For an old-time Americana band like Old Crow Medicine Show, it doesn’t get much better than hopping a train filled with musicians and seeing the country. Called the Railroad Revival Tour, the train took Old Crow, Mumford and Sons, and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes from Oakland, Calif. to New Orleans a couple of summers ago, stopping in cities along the way for powerhouse outdoor shows.
It’s an experience Ketch Secor, co-founder of Old Crow, has added to his list of incredible moments. “Being on that train with such amazing musicians, that was a dream come true,” he says. “I couldn’t believe it. But I’m fortunate to have had lots of moments like that. I couldn’t believe it when Doc Watson found us in front of that pharmacy in Boone. I couldn’t believe a song I wrote with Bob Dylan when I was 17 [“Wagon Wheel”] went platinum. Heck, I couldn’t believe I even wrote a song with Bob Dylan.” If you ask us, those are the trappings of a charmed life.
Old Crow’s folksy, rambunctious bluegrass has earned them fans among everyone from the kings of the Appalachian traditionalists — Doc Watson is a case in point — to young urban hipsters who can’t even understand the twangy backwoods-speak the band dishes out in songs like “Sewanee Mountain Catfight” or “We Don’t Grow Tobacco.”
That’s not only because the 15-year-old band is made up of serious musicians who can play some of the fastest, most difficult fiddle and banjo lines you’ve ever heard. It’s also because you’d be hard-pressed to find a group that can beat Old Crow for pure melodic energy. The sound is invigorating on their recordings, but at a live show the fiddle, banjo, and harmonica are practically on fire, creating a crazy, addictive mix of some of the best traditional music America has to offer with the intensity of a modern-day rock show.
But despite the big stages, massive crowds, and moshing fans, Secor and Old Crow are much more steeped in the bluegrass and folk side than they are in rock ‘n’ roll. Place has always been a central element of the bluegrass genre, which developed from the Celtic airs that Scots and Irish immigrants brought with them to the Appalachian mountains, and it’s no less important to Secor when he’s writing. “I’m very much influenced by place,” he says. “Not so much like where I put pen to paper, but the sound of a place, the regionalness. There was a time when every region had its own sound. Now it’s so hard to find that singular sound. Like in the Lowcountry — years ago on the Sea Islands you could go to a church and hear people singing in Gullah, old traditional songs … and nowadays you’re more likely to hear the latest gospel song from TV or the radio.”
Secor has said in other interviews that the decade we’re in right now is one of the best times to be playing a banjo that there’s ever been. And it seems like he’s right — bluegrass and folk bands are more popular than ever, even spinning off weird amalgamations like punk-bluegrass and pop-folk. Part of that is no doubt due to bands like Old Crow. But the other part? The music is just that good. “It’s just one of those things that cycles back around,” Secor says. “American folk music is a collection of all of the stories of all of the people of America, and it’s not exclusive. It belongs to rich and poor, all races, all faiths, and people in all the places of America … the music is strong. It survives. And when we sing it, we’re connected to a whole lot of other voices.”