In 2009, Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor was half-listening to a National Public Radio story on Levi Barnard, an American soldier who had died in Baghdad’s Dora Market. But when the narrator noted that Barnard was from Ararat, Va., Secor’s ears perked up, because that’s not far from the Shenandoah Valley where he grew up—and even closer to Boone, North Carolina, where the band had spent several years before moving to Nashville.
Near the end of the broadcast, several of the late lieutenant’s friends got together to remember him, and they broke into Barnard’s favorite song: the Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel.” Secor was so moved that he turned the radio off, sat down and wrote a song called “Levi,” a highlight of the band’s new album, Carry Me Back. Over his own bouncy fiddle licks, Secor sings: “In the market square, while the bells were ringing loud to fill the air, Levi gazed his eyes out through the rocket glare, beyond the desert and the ocean, to the furthest fields of home, and when the bullets pierced his body, he was already gone.”
“The fact that he’d learned ‘Wagon Wheel’ meant a lot to us,” Secor acknowledges, “because it meant we had reached the kind of person we had most wanted to reach: the kids our age who live in those mountains. It seems a little presumptuous to write about a person’s death, but that’s country music. I didn’t know him, but when I heard that he had hunted for ginseng and had made some whiskey in the mountains, that seemed real familiar, because we did that too. When we were in Boone, a lot of people around us were hooked on pain medication, so they didn’t know how to hunt ginseng. Like him, we had to go to an older generation to learn how.”
Whether it’s hunting ginseng or playing blues on the fiddle, a lot of things have been forgotten in America, and those who have the need to know are often forced to investigate generations past. Old Crow Medicine Show has that need to know, but they’re not content with merely finding neglected things; the band insists on putting those things to practical use in the here and now. They’ve shown such a knack for weaving the past into the present that they’ve become the most important band to emerge from the early-’00s new wave of string bands.
“Levi,” for example, borrows its chorus, with the “Lord, Lord, they shot him down” refrain, from Bob Dylan’s song, “George Jackson,” but the fiddle line is based on the traditional tune, “The Girl I Left Behind Me.” In other words, it’s the marriage of modern songwriting and old-time string-band music that the Old Crow Medicine Show is always matchmaking. Secor sings the fiddle line, “dah-dee-dah-dee-dah,” over the phone from Nashville and adds, “‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’ is the kind of song you’d like to sing on your way over to a war; it hints at the life Levi left behind and never got to reclaim.”
Secor got the address of Barnard’s family from NPR and eventually traveled to Ararat to play “Levi” for them. “It was a real tearjerker,” Secor admits. “That’s a real emotional song to sing, because it feels like Levi lives in it a bit. I was a little concerned that they might think I took too many liberties. But at the end of the day, if Levi and I were at a campfire drinking whiskey and I played it for him, I think he’d be pleased.”
“Levi” proves that mountain string-band music—and by extension all roots music—can be more than just high-energy jamming on old instruments; it can be a vehicle for memorable songwriting. It can be more than a precious artifact from days gone by; it can be a powerful tool for days yet to come. It can tell a familiar story—a kid goes off to war—about our kid, our war.
There are no drums or amplifiers mixed into the song’s arrangement of fiddle, banjo, acoustic guitar and acoustic bass, but the tune punches the listener in the chest as forcefully as any rock or hip-hop number. The fact that it can do this with hollow wooden boxes reminds us how our history is always with us. “The past is never dead,” William Faulkner wrote. “It’s not even past.”
The new album takes its name from “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,” the official state song of Virginia from 1940 to 1997. Based on an even older song, the 1878 version seemed to suggest a slave’s wistful nostalgia for the happy days of slavery—though some have argued that its African-American author was satirizing such nostalgia—and it was eventually banished by the state’s first African-American governor, Douglas Wilder. It’s a song with such a pleasurable melody and such discomfiting politics that it has fascinated Secor since he was a kid in Virginia. It intrigued him so much that he wrote a new song with a similar title, “Carry Me Back to Virginia,” for the new album.
“That song came from a story I was told as a kid,” Secor reveals. “The Confederates ran out of men, so they got 16-year-old boys from VMI, just kids, to march up to New Market, Virginia. I imagine their pride and valor as they marched up that hill and their shock as they heard the screams of the horses in the smoke. I wanted to surprise the listener the same way, so I started off by extolling the virtue of war, then drawing off all that glory till the truth was revealed.”
It’s a classic bait-and-switch routine. Over the surging fiddle figure of an Irish rebel song, the first verse is all gung-ho patriotism as Secor spitfires the images of pounding drums, roaring cannons, gleaming bayonets and rebel yells in rousing fashion. In the second verse, the music and vocals don’t change, but the images do: “A blaze of fire cut through the lines like a red hot iron. So we ran for cover where the horses piled, and we shivered in the cold against them. But the war raged on like the flames of hell; we dug from the pockets of the ones that fell.”
“I’m from Shenandoah Valley, where the story takes place,” Secor says. “I stepped off the school bus and into a battlefield, because the Civil War was waged in our yard. I grew up in a town with a monument in the center of town, a statue of young boy. This boy standing up there in front of the courthouse intrigued me; he’s there in every town, extolling war, but he’s lying through his teeth.”
