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Banjos in the Attic: Old Crow Medicine Show Keeps Playing That Old Time Music

Laura Partain

Old Crow Medicine Show has been performing, recording and touring since the late 1990s. In that time the group has become standard bearers for a particular brand of old time music that tempers good times with deep thoughts. Co-founder Ketch Secor says that the group doesn’t take its role lightly. Spreading the gospel of social consciousness and activism through music is a kind of higher calling.

“You almost feel like the music chose you and you’ve got to do your damnedest to fight tooth and nail to make sure that the music prevails,” he says. “I don’t know what else you get that kind of intensity with. I’ve been watching the Olympics and it’s been fun to compare our band with Olympiads. As I think about all the training that goes into it and all the perseverance it takes to make a living out of sawing a fiddle.”

The band has demonstrated perseverance, going all the way back to its earliest days when busking was a regular part of the group’s existence. There is the story, retold in virtually every conversation about Old Crow Medicine Show, of how guitarist Doc Watson heard the band performing on the street and took them under his wing. Since that time the band has maintained close ties with many of American music’s elder statesmen. Even though, he adds, some people perceived his band as being a longer established tradition than it is.

“Because of our name and our tendency not to have a photograph in circulation,” he says, “everybody thought we were a bunch of old men. They’d come out and see us and be surprised. But they themselves were a bunch of older folk. That name, that moniker, draws out a segment of the population that knows the name means traditional music. They love traditional music, so they’re into it. But it’s taken us a much longer time to get people our own age out to the shows. They’re that much further removed from having a banjo in their attic. I’m 35 and I grew up with a guitar in the attic. That’s because my mother thought the Kingston Trio were pretty far out, man.”

Secor adds that being embraced by earlier musical generations has been fundamental to the band’s survival. “We feel like we got passed a torch,” he says, “and that we’ve got to keep it burning—back to the Olympic metaphor here. If you’re going to become keepers of the flame, you have to know what the flame has endured.  I feel really blessed to have spent some time in the same square foot space as Merle Haggard. I’ve had a conversation with him. I’ll never do that again and nobody on Earth ever will. But I was there. I’ve whispered something in his ear and he in mine.”

The band has spent time on the road with Willie Nelson in recent years, they’ve shared writing credits with Bob Dylan and have carried the torch for the music and legacy of Woody Guthrie. “These are not things that every string band gets to do,” Secor adds. “We feel chosen for it. It’s an incredible feeling and one that I think requires some great responsibility.”

Earlier in 2016 the band said goodbye to one of its musical mentors, Dr. Ralph Stanley. “I loved Ralph because he straddled the line between traditional music and bluegrass,” Secor notes. “For a lot of people that’s one and the same. But because I play old time music, which is something different than bluegrass, I don’t think of it as the same. To me, bluegrass is actually quite modern. I’m interested in the stuff that’s more archaic, more folk derived. Less from the songbook. He did both really well. He was the dominant voice in the sound of bluegrass music. It’s what high lonesome is.”

Talking with Secor, one gets the sense that he’s as interested in the future of the music he and his bandmates play as he is in its past. “It’s not enough to say, ‘Here’s the tune, boys. Hold onto your hats,’” he says. “I love to take the time to let people know about the origins of the music. I do that in schools and I do that in front of disadvantaged youth and with newspaper reporters anybody I talk to.”

He adds that he’s also aware of the tradition of musicians as activists, whether Peter Seeger, Woody Guthrie, or Bob Dylan. “These are forces in American music that show us that music has a fighting line,” he says. “There are nations where musicians have gone to jail and been tortured for singing songs. That’s how potent music can be. So, we gotta keep singing, man.”

Old Crow Medicine Show plays at The Cotillion Ballroom Thursday, August 25.