This is the second piece in our Unlikely Encounters series, where a local musician interviews a big-name artist. This time, Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show talks with The Royal Tinfoil’s Lily Slay.
To ask a lo-fi, no-fi, buskin’ man why he stands out in a hi-tech world is easy-pickins and done to death — but that’s exactly what I did. Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show, Son of a Teacher Man, however, sank into our talk, unfazed and unassuming, like a chill of mountain air seeping through the floorboards of his old cabin. Despite collaborating with Bob Dylan on the lyrics for “Wagon Wheel” — a version of which made it to the Top 40 with local legend Darius Rucker taking the helm on vocals — and a Grammy-Award winning album under his belt, Secor remains steadfast in his simple message and creed. He may have started in a New England boarding school, but now the road is his classroom, and his lessons show that traditional music will never be about Silicon Valley versus the Shenandoah Valley. It has been, and always will be, about trusting the magic of the music itself.
Lily Slay: I hear you went to Phillips-Exeter. I’m also a native Virginian who went to a New Hampshire boarding school.
Ketch Secor: Oh yeah, where’d you go?
L: I went to Proctor Academy.
K: Oh yeah, we used to wrestle against y’all. And you had a girl on your wrestling team back when I was a wrestler.
L: Oh I don’t think I would have fit into the singlets.
It’s hard for me to imagine busting out a banjo on the lawn at my high school in New England. I was wondering if that was a popular instrument and how was it received? Did your musical taste make you stick out in school?
K: Well, I stuck out in school just cause of who I was. I stuck out everywhere I went as a kid. I grabbed the banjo because I wanted to learn to play this song, “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” which has this great banjo part by this guy named Happy Trom. He was the banjo player on the Bob Dylan song, “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” I really like that song and I was 14 and so I put forth a petition to the school that I attended to hire a banjo teacher, and they did. So they hired this guy named Ryan Thomson, who had been really active in the folk revival, particularly as it affected the Bay Area in California in 1970s. So he played with former members of The Grateful Dead, and then he did a lot of time in North Carolina, where he played with The Red Clay Ramblers and Tommy Jarrell and people who became an important part of the old-time scene. The guy happened to make a big difference, because he was some fast picker. He was the guy who really passed the torch along to me.
L: I think there’s something kind of freeing and romantic about leaving that life behind to travel the road, sleeping on floors in moldy motels all in the name of your art. How did your parents and peers react when you took off to busk across Canada and live in a cabin in North Carolina after college?
K: The reaction from my peers was they all jumped on the road with me. We all rode off together. And the reaction from my parents was one of understanding. I think they figured that I would ramble around for a couple years and then come back and do something more like what they do. I think they could see in my cloud of dust that I wasn’t coming back, that I would find a different way to be a teacher.
L: Last year you said “Old Crow is about as country as the Dropkick Murphys are Irish,” which totally cracked me up. Do you think a comfortable middle-class heritage gives you a unique approach to the history behind your genre? Did you reinvent certain aspects to match your voice?
K: Well, I don’t remember saying that or what I meant by that (laughs), that’s kind of a funny thing to say. So I’m not really sure what that quote was about.
L: It was something along the lines of how you didn’t necessarily grow up in a holler. You weren’t from a mill town, but you were always captivated by this kind of music.
K: Yeah, I guess we felt kinda called by it, like, the instruments themselves felt a little neglected and they needed some young punks to grease ’em up a little bit.
L: I’ve always thought it doesn’t necessarily have to be your heritage to end up being your legacy.
K: The thing about country music that’s important to note is that it’s not something that you learn. Rather, it’s something that you inherit. Inheritance is a funny thing. I mean, it doesn’t follow a linear path. For example, you would think that the kids that were 18 and 20 years old, on the backside of Beech Mountain, they would have inherited folk music from their [ancestors]. But in fact, they were — when we lived in that holler [Secor moved to a holler after college, but didn’t grow up in one.] without running water and all that, the people that were our peers who were from that place, they just wanted to move to the town and get jobs as telemarketers or whatever they could, working at Jet’s Pizza. They just wanted to get out. They wanted to work straight jobs. They emulated the television screen. But we emulated their grandparents, and their great grandparents. So it’s funny the way inheritance can skip around like that, and it often isn’t the person who’s the direct descendent.
