Ketch Secor, vocalist and fiddle player for folk string-band Old Crow Medicine Show, has always played for himself. Evidence of this can be found in the constant touring and rambunctious live shows that the group has become renowned for, from busking on a street corner in Nashville, to the more recent ROMP festival in Owensboro, Kent., on June 23. In the band's fourteen years they've recorded only six studio albums, in addition to various EPs and live recordings. Most of Old Crow Medicine Show's time has been spent on the road, introducing fans to the familiar sounds of the past.
"People like to dance. People like to cavort and drink, and people like to get together. So if you've got the soundtrack to what people want to do, and you show up when they want to do it, then you've got yourself a job," Secor says.
We reached with Secor at his home in Nashville, Tenn., where he and the band were preparing to tour in support of Carry Me Back, released July 17 by ATO Records. The Egyptian Room at Old National Centre in Indianapolis on July 19 will kick-off Old Crow Medicine Show's tour, as one of the few shows that they've played this year, due to line-up changes and recording. In January the group welcomed founding member Chris 'Critter' Fuqua back, while also parting ways with Willie Watson, another original.
Members Secor, Fuqua, Kevin Hayes, Morgan Jahnig, Gill Landry and Cory Younts form a bubble of reminiscent folk glory around their listeners by swirling fiery southern fiddle with banjos, an upright bass, barn-burning vocal harmonies, harmonicas, mandolin and guitars. The group touts Hayes as the world's only professional player of the guit-jo, a relic instrument from the early 1900s that marries aspects of both guitar and banjo.
Old Crow Medicine Show is a rare breed of American roots music with rock 'n' roll attitude. Secor recalls an early interest in folk music, and a passion for musical history.
"For some reason I kept putting my feet down deeper into the soil and despite all of the pop-culture references all around me and as a young teenager I became engrossed in American roots music," Secor says.
Secor attributes the band's solidified sound to the driving music they play. "Everybody kind of plays at once. We're on a track. It's like a rollercoaster," he says. "Everybody's going out. Somebody might crest the hill before the last car does, but we're all screaming."
Old Crow Medicine Show has always had a strange relationship with coincidence, according to Secor. Early on, they impressed country legend Doc Watson's daughter by playing in front of a pharmacy and were booked on his musical festival soon after. Secor believes that the group's formation seemed cosmic in nature. He met the rest of the band while he was playing on street corners, traveling the United States in his youth. The success that Old Crow Medicine Show acquired is further evidence of their fated history.
"We snuck our records up music row and got ourselves management and a good agent. We didn't do it the way you're supposed to do it. We didn't do it with websites and Facebook pages. We didn't even do it with a working telephone," Secor says.
Recently, the group was featured alongside Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros and Mumford and Sons in Big Easy Express, a film directed by Emmett Malloy which followed the Railroad Revival Tour last fall. Old Crow Medicine Show experienced more of the strange circumstances that accompany their music.
"We happened to be on the tail of a forest fire that was burning up Texas, and as we rushed into New Orleans tornadoes touched down in Alabama. It's like a wild wind was coming across the country with us," Secor says.
The railway journey from Oakland, California to New Orleans was inspired by the 1970 Canadian railway tour by the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin and The Band, documented in Festival Express, released in 2003. The film is currently accessible through iTunes and will be made available on Blu-Ray and DVD on July 24.
"One thing that's great about being on a train is you can only go where the tracks take you," Secor says. "You can't change your mind. It takes a lot to stop a train. More than your will."
Their increasingly popular song "Wagon Wheel" was certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America in November of 2011. Secor wrote the song using a mumbled line in one of Bob Dylan's recording session outtakes for the Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid movie soundtrack in 1973. Dylan attributes the chorus lines to blues-man Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, who is suspected to have taken it from a recording by Big Bill Broonzy. Dylan and Secor signed a co-writing agreement on the song and it was released on O.C.M.S. in 2004. Since then "Wagon Wheel" has been covered by artists such as Against Me! and Mumford and Sons, and has become recognized globally, a development that Secor often reflects upon.
"The reason that they're singing it in Kiwi and they're singing it in Chad is because kids from Indianapolis who volunteered to go to these far-flung places have brought the song with them," he says. "It's not because it's on the radio or even on your iPad shuffle. It's because it's a song that comes out of your mouth and gets strummed by your fingers, not mine."
The last time that Secor was in Indianapolis he took a walk along the White River. He'd been on the road for several years and had grown weary of the familiarity of the cities they'd been playing in. Each place had the same strip malls, shopping centers and concrete sidewalks, but none seemed distinct from the others. Secor wandered past the strip mall, parking lots and bus stops towards the river and followed it downstream until he encountered a lone rattlesnake.
"That's what I'm searching for as a musician in your town or any town. I'm just looking for a rattlesnake on a river that knows the name of the town I'm in," he says.
A full transcript of the interview can be found here.