Busking with Old Crow Medicine Show's Ketch Secor

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Originally published in Playgirl, September 2012

To learn more about Old Crow Medicine Show, click here

From their days of busking in the streets to receiving a gold record for their recording of the iconic song “Wagon Wheel”, the men of Old Crow Medicine Show have charmed the pants off bluegrass, Americana, folk, and alt-country fans alike. After getting their start in 1998 in Upstate New York, fiddle player Ketch Secor and his merry band of musicians hit the road; playing music on street corners to whoever would lend an ear. They were “discovered” in North Carolina by none other than Doc Watson's daughter, who took her father over to the curb they played on. He offered the guys a gig at his MerleFest and the rest, as they say, is history. With their fourth studio album out this past July and another tour to boot, Ketch Secor, Critter Fuqua, Kevin Hayes, Morgan Jahnig, Gill Landry, and Chance McCoy are at the top of their games. We caught up with frontman Ketch Secor (fiddle, harmonica, banjo, and vocals) to chat about his band, family, and musical beginnings.

PLAYGIRL: How do you find the balance between life as a new father, your marriage, and your career as a touring musician?

Ketch Secor: This is my first go-round as a father on tour. I haven't really had to test it yet. I hope I'll find it. I just think about all those absentee, hard-drinking country music fathers. I know I'm not like that—I don't think I run that risk.

Your music has been called old-time, bluegrass, folk, and alt-country. How would you define it?

I like to say we're a string band because nobody seems to have adopted that moniker... Most people think old-timey means vaudevillian. But our music draws more heavily off the music that predates bluegrass. It's more like what you would have heard from the original country records.

What music inspired you growing up?

I grew up hearing folk music from the 1960s because (in spite of me growing up in the 1980s) my parents played all their old records. And I heard a lot of Motown... I listened to the Four Tops like that was contemporary music for me. I though Gladys Knight was a former babysitter of ours (chuckles).

What do you consider the highlight of your career?

Playing on the streets. The highlights have been the groundwork. It's great to rest on your laurels and enjoy your career and work efficiently. But the real fun part of being in a band is in the early days when you're clawing your way like a rat through the streets, trying to get work.

How did you decide busking was the way to get your music across?

We always did well in cities that knew music comes from the curb, like New Orleans... Music belongs here in the open forum. And you didn't need anything to it, it was something you could do all by yourself. It didn't require a degree. You didn't need any credentials. You didn't need a record out, or management, or an agent. You, frankly, didn't need to be very good—you just had to be loud and exciting. I think of the street corners as the great equalizers of center stages. If the choices that you make as an artist allow you to stand on a street corner and be just as entertaining as you are at Madison Square Garden with a lighting rig and Jumbotron and LED's sewn into your shirt sleeves; if you can be just as good on a curb where an ambulance is going by and a cop is talking to an old lady and a man is holding his daughter's hand as she reaches over to hand you a quarter... Then you've made it.

Obviously Bob Dylan has meant a lot to you — you used “Girl from the North Country” as your processional song at your wedding. Can you talk about writing “Wagon Wheel”, which was you guys taking a Dylan song and adding to it, and Dylan's response?

I haven't heard anything from Bob about it. I talked to Jacob (Dylan's son) about it. He said, “What's up with 'Wagon Wheel'?” And I told him about the story and he agreed that finishing a Bob Dylan song was something you would do as a teenager—not when you're 30. That takes a lot of audacity. And then I said, “Well do you think your dad's ever listened to it?” And Jacob said, “'I don't know what that guy listens to.” We recently got a gold record for that song and I made sure to have one printed up for Bob in case we ever do meet. I'll keep it in the trunk of my car. 

Old Crow Medicine show has quite a resume: sales totaling more than 700,000 albums, an RIAA Gold-certified song with "Wagon Wheel," an appearance on Austin City Limits, three performances on Late Night With Conan O'Brien, and multiple appearances on Prairie Home Companion, various NPR programs and the Grand Ole Opry. What's left to do? Have you thought about expanding your music? Are you going to stay in the same vein? Or are you thinking of breaking out and doing something different?

I think a lot about Doc Watson and I feel like Doc gave a real big gift to America. He sang a lot of songs that were going to be unsung without his voice... We're ultimately all tap-dance acts. These kids in New Orleans screw bottle caps on their shoes and tap dance for money. And that's all this industry is—we're all just minstrels tapping for bills... But because of this great opportunity we've had to really reach people, we're playing a kind few can: music that's purely American. We've taken old-timey songs, topical songs, political activism songs, songs about the daily grind and our daily bread, and we're able to reach all these people with it, and I feel like if there's one thing I can do as an artist, it's to have the kind of impact someone like Doc Watson did with his music. And to do that, you've got to put a lifetime into it. That's the price. You tap dance all day and go back to your motel room and you crack that Dixie tall boy and you can rest. But the next day you get up and you keep on dancing and shaking and hustling. If you just rested on your laurels all day long, you’d be a professional vacationer.

Tell us about your new album, Carry Me Back.

We're in that heavy spot as a band where we have to relearn everything. You make these records and you put your heart and soul into it and then you step away from it for a year as it gets recorded and edited. Then it becomes a chore: “How do you like this tone? Color? This interior sleeve? Who's going to carry the record in Australia?” And then it comes out. Only after all of that do you then get the joy of relearning how to play those songs. We did ourselves a great service by making the songs really fun to play. This is our fourth studio album and it took this many albums to figure out how to hone the songwriting craft. These songs will capture every avenue of our skills. As a fiddler, here I am in the 21st century rocking old-timey fiddle... Doing what Roy Acuff did 70 years ago in Nashville. Oftentimes I feel like time never stopped.

What's it like to record at as iconic a studio as Sound Emporium studios in Nashville?

We've dabbled there for our earlier records and the soundtrack for the forthcoming film with T. Bone Burnett (Blue Moon of Kentucky, a biopic of Bill Monroe). So we knew the studio sounded great. It was built by cowboy Jack Clement and great sounds come out of it. We're really pleased with the sonic nature of the album.

Okay, we've got to ask—this Playgirl, after all. Do you like bath oil or bath salts?


Who would you want to have in a hot tub with you?

Larry Hagman, Sitting Bull, and Pocahontas.