L: Right, sometimes it skips a generation.
K: Yeah, right. I think it’s really important to note also that maybe the most influential era in which we see this happening is in the 1960s folk revival. That’s the time when you can see that it’s really skipping a generation. The post-war generation wasn’t interested in folk music to the extent that the 1960s college kids were.
L: You said in that same interview, “Folk music has been right there at that crossroads where social activism has trod.” Are there any causes in particular about which you’re most passionate?
K: Well, I can’t talk to a Charleston newspaper and not tell you that I think that police brutality is on the rise, or as present as it’s ever been, that it’s time to make a great change, and I hope that music will lead the way. I hope that through the streets of North Charleston that there’s a whole lot more singing than picture taking, than text messaging. I hope there’s a lot more singing on those front lines.
L: There’s been a movement of local activists using pop-up singing to challenge willful ignorance. It’s pretty amazing. There definitely are people filming to get the word out there, too, though. That reminds me, when you’re self-promoting, or small potatoes like me, your phone is like your lifeline, but I read that you don’t own a laptop or a smartphone!
L: I’m wondering if you heard about Neko Case recently refusing to play an encore in Portland after one fan wouldn’t stop filming in spite of her requests. Since you said you’re passionate about people really getting out there and singing instead of hiding behind their phones, is that something that bothers you? Do you worry it detracts from the experience of your fans, and does it personally bother you while you’re on stage that people are watching you through a three-inch screen?
K: Oh, not really, that’s just the times we’re living in. I mean I would never stop the show to tell someone to stop doing something. I don’t do that kind of thing, but I’m an entertainer. I’m there for that audience to have a good time. There’s different kinds of entertainers, and I think the performer that you mentioned has often had a tenuous relationship with her listeners.
L: Yeah, she’s a little prickly. I think that’s why a lot of people like her, but I totally respect your approach to it.
K: For me it’s just, you gotta practice what you preach, or … don’t even preach it all. I’m not here to preach to anybody about what they ought to do. I’m just doin’ it the way I see. I think that if you’re a young artist and you say that your phone is, what did you call it, your lifeline — A young artist shouldn’t have a lifeline. I mean, what kind of art are you making if you’re tethered?
L: Yeah, it’s really difficult. Busking is such a nomadic endeavor — to be able to literally use word-of-mouth is amazing. It seems, nowadays, to reach out to people is really daunting. You have to have this internet tech-savvy, which I don’t necessarily have.
K: I can get with why you guys that are coming up have to keep up your web presence and all that stuff and build your fan base that way. But as a person for whom — you know, I sold cassettes that I dubbed in my closet on a tape deck — and we felt like we were swimming in fame and fortune on street corners, because we were selling a lot of those tapes and drinking up our profits. Doors kept opening up. The thing about traditional music is that it’s stronger than any of those technologies. It’s got a self-sustaining power to it. So if you trust in it, I think you can do just as well. I mean besides, [we have to] do all that stuff as well, I just don’t do it [myself].
L: Right, that’s what I mean. It seems like it’d be a sigh of relief to outsource that type of thing. It seems like musicians nowadays are either good at actually being a musician, like what you do, and some people who are more masterful at the viral video.
K: Well, yeah, it takes all different kinds. There’s always been singers who are more pure in the scope of what they want to accomplish and there are others for whom they just want ovation at any cost.
L: I’ve been hearing this phrase in the Americana circuit of my peers that country music needs to have its “Nirvana moment,” (To paraphrase Grady Smith of The Guardian) — like when rock suddenly shifted from hair metal to grunge and went to a really raw place. Bands like yours make me think it’s possible. Do you think it will be a slow, uphill battle or that the scene is capable of a massive country music renaissance?
