In early 2017 Old Crow Medicine Show celebrated signing with the Columbia label by issuing a live, track-by-track re-recording of Bob Dylan's classic 1966 LP Blonde On Blonde. The band had tapped acclaimed producer Dave Cobb to helm their next studio album, but Cobb issued a specific if somewhat unusual directive to the band, which visits the Stiefel Theatre on Thursday, Aug. 16.
OCMS co-founder Ketch Secor recalls the conversation. "Dave said, ‘I don't want you to run any of the tunes. I don't want you to memorize any of the tunes. I don't want you to make arrangements. Don't even play ‘em. Come in cold,'" he says. "Instead of playing our songs, we just played Blonde On Blonde. We played it intensely, learned it back-to-front. Once we knew that album really well we went in and made our own."
It was fitting that the group, which was founded in 1998, chose Dylan. The outfit's early hit "Wagon Wheel" is a co-wrote of sorts with Dylan. (It was a song sketch that the band's Critter Fuqua had heard on a bootleg and passed to Secor, who fleshed it out into fuller form.)
Once support dates for 50 Years Of Blonde On Blonde were history, the group set up shop on Music Row in Nashville. There, they began cutting a series of songs that were in harmony with their earlier recordings while also breaking new ground. With pieces inspired by the countrypolitan sounds of the 1970s (think Charlie Rich and Charley Pride and later examples such as George Jones' "He Stopped Loving Her Today"), the veteran act emerged with Volunteer, which contains some of its finest work to date.
"Dave wanted to go after those sounds," Secor says, "so that's what we did. I've always written songs about bawdy beer joints and mornings after."
Secor points to the track "Old Hickory" as setting the tone for the sessions.
"We worked very quickly," he says. "It was recorded in about 14 days. I think we could have finished in six if we hadn't taken such lengthy lunch breaks."
With much of the band's time spent on the road each year, Secor was happy to talk about spending the last two decades on the road.
"Whenever I bring my fiddle into a new tune, even though I know I'm alone in doing it, I know that I'm sharing a fellowship with all the folks who have done it before me," he says. "There's been fiddles sawed on Main Street in Salina, Kansas, since long before anyone thought to write it down."'
I know that being on tour isn't like being a tourist. There's not necessarily time to go and check out museums. But it strikes me that you might be somebody who always tries to find out something about the place that you're in at a given time.
We've always tried to be the hometown band in every town. It's easy to do that when you play with the instrumentation that we work with. So much of the music that we're playing comes from a kind of halcyon day of Everytown and draws from such a wide range of influences that have had influence on every part of the country, whether it's secular music of African American origins from Memphis which went all over the world or sacred songs of the Appalachian highlands, which got turned into Carter Family classics which went all the way around the world. I feel that the music has a lot to do with that ability to be a kind of chameleon wherever we are.
I find that playing music in a town is one of the best ways to get to know it. I get off that bus and I walk the streets of wherever it is. I walk the alleys and I walk into the cigarette store and talk to that guy. I walk into the thrift store and I'm always talking to people. I feel like I'm in your line of work. It's sort of like a journalist in that I'm trying to understand what the songways are. In journalism it might be life pathways or looking for the narrative. For me, I'm looking for the song. For me the song is often something that exists in a spiritual plane. So you can't always ask someone about it.
Landscapes and industry and migration and all these forces in history all culminate in what that song will be. On a good day I get to a new town and figure out what that song will be and I can sing it. On a less than A+ kind of day I can get up there and approximate or tailor a song to the tastes of wherever I am.
Do you write prose about travel or considered doing so? Do you have those aspirations?
I really do. I feel I could write some disembodied poetry of the mind travelogue and get my own 21st Century version of Jack Kerouac's On The Road. I certainly have joined the Merry Pranksters so to speak. I've circumnavigated this continent. I've gone further than a lot of folks can do with a fiddle.
I'm a reader. I love to check out bookstores. We often play in Lawrence, so Lawrence is often the town that gives us the intellectual understanding of where we are. I go into the great Raven bookshop there. Last time I was there I picked up a reference book on the origins of land place names. Throughout it I could see all these wonderful American Indian and Spanish and Russian words that describe the natural landscapes of this continent. Those are great songwriting tools. But they would also make great tools for radio journalism or a book or poetry or a play.
I'm going to keep writing songs but I think I'll write some other things while I'm at it.
We've been talking about your love of travel and learning about new places. When you're home is that also a part of constant learning? When you're in Nashville and trying to figure out more about the place that you're in and your place in it?
I thought for sure that after 20 years I would have run out of things to say about Nashville but it's just not that way. There are layers and you can go deep and you go shallow and you can stay on top and you can go above. I think I could probably be anywhere and draw the inspiration. As a itinerant wanderer I can get to know a place and then I might go back there again and know a little bit more. I don't really rest. When you play music like this you're constantly filling up the vessel from which you're gonna dip your quill.
That might happen at the grocery store. It might happen when you turn on the six o' clock news. There's just so much to say. Inspiration can come from the strangest of places.