Secor practices the same kind of bait-and-switch on “We Don’t Grow Tobacco.” He learned the African-American string-band tradition by visiting the Virginia parlor of Joe Thompson, the 1918-born fiddler who also mentored the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Mrs. Thompson would serve juice, and the old man and the young boy would play tunes all day long. The fruits of those lessons can be heard on this song, where choppy fiddle strokes create the bluesy push-and-pull rhythm. The first verse describes how “we’d chop that wicked weed till our hands and fingers bleed, working like a mule, maybe more.”
“OK,” you think, “I know where this is going: a protest against the cruel conditions facing migrant farm workers.” But then the song pivots and upends your expectations. In the second verse, the tobacco economy has collapsed, “empty barns are falling down,” and unemployed workers stare bitterly at the fallow fields. Secor and his co-writer Willie Watson have messed with your mind, forcing you to ask, “Is it worse to work under harsh circumstances or to not work at all?” There’s no obvious solution, and that’s what makes this such a great song.
“To write a song like that you have to spend a little time in those fields,” Secor argues. “We did, and we were informed by that experience. The whole band worked one summer, $5 an hour, bringing in some of the last tobacco on the backside of Beech Mountain. Sure, we were growing something poisonous, but we got some good songs out of it, just as Dock Boggs and Merle Travis got some good songs out of the coal mines.
“I’m a utilitarian; I want to see America work. I don’t necessarily want to see smokestacks blowing soot, but I don’t want those fields where North Carolina and Virginia meet to lie fallow either. We don’t want to be itinerant wanderers on the chain gang or the railroad, but what if it’s better than what we did before and better than what we’re doing now? There are no easy answers.”
More troubling questions are raised by “Bootlegger’s Boy,” a hillbilly tune played so fast and sung so hard it might as well be called acoustic-punk-rock. This time the lyric bait is the familiar tale of the heroic outlaw, brewing that corn liquor at a still in the woods, loading the jars in his truck and racing to Knoxville to outrun the cops. The thump of Morgan Jahnig’s upright bass, the scratch of Gill Landry’s banjo, the chop of Cory Younts’ mandolin and the strum of Kevin Hayes’ guitjo provide a momentum not unlike that bootlegger’s truck.
In the second verse, the glory of bootlegging is stripped away as ruthlessly as the glory of war is in “Carry Me Back to Virginia.” The kid described as “a brave bootlegger’s son” in the first chorus, finds himself in a violent showdown, as drug dealers always do. Unable to defeat his rival with his fists, he ends the fight with a razor blade. And now he’s known as “a cruel bootlegger’s boy.”
“Moonshine is something else the band did,” Secor confesses. “We stayed pretty busy between grading tobacco, brewing corn beer and distilling whiskey. It’s like we got this crash course of living like the Carter Family for two or three years. There’s a feeling about having a milk carton of white lightning; it makes you feel like a motherfucker, makes you drive a little faster, makes the tunes drive a little faster. But it can also kill you; you can’t do it for long before your lucky star falls. Since Gene Harmon, one of those guys who lived with us on the Beech Mountain, died, I didn’t drink corn whiskey anymore.”
It’s not the first time the Old Crow Medicine Show has made up a new/old song about bootleggers and their meth-dealing descendants. The title track of the band’s 2008 album, Tennessee Pusher, describes the tale of a Smokey Mountain dope dealer. From the same album came “Alabama High-Test,” about someone running a half pound of weed up I-65, and “Methamphetamine,” about gunfire on the Cumberland. On 2006’s Big Iron World, the band sang of the dangerous allure of certain chemicals on “Cocaine Habit” and “Don’t Ride That Horse.”
On these songs you can hear both the love of old songs that romanticized the outlaw life and the grim knowledge of how that life usually works out in the real world. Rather than favor one side of the argument or the other, Old Crow gives us both sides and allows the tug-of-war to go on in our own minds.
“I’ve always liked a song about a hustler,” Secor says. “I’ve written a lot of those songs and listened to a whole lot more. From Minnie the Moocher to the Candy Man, everyone’s got something to sell. ‘Bootlegger’s Boy’ is another installment in our series of songs about drug runners, whores and rusty razors. Often there’s a melancholy element, but there’s usually a real fun element too. It’s drug running, so there’s vice and virtue; it runs down both rails. If you’re selling drugs, raising tobacco or digging in a coal mine, you’re spreading poison, but a lot that’s wild and wonderful goes along with it. That’s country music.”
The Old Crow Medicine Show was born in 1998 when a loose-knit group of friends were hanging out in Ithaca, New York, playing old-time country and folk songs on the street corners for tips. Secor had the idea to join forces as a band, cut a quickie album and drive across Canada to the West Coast and back, selling CDs and playing on street corners for tips. Climbing into the big brown van were Secor, his grade-school buddy Critter Fuqua, upstate New Yorker Watson, his pal Ben Gould, wandering folkie Kevin Hayes, two non-playing friends and a dog.