K: I think that because I believe in country music, I also believe that it can make a drastic and bold move. I think if anybody is gonna spearhead it, it’s our friend Sturgill Simpson — he’s on a couple bills with us coming up — because he plays country music, and Old Crow doesn’t play enough country music to have that much of an effect in country. What we did through the lens of Darius was probably as impactful as we could be. I think that we were hugely impactful on country radio by getting a song out there that was kind of a wrecking ball to all that other “trip to the beach” stuff.
L: Yeah, you’re touring this August with Willie Nelson who renamed a 2013 tour the “Old Farts and Jackasses” tour in response to disparaging comments super-douche Blake Shelton made about classic country. It seems you also have a sense of humor about it, like you have those guys pretty well pegged about the formula it takes to write a pop-country song, which is why your hit was such a wrecking ball.
K: Yeah, and it took Darius for it to happen the way it did. That’s a partnership there that’s evidence of the kind of force that will go into changing country music. It’s not about some maverick. It’s about a seasoned performer recording one song that stands out from the rest. That’s the kind of change that I think country music is capable of. That’s the kind of thing that I think will change country music. I hope that other artists, I hope that Sturgill Simpson will get some cuts on the radio. I don’t think they’re gonna play him. It’s kind of up to the songwriters. That’s where it comes from. That’s why the radio sounds the way it does. It’s not because of the artists. It’s because there’s 12 songwriters in Nashville who are responsible for 75 to 100 percent of the hits.
L: That’s so crazy!
K: And so those guys are putting those words out there into the mouths of all those singers.
L: It’s almost like they have the country edition of that refrigerator magnet poetry, and they move the same words around over and over again.
K: Yeah. It’s kinda rigged.
L: Well, “Wagon Wheel” is such a force. It’s become such an iconic song within the community, it’s almost become the new “Freebird” in the regard that it’s a simple masterpiece, everyone knows it, and there’s always gonna be one drunk guy in the back just yelling out for “Wagon Wheel.” I’ve actually played venues that have Wayne’s World “No Stairway”-style signs saying “No ‘Wagon Wheel.'” I think it’s so interesting the way it’s become such a cultural phenomenon.
K: Yeah, it’s pretty wild to think a song with as strange a parentage as that one could have such an impact. [When Secor was 17, he took the chorus of an unfinished Bob Dylan song and added his own verses to create “Wagon Wheel.” The two later agreed to a co-authorship agreement.]. You know, that’s just the Bob magic there. It’s so much to do with Bob. You know, if the right people heard — well, I’m not quite sure why [that’s not happening with] “Blowing in the Wind” instead. I don’t really care if that’s all people know about the Old Crow Medicine Show or if you know our latest Grammy-Award winning album by heart — it doesn’t really matter to me if they only know the surface and don’t wanna see what’s under the iceberg. We’ve been together for 17 years now, and that’s a long haul. It’s important to note this for yourself as an artist — you really get to set the measurements of yourself by standards that you, yourself, hold in your heart. It’s not so much about what anybody else out there thinks.
L: I think that’s super solid advice.
I’m so honored to have gotten to interview you! Is there anything you wanted to add or plug other than your Charleston show on May 12?
K: I lived in South Carolina when I was a kid, and it was just a great time. Some of my earliest memories are living there. I think my favorite part about it — I was always into history — was the story of the Palmetto trees, which elastically defended Fort Moultrie. We lived in a state that grew a lot of peaches. And I lived on the border of Georgia, so there was a really palpable rivalry between us and them. And in the ’80s, Atlanta was like this incredible magnet. I didn’t know anything like that before. I just knew we lived somewhere near this Oz, this metropolis, but far enough away that our roads were dirt. Anyhow, I always liked South Carolina. I think it’s one of the richest places in the south. And I know there’s a lot of good songs there. If you’re a young picker, put your ear to the ground — it’s all bubbling up in the Palmetto State.