Old Crow Medicine Show: Flying High

For Ketch Secor, the longtime frontman for the old-time music collective Old Crow Medicine Show, to write songs is to walk with the gods. While it may be physically impossible to sit down and write a song with past legends like Merle Haggard or Ray Charles or even, to work with living legends like Bob Dylan or Dolly Parton, it’s possible for songwriters to somehow musically and creatively tread in the same metaphysical waters. For Secor, it’s as close as you can get to sitting in the parlor with these giants. That was true when he wrote Old Crow’s 2004 hit, “Wagon Wheel,” which he credits Dylan with co-writing (Dylan recorded the chorus in 1973 that Secor later built the song from), and it’s true for the latest Old Crow album, Paint This Town, which the group released on April 22. For Secor, to do the work is celestial, and the only way to live. 

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“It’s a powerful act,” Secor says of songwriting. “And an act that is a gift to participate in. So, I’m still as passionate as ever for the craft. I love hearing beautiful songs at random because I feel like they’re a constant reminder of the beauty and sacredness of the [work].” 

To understand Secor is to understand a mind moving in many directions. There’s the music, of course. But the busy artist has also helped majorly in his hometown of Nashville, from relief after the recent 2021 Music City flood to the elementary school he co-founded, which now boasts 125 students, after starting with just 16. He even participates in puppet show fundraisers for the city library system. Secor says he feels energized by the work. He’s happy making a difference, using his abilities and celebrity to uplift. 

“I’m motivated by a great need for agents of change around the world,” Secor says. “And I’m glad to be one. I encourage others to be one, too.”

Secor discovered singing in earnest by doing it in church as a young person. Later, he had thoughts of joining the circus, which is, to some, another kind of church altogether. But the way the musician thinks about his origins today, a story about toxic rain comes to mind. Secor describes it, saying he was just thinking about this idea the other day. He remembers being a kid and hearing an urban legend that those who lived downwind of the coal plants in the Shenandoah Valley, which touches Virginia and West Virginia, would see their raincoats melt when a storm hit. 

“I could picture that so clearly at about age 10,” Secor says. “What it would be like to have your clothes melt off of you because of pollution.” 

But he connected that fear with the “empowered pen” and gave him the feeling as a kid that he had control over his own worries. That he had the power to conjure something different: a song, in the face of this potential toxicity. His imagination, he says, allowed him to dream up something better—or to dream up the worst. It gave him the power to dream—full stop. Then, as he was exposed to more and more music, he learned how the craft could be honed, absorbed, and even mastered, in a sense. Then, when he found old-time music, he was in, hook, line, and sinker. 

“I was reading a lot of Woody Guthrie,” Secor says, “and thinking a lot about the continent as a stage, and really wanting to be a performer. When old Crow started, I tended to choose traditional material over original material. I felt it had more juju, more vapor and smoke and incantation to it than anything I was writing.”

Perhaps unexpectedly, there was an urgency to traditional music, for Secor. So much so that he felt he had to consume it as fast as possible and as much as possible. He likens it to a case of beer he felt he needed to slurp up before anyone else could get their hands on it, so as to become as drunk as possible. He just had to swallow it up, he says. Next was traveling. Secor wanted to visit the North Ontario that Neil Young sang about. He wanted to see the Northern Lights, too. He wanted to feel the magic that emanated from the musicians he revered. So, he went in search of it. In 1998, Secor formally formed Old Crow in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Born from busking, the band later got its big break at the festival circuit, and “Wagon Wheel” cemented the band’s status in the early 2000s. 

“It’s great to have gotten one,” Secor says of the timeless track. “If all I ever get is one, that’s good enough. Even if I’d never gotten one, I’d still be writing them.”

Secor seemingly always talks in metaphor. Regarding “Wagon Wheel,” he says it’s a song that’s “backpacked” around North America, Australia, and beyond. He’s gotten messages about it from Zambia, Rangoon, and other far-off locales. For Secor, the track is one of those “battered suitcase” songs, one with stickers of all the towns in which it traveled. The success of the track and the delightful way Secor talks about it is emblematic of his imagination, adherence, and love for traditional sounds and his prowess as a writer. 

