How Old Crow Medicine Show Reimagined Bob Dylan's 'Blonde on Blonde'

Nashville string band's Ketch Secor and Critter Fuqua explain why they chose to re-create Dylan's 1966 opus for a new live album

Old Crow Medicine Show performed Bob Dylan's 'Blonde on Blonde' live in Nashville in 2016. Credit: Rick Diamond/Getty Images

For Ketch Secor, the music of Bob Dylan has always served as something of a time portal. "You listen to any of the Bob records and they send you back to the sources," says the Old Crow Medicine Show singer and fiddle player, citing Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Blind Lemon Jefferson and the New Lost City Ramblers.

As Secor explains on a recent morning, Dylan's music, and specifically the singer-songwriter's ability to interpret and build upon these seminal folk and blues-music artists, led a then-teenage Secor to develop a deep-seeded love of American roots music. "He keeps the footprints. He didn't scuff them over," he says.

Now Secor is returning the favor. Last May, in celebration of 50 years since the release of Dylan's iconic 1966 double LP Blonde on Blonde, Old Crow covered the entirety of the album for a performance at the CMA Theater, located inside the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville. And now, on April 28th, they’re releasing 50 Years of Blonde on Blonde, a live recording of that night's epic performance.

The singer admits to being a bit hyperbolic in the past when talking up the quality of whichever of his band's albums he happens to be promoting at the time. "But this one is different," he says with a laugh, "because Bob Dylan wrote all the songs. They're all fucking masterpieces. We had nothing but top-shelf material here. This is the ripest fruit. It's so sweet."

Old Crow have been covering old-time music for years now, from their earliest days busking on the streets of Nashville to the Grand Ole Opry stage: blues standards, jug band tunes, Led Zeppelin numbers or the random Dust Bowl-era 78 Secor might have discovered the day of a show. "We've been in the business of rewriting and re-appropriating old music for a long time," Secor says.

The process then, he explains, was hardly different when they decided to tackle Blonde on Blonde. Albeit with one major exception. "There are 43 pages of lyrics on this album,” he says. "And we memorized them all."

In the weeks leading up to their CMA performance, the band held lengthy rehearsals to nail down the material. Secor constructed lyric sheets with chords because not all the band members were as familiar with the songs. "We'd get together and it just flowed," says band co-founder and guitarist Christopher "Critter" Fuqua.

The band never felt daunted by the challenge of covering Blonde on Blonde, however. Fuqua in particular says he's been prepping for the opportunity since Secor first introduced him to Dylan's music in eighth grade. "We became sort of obsessed," he recalls. "We listened to everything Dylan did." Fuqua admits Blonde on Blonde was never his favorite of Dylan's work – Blood on the Tracks is his go-to – but he says "the whole album was always in my brain somewhere."

Old Crow will perform Blonde on Blonde live when the group launches a 26-date tour next month, following the sequence of Dylan's album. But, as Secor notes, they amp up and dial back the energy and feel of different songs to fit the mood and energy of a dynamic concert.

"The first tune's kind of a novelty and then you've got to get it smoking," Secor says of "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35." "We knew that the second song had to be a barnburner. You've got to do a lot of work before you can get introspective and sing a love song." To that end, the normally measured "Pledging My Time" becomes a "hillbilly breakdown." Later, where Dylan's "Obviously 5 Believers" is a strutting blues jaunt, Old Crow's becomes a manic fiddle riot.

"I think we found out pretty quick that only Bob can do it the way he recorded it," Fuqua says. "If we did it like Bob, it would be boring."

Secor says he felt comfortable reinterpreting Dylan's music because he believes these songs are now part of the greater American canon. "After something's been in the American consciousness long enough it becomes a song that belongs to everybody. Probably in a short period of time we will all begin to think of the Bob Dylan canon like we think of 'This Land Is Your Land.' We know that Woody [Guthrie] wrote it, but that doesn't matter. It's the message that is written in all of us now."

For Old Crow, covering Dylan was also a tribute to his oft-forgotten affiliation with Nashville. Secor believes the city's longtime association with mainstream country music has obscured people from remembering that Dylan recorded several albums in Music City, including Blonde on Blonde, Nashville Skyline and portions of John Wesley Harding. "We in the roots-music world of Nashville, we know that Bob came here and made these records," he says. "But I'm really interested in highlighting this 50-year time capsule of Blonde on Blonde to the greater Nashville music community and saying, 'Hey, we made 'Coal Miner's Daughter' and we made 'Crazy' and you know that. But we made this and you all might have forgotten it.'

Secor has even done his part over the years to bring Dylan's music into the mainstream country-music fold. Most notably, in 2013, Darius Rucker scored a Number One county hit and a CMA nomination with a cover of Old Crow's "Wagon Wheel," which Secor wrote as a teenager using a song fragment from a Dylan bootleg off 1973's Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid sessions.

"We slipped Bob Dylan in through the back door," Secor says with a wild laugh. With Old Crow's Blonde on Blonde, he adds, "perhaps I can get Bob even closer to the podium."