind of fame that I got is the right kind for me. I’m not – I’m walking east Nashville during the quarantine and, like, nobody’s rolling their window down or nothin’. It’s not like I’m a – I’m not a TV star. So, that part of it – but I’m really glad for where I’m at. I really like where I’m at. I feel really lucky to be here and I definitely have pride in the accomplishments that I’ve been able to make in Nashville, in Americana and country and folk music and roots music. And I’m just glad that I get to keep doing it because it needs to be done and I got a special little niche in it and Old Crow, I can’t believe it’s still running. But we got our little spot, our little perch where we can look down from our gnarled old tree and crow.

During quarantine, you’ve been doing the digital “Hootenanny” series. What does this offer for you personally or creatively?

You know, I love television. I grew up – I mean, TV raised me. It’s so funny that I would turn to folk music having been raised by TV and having been super into pop music as a little kid. I wanted to be like – I totally wanted to be Pee-Wee Herman but I got onto Grand Ole Opry. And Mr. Rogers, I just loved Mr. Rogers. So, somewhere between Roy Acuff, Pee-Wee Herman and Mr. Rogers is me. And I’m using the show to sort of explore that part of me – you know, because as, like, a busker, a lot of my attitudes and performance pace on the Hootenanny comes straight from being a busker. And it’s all about talking louder than the traffic, it’s about trying to keep people’s attention that are walking by. It’s about not letting technical difficulties, because there are so many of them in a self-isolation live stream, trying to move through those things. So, it’s just been a great little challenge to see what I’m made of. I also, as a writer, I learned so much from Garrison Keillor, I love that show so much as a kid, he’s probably in the mix, too.

And you have a new video out today for the new song, “Quarantine.” Did you record that all on your own?

We went into the studio, like, maybe day three of the national quarantine. Like, March 11th, or something. To record my tornado song with Molly Tuttle, who was there. And I said, “Thanks for coming out and doing this for us.” And she said, “Yeah, I feel like after I leave here, I’m probably not going to see anybody for a really long time.” And that’s been the case. So, I think we got it in right when it was still appropriate to make a flash recording together. But it was just for us and we added a lot of other people who had already taken to the quarantine. The song is really sort of about that video. That’s what I thought brought it all together, like, what kind of art can you make in isolation? It turns out you can have a pretty good time.

Last question: what do you love about the medium of song?

I guess it just goes back to being a kid and hearing those jingles that made you feel like being a human was the greatest thing possible. Your ear was just burning with joy and wonder.

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