Old Crow Medicine Show's new album, Volunteer, out April 20th, marks two decades that have taken the string-band sextet from busking on street corners to Grammy success and membership in the Grand Ole Opry.
But despite their achievements, founding member Ketch Secor still feels like an outsider to country music 20 years in – a persistent challenge, in his view, to the status quo of the hit parade.
"We have somehow, improbably managed to do good business," Secor says. "But the ethos of the band is such a wrecking ball to the good business model and practice [of Nashville] that the perch for Old Crow on the far left side of the country music branch is a precarious one. There's always been something dangerous about Old Crow Medicine Show."
Nashville may have "thrown its arms around this wayward child that challenged the country music business," but it's that ethos that has held the band together through tough times – the extended absence of co-founder Critter Fuqua and later a hiatus, both brought on by the band's hard-living lifestyle – and what provides the all-for-one rallying cry on Volunteer.
"What it took for us to survive this was a whole lot of luck and a whole lot of courage and a whole lot of perseverance, a whole lot of loyalty," Secor says. "And in all of those traits was a willingness to serve, and that's the volunteerism. That's the oath and pledge."
Volunteer, Old Crow Medicine Show's eighth full-length album and first for Columbia Nashville, could serve as a metaphor for the band's own story. Although Secor says the songs themselves aren't about the band or part of a thematic cycle, a common thread of innocent beginnings, wild times and wistful memories connect the character sketches to their own experiences along the lost highway.
Years of playing anywhere they could – including the fateful day they wandered into Boone, North Carolina, set up outside a pharmacy and were discovered by Doc Watson – refined Old Crow's rave-up performance style and solidified the group as a live act. The studio hasn't always been their comfort zone.
"We've made one hit record and maybe a hundred B-sides that were all pretty good, too," he says. "But what we really do for a living is stand on the stage.
"When you're on the stage, you're running a marathon," Secor continues. "I've found that I do better with running after the pistol shot than I do sitting there and calculating every step of the run and mapping it accordingly and then lacing up my sneakers."
Yet, the band gels with producer Dave Cobb on Volunteer, resulting in the band's most realized studio recording to date. The songs breathe and evolve, building on the group's established folk-revival style. It all came together in Nashville's legendary RCA Studio A, a place Secor never thought he'd feel at home, where 10 years prior just walking inside felt foreign.
"[I thought], 'This is where we would go if we had a big drum kit and background singers and were ready to get that new John Deere single.'" When he returned with Cobb and his Old Crow bandmates to record Volunteer, though, he felt a decidedly different set of emotions.
"It's like I walked into a totally different room than the room I walked into 10 years ago," he says. "But the room hadn't changed. It was me."
For starters, the songs the band brought Cobb called for a broader sonic palette. Electric guitar notably shows up on the gritty, twanging hook of "Dixie Avenue," making its first appearance since "Wagon Wheel" on their self-titled 2004 record. But this isn't Bob Dylan at Newport –elsewhere, electric guitar simply colors in the corners alongside a bullpen of traditional instruments.
The street-corner stomp and shout of album-opener "Flicker & Shine" encapsulates the adrenalized chaos of Old Crow's early wandering days, a statement of unity with gang vocals laying out the group's credo – "all together we fall together, we ride together, we're wild together!" Raucous good-time songs "Shout Mountain Music" and the honky-tonk ramble "The Good Stuff" keep up the energy.
The narrator of "A World Away" is an outsider looking in, though, and on "Look Away" he's pining for home. By "Homecoming Party," he's trying to work his way back into the rhythm of family life after time spent on the road, a feeling Secor – a husband, father and frequent traveler – understands well.
"That feeling of looking in the mirror, bleary-eyed, [realizing] 'Oh, this part of life, not that other one that was flying down Interstate 55,'" Secor relates.
The closing track, "Whirlwind," provides a bookend to the record's story, a tender reminiscence of a couple's journey through a lifetime of trials and joys, and a thematic nod to Old Crow's own winding path.
Like the dancing partners in "Whirlwind," Old Crow Medicine Show is discovering the rewards of sticking it out, like the second chances that brought the band back to RCA Studio A to make Volunteer.
"It's so easy to just focus on the stunning moments – you know, Merle Haggard whispers in your ear or Emmylou Harris asks you to carry something for her – that you overlook the times when you passed something or someone by," he says. "But through the spiritual journey that a life in music is, those things that you pass by end up returning, and you get to make the choice all over again."
Some things never went away in the first place. Despite the enduring success of hit single "Wagon Wheel" or the Grammy they brought home for the 2014 album Remedy, Secor's mindset is still standing on the street with his gang of outsiders.
"I bring the street corner with me. I could be having this conversation on the curb right now," Secor says, never breaking his carnival-barker pitch. "And now is about the time in the conversation that I would be suggesting to you through gesticulation, eyebrows and nuance, that it's time for you to put your money in the case."