The writing of Carry Me Back was no solo effort on Secor’s part. Every guy in Old Crow’s lineup at the time got involved, from Watson – one of the band’s most recognizable voices over the years – and Cory Younts, both of whom have since left, to bassist Morgan Jahnig and Hayes and Landry, both of the latter contributing more to the cause than ever. Says Landry, “Songs that I would just write naturally generally come from more of a personal experience. It’s more anthemic with Old Crow … It has a broader voice than any of its individual singers.” (Fuqua’s songwriting isn’t represented on this album, because he wasn’t yet back in the band, after initially leaving to go to rehab for his drinking, then staying out to attend college.)
Sure, the subject matter can be heavy. As Secor puts it, “We sing songs that have teeth. This world, it bites.” But Old Crow’s also really into having a good, wild time. String band music was never meant to be a staid, reverent affair anyhow, and these guys really go for it, ratchet up the tempo and barrel ahead with untamed energy to rival that of any punk who’s ever plugged into a Marshall, and with a much warmer attitude to boot. Just listen to the feral, rapid-fire blues number “Mississippi Saturday Night” or “Sewanee Mountain Catfight,” a down-home take on Girl’s Gone Wild.
The guys’ busking experience no doubt has plenty to do with them not beating around the bush about wanting to entertain people. Says Secor, “I think of it as the curb test: if it flies on the curb, if it stops people, if you can remember the title.”
More than once, Old Crow has even busked at Nashville’s CMA Music Festival – this June included – presenting a striking contrast to the huge commercial country stage productions that people expect to see. When the guys performed “Wagon Wheel” with Darius Rucker on the Grand Ole Opry in early July, the country-pop singer announced he’d just recorded the song for his upcoming album – with Lady Antebellum’s harmonies, no less. For him it was an edgy, back-to-the-roots move, one that also underscored mainstream respect for Old Crow. But that candidly commercial world isn’t where the band has exerted its greatest influence.
While it would be going a bit far to say Old Crow sparked a full-blown folk revival, these guys have contributed mightily to a major shift in youthful attitudes toward ownership, authenticity and what it means to feel included in a musical experience: lyrics don’t have to be strict autobiography to connect; songs don’t have to be entirely original to showcase originality; and younger generations need not turn up their noses at music that doesn’t treat them like they’re at the center of the universe.
Back when Secor, Fuqua and their band mates first got going, old-timey pickers their age were few and far between. Modern rock was still a force to be reckoned with. Now hard-driving string bands are where it’s at. “When we started the band in ’98,” notes Fuqua, “you didn’t see anybody our age playing banjos or upright basses or fiddles, or playing this music. I mean, you did if you went to the fiddle festivals at Mt. Airy or in Galax, Virginia. But, like, now you throw a stone in any direction – not literally – you’ll hit someone in a band who’s like playing banjo or playing these old-time tunes.”
Often enough, they learned those tunes from Old Crow. The band was a gateway drug for Graham Sherrill, who co-founded the lively acoustic quartet Westbound Rangers in college. “When I was in high school in Apex, North Carolina,” he recalls, “I went to a travelling Grand Ole Opry tour that featured Ricky Skaggs and some others I knew. But what I really remember is seeing Old Crow Medicine Show for the first time that night. Old Crow was playing around a single microphone and had the whole crowd in the palm of their hand … They played ‘C.C. Rider’ and I remember thinking, ‘Man, I gotta get in a band like this!’”
Other bands that got their start in the mid to late aughts, like Mumford & Sons, took a string band chassis and fitted it with indie rock-style poetics and heightened sincerity. In the visually stunning performance film Big Easy Express, Mumford, Old Crow and Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros jam together on a train ride from California to New Orleans, stopping to play shows along the way. In one scene you hear front man Marcus Mumford explicitly acknowledge Old Crow’s influence: “I first heard Old Crow’s music when I was, like, 16, 17, and that really got me into, like, folk music, bluegrass. I mean, I’d listened to a lot of Dylan, but I hadn’t really ventured into the country world so much. So Old Crow were the band that made me fall in love with country music.” (You’d have to guess he meant roots country, as opposed to Lady A.)
The string band movement might have considerably less momentum today if Old Crow Medicine Show hadn’t taken such an exciting, relatable approach to all aspects of music making. It’s no surprise when Secor – who can turn on the colorful oratory in a heartbeat – offers an inspired disquisition on what’s made his band different. “Maybe you wrote letters to Ringo, mom,” he says. “But he never read ‘em, mom. And he sure-as-hell didn’t write you back. But I wrote your daughter back when she wrote me to say, ‘Hi. I’m a 12 year old girl from south central Missouri and I’m interested in the violin. How can I be a good fiddle player like you, Ketch?’ Well, she got a three paragraph letter from me, and I made sure that she knew she needed to go out and get herself a John Hartford record, just like I did when I was her age.”
“And because of the kind of music we play and the fact that the people we tried to mimic weren’t rock stars – I mean, we’d sure mimic a lot of rock stars too – but there’s an approachability to fiddles and banjos. It doesn’t scare ya off. You can’t hide behind ‘em.”