More than 6,000 miles later, after a whole lot of shows and adventures, they wound up in Boone, North Carolina, in the very heart of the Southern Appalachians, where much of the music the band was playing was first created. There were already much better musicians and entertainers than they’d been when they left Ithaca, so they decided to keep the band going. They settled down, supporting themselves with moonshine and tobacco and by playing on Boone’s street corners whenever possible.
One day a middle-aged woman in Boone asked the band if they’d hang around long enough for her father to hear them. Her father was folk legend Doc Watson, and he liked them so much that he invited them to play his annual MerleFest. At the festival, both country star Marty Stuart and the Grand Ole Opry’s booker were impressed enough to invite the young band to Nashville. For a while the youngsters commuted between Boone and Nashville before moving up to the Tennessee capital for good.
There they became friends with Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, who helped Old Crow write, produce and perform their next two albums: 2004’s O.C.M.S. and 2006’s Big Iron World. The former produced one underground hit—“Wagon Wheel,” Secor’s rewrite of an unfinished Bob Dylan song—and the latter yielded another—the anthemic Secor/Rawlings co-write, “I Hear Them All.” A buzz developed and it got louder when Don Was (Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan) produced Old Crow’s 2008 album, Tennessee Pusher.
“We had a small bit of success,” Secor allows. “If you do make it, you carry forward the aspirations of a whole lot of people who played with you or listened to you when you were younger. I saw a lot of people burn out who were more talented than me. For us, it wasn’t so much about talent as persistence. I don’t think of myself as an artist but as an entertainer with a fiddle, the barker who got you to throw the baseballs at the weighted dolls, the magician with the smoke and mirrors, the guy who’s still trying to pull you to my street corner, to put a dollar in my case where I’m standing in front of the five and dime.”
That bit of success encouraged the band’s ambitions. Before long, instead of revving up traditional hillbilly and blues songs, they were revving up their own songs. A little while after that, instead of doing transparent rewrites of old songs, they were writing songs with a true spark of originality, songs such as “I Hear Them All,” “Motel in Memphis” and “Caroline.” Before long, they were playing inside the Grand Ole Opry instead of outside on the plaza.
Soon the band was on the road all the time, and they weren’t playing street corners anymore. Some band members couldn’t handle the pace; some couldn’t handle Secor’s increasingly dominant role as singer/songwriter; some couldn’t handle the drugs and alcohol the band so often sang about. There was a live DVD but no album of new songs as the years slid by. Finally the band agreed to go back into the studio with a new producer, Ted Hutt (Gaslight Anthem, Dropkick Murphys, Flogging Molly) and a line-up that now included Secor, Watson, Hayes, Jahnig, Landry and Younts.
By Labor Day of 2011, Old Crow had most of an album in the can, but the road-weary band was falling apart. Watson left in September for a solo career, and Younts left in December to join Jack White’s new band. Instead of trying to tour with his fractured group, Secor decided to hit the road as a duo with his old pal, the newly sober Fuqua, in search of the chemistry they’d had on that long-ago cross-country van trip. When they found it, they green-lighted the delayed album release and made plans to tour behind it with the line-up of Secor, Fuqua, Landry, Hayes, Jahnig and guitarist Chance McCoy.
“Change is sometimes hard to swallow,” Secor says, “and definitely hard to make. Fourteen years is a long time to be on the road with the same band. You may be a fiddle player for 14 years, but you’re likely to go in and out of a lot of different bands. The change was a long time in the works, and it took about a year to decide if we wanted to go on or not. With some time on the shelf, we had time to recalibrate and we decided to keep rocking. When Critter came back into the picture, it felt right to go out and do it again.”
Change is always a tricky issue for a roots band, because you don’t want to get stuck in the past and yet you don’t want to leave the past behind. Secor and his bandmate Gill Landry might want to recapture the wild energy of all those old country and blues songs about drinking, fighting and loving on a Saturday night, but they know if they try to duplicate the past, the energy will leak right out. So what do they do? They co-write a song called “Mississippi Saturday Night,” that reinvigorates the story by mixing Wal-Mart, FEMA trailers and BP chairman Tony Hayward with possums, catfish and juke joints.
You want to play the big festivals and the big stages, because you want to share your music with as many folks as possible. And after 14 years of evangelizing for string-band music, you’ve convinced a lot more young folks to come out and listen to fiddles and banjos for 90 minutes. At the same time, you don’t want to lose that feeling you had when you were busking on corners, when your next meal depended on how funny, bouncy and catchy you could be. So what do you do?
“I still play on street corners a few times a year,” Secor says, “to remind myself that I’m still doing that in a sense—I’m still trying to grab people’s attention with a wooden box. Sometimes I get recognized now, but most times not. I say our band name and people are surprised. ‘What are you doing here?’ they ask. I say, ‘Cavorting in that gregarious way that boys do when they get their fiddles out of their cases.’
“And then the cops show up. I played three weeks ago in Nashville, and the cops chased us off. So what do you do? You go to a different corner.”