“I’m trying to be lovely in basically everything I do,” he says. “Except dress—I don’t always dress lovely. But I’m just trying to be the best person I can be. I’m in love with language—language is my secret crush. I feel like I get my hands on a new book that I haven’t read before and it’s like an affair. I don’t want anybody to know about it.” 

In terms of process, there are two important elements for Secor when it comes to writing: memorization and mimicry. There are many who tell artists to be themselves. But Secor doesn’t necessarily adhere to this ethic. He suggests musicians go out there and live like their heroes (at least for a little while). If you love Merle Haggard, go and be Merle Haggard. Mimicking what you love, he says, is a quick step into it. Paint This Town exemplifies this idea, in a way: at times, Secor’s voice resembles Dylan’s nasally croon so much that it might be hard for some to tell them apart. Secor also compares it to a baseball player. He’s a Red Sox fan and he digs the idea of the pitcher, that sense of faith that throwing a strike requires. 

“I especially like the concept of having both the physicality of the pitch, the muscle,” he says. “But also the dreamscape of accuracy, which is like a belief. It’s almost a spirituality. A religious thing by which you can see where [the ball] is going before you let go. I think approaching songs like that [is good], already seeing them hit their target before they’re even out of your glove, so to speak.”

For the band’s latest LP, Secor must have felt great about the proverbial ball leaving his hand. The new LP features several excellent songs, including the ominous “Honey Chile,” the bombastic “Used To Be A Mountain” and the keen-eyed “New Mississippi Flag,” which Secor says he’s particularly proud of. While the new collection of tunes, many of which Secor wrote during the COVID-19 lockdown, includes some of the most exciting compositions he’s ever done, “New Mississippi Flag” especially stands out. For the new album, Secor recruited a whole new group of players and before they’d gotten into the studio, the group had never played together before. 

“This lineup hadn’t done a thing together,” Secor says. “Before we made the record, we hadn’t done a recording, we didn’t know each other very well.”

It was a high learning curve but one the band collectively aced on the harmonica-and banjo-laden LP. Secor, who grew up seeing the rebel Confederate flag flying his whole life in towns he lived in like New Orleans, says he’s happy to know that there will be a new Mississippi flag in the air now, one that does not include the rebel emblem of the Confederacy. Secor says he’s happy thinking about what Mississippi comes up with in terms of its new flag and how the people of the region will embrace it, beginning top-down with the local government. Furthermore, Secor says, he likes the idea of creating new words: improving the American lexicon to include less hurtful signs and symbols. 

“I think the mythology of the confederacy,” he says, “is full of traps that are there to self-aggrandize something that never even really existed.”

In the same way that Secor wants to discover new ideas, new songs, and new symbols, he is equally focused on discovering new songwriters. He aims to extend a hand the same way others extended theirs early in his career. One name that comes to mind is the exceptional guitar player Molly Tuttle. As a younger artist, Secor says he followed the “breadcrumbs,” heading toward his eventual career goals. Once he got to Nashville, those crumbs got bigger, looking more like “steak dinners,” he jokes. Now, he recognizes that same search in others, like Tuttle. 

“I think of this work like minor-league baseball,” Secor says. “The stakes aren’t that fucking high. So, let’s have fun. Let’s get to know each other. Let’s put a little mustard on it!”

Looking to the future, Secor says the road ahead is bright. Like many, he’s excited about being back out on the road via the band’s tour, which extends from March through July. Secor loves the energy of live performance; he adores the “high.” Today, Old Crow Medicine Show, which has now been a band for 23 years, includes new members (some of whom are half the age of Secor). They boast dozens of songs in their rearview and more ahead. Truly, the band has grown up with Secor’s home city of Nashville over the past two-plus decades. And he ain’t done yet. 

“The divinity that allows people to come and go and allows a band to grow and change,” he says, “it’s a beautiful thing.”

Photo Credit: Kit Wood/Missing Piece Group

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