It takes Ketch Secor and Critter Fuqua approximately 45 seconds upon entering East Nashville’s the Fiddle House to grab a few instruments off the wall and start jamming on two fold-up chairs in the middle of the sales floor. A few “hellos” preceded this, sure, but when you’re the founding members of Old Crow Medicine show, an inaugural fiddle squeal and banjo-slap are really all the pleasantries you need. It’s 10 a.m. on a Friday, and Secor’s already been up for hours — he has a seven-week-old baby at home — though, looking crisp in dark denim, a cream oxford shirt and brown dress shoes, you wouldn’t know it. He’s certainly not playing like a tired man, his gaze fixed on some sort of heavenly focal point as he slices deeply with the bow. “I’m ready for lunch already,” he says.
This small, 1920s craftsman house on a short block in the burgeoning hipster neighborhood is where Secor takes his four-strings to be serviced — and it’s also his supplier. Like Hollywood starlets giving couture dresses a trial spin, Secor borrows fiddles. Today, he’s selected a beautiful, $8,500 John Silokowski violin so richly thoroughbred-brown it’s nearly golden on the edges — the same one he was loaned to record Remedy, the band’s sixth studio album (out this week on ATO). Fuqua, on the other hand, goes straight for a primitive-looking gourd banjo.
“OK then,” Fuqua says, standing up after they finish playing. He’s wearing a Motörhead shirt and a red flannel, looking like a nice, Nineties-Seattle foil to Secor’s polish. “Got what you needed?”
As aesthetically different as they may appear, the two men have been brethren since seventh grade, when they’d spin Bob Dylan‘s Infidels in their hometown of Harrisonburg, Virginia, high up in the Shenandoah Mountains. Secor had bought a vintage juice harp and snagged his mother’s old guitar, and soon those Dylan tunes turned to old time — though he and Fuqua, along with the future members of Old Crow Medicine Show (Kevin Hayes, Morgan Jahnig, Gill Landry, Chance McCoy and Cory Younts), might just call it “chasing the spirit.” Banjos weren’t trendy; “Americana” wasn’t even a genre. This was string music, built on Appalachian soil but just as fit for sidewalks.
Years later, “Wagon Wheel,” written around an old Dylan fragment, would become a sing-along-hit, only skyrocketing to greater heights when Darius Rucker offered a version that went nearly triple platinum. On Remedy, they’ve done it again, partnering with the folk legend on “Sweet Amarillo,” which exists in Old Crow’s perfect niche — sounding old but feeling new, the remedy, maybe, for a world half-hung on the past and half-stuck in a corporate-driven future.
“They’re the greatest string band in the world,” says Rucker. “And they’re country, through and through. They’re a country band more than most of us are country.”
Now, the newest members of the Grand Ole Opry sit down with Rolling Stone Country to talk about the value of imagination, finding a Remedy and how they define themselves in a vastly-morphing country landscape — and why Dylan is the most country of them all.
Let’s cut straight to the chase: What’s Remedy a remedy for?
Secor: Minstrels like us, back in the day, we had an elixir. Music has always been a remedy for what ails you. It might just still be the same old snake oil, but that stuff works. I think one of the applications of the word is self-reflective. We needed to take the cure. We’ve been at it for fifteen years now. Let’s make a record that is us, looks like us, sounds like us, is completely made by us in Nashville. There were some parts of the band that needed fixing. We had to take the cure ourselves.
In what ways were other albums not true to you?
Secor: We didn’t have the right blend yet of original songs and rewritten traditional songs. We didn’t yet have the wings in the studio to levitate. And at the 15-year mark we found that we did. We got to stretch out. Soar a little bit.
So it’s a remedy for both listeners and yourselves. What about modern country music — are you making a statement there, that this is a remedy for what’s currently on the radio.
Secor: Well, the obvious thing is that country music needs a shot. Not in the arm or the leg, but in the ass.
Fuqua: People talk about the “old times” and the “old music.” We need to get to where you can continue this sound without it having to be “old” because it’s so vibrant still. Roots music is a spiritual thing for me. Nirvana was roots music.
This whole “Americana” category can be a little strange, too. Why not just call bands “country”?
Secor: We’re all caught in this Americana lynch wrap. I think it all started when the record companies decided that Johnny Cash wasn’t country anymore. They decided that, because he was old and had warts on his face, they wanted something young and pink and fleshy to stand up there and shimmy and shake. And when Johnny Cash stopped being country, Americana was born. We’re in good company, but it’s made up, it’s not real. We really are a country band. This is country music.
Does it frustrate you when every band out of Brooklyn suddenly has a banjo and bushy beards?
Secor: If cloaking yourself with a banjo can give you more credibility, then that’s a great trick. That’s an old vaudeville trick.
Fuqua: But there’s something deeper than having a beard and overalls. That doesn’t mean country, necessarily.
Secor: The thing about country is it’s addicted to nostalgia. But when your musical source material is 25 years old, somewhere between Huey Lewis and Rick Astley, you’re just not making country music. It’s not very far up the creek to get to the real stuff, and the trail is wide and well trod, but you don’t have to be scholarly to figure out where country music came from. Country music is something I feel very connected to, as a string band, and as the newest members of the Grand Ole Opry. The Opry forges our connection with Roy Acuff, with the early stars.
So do you think that bands are capitalizing on the “Americana” trend?
Secor: Bands don’t capitalize, record companies capitalize. And I don’t think Bob Dylan is going to be reborn, I don’t think the Beatles are coming back. I think rock & roll is something that Jack White plays. We’re very much in the shadow of what’s happened.
Fuqua: There’s a danger in wanting that back.
Secor: The labels are insistent that it happens again. Long after the funeral of rock and roll, in the long tall shadow of Pete Seger, there’s a lot to talk about. There’s so much that went wrong. And music is the remedy for that.
Fuqua: But we did that too though. We dressed up, we put on cowboy hats.
Secor: We have the same magic trick as all the Top 40 country singers. We’re just doing it with the credibility of the old guard. They said, “Boys, go out and pick it.” They didn’t say that to the dudes stroking their beards at the coffeehouse. Doc Watson said, “come on over boys and cut some wood for me.”
Fucqua: That’s not to brag, but I feel like we did get a blessing to carry this on.
Well, Doc Watson really did “discover” you busking in North Carolina, and invited you to play at MerleFest, so it’s not bragging if it’s true.
Secor: The thing we can do now is pass on a bunch of songs to the new guard. Supply them with new songs that feel like old songs but are about this life, because music isn’t supposed to be behind glass. All these fiddles that are on the wall belong in peoples arms, right up against your face. They’re not supposed to hang here. Doc Watson, Marty Stuart, Merle Haggard, these are men that whispered in our ears and said, “I like what you’re doing, it reminds me of me.” I ain’t bragging about it, but to have somebody say that to you, just keeps the fire roaring.
And it’s like what Woody Guthrie served for or Bob Dylan — and now he’s doing for you, in a way.
Secor: And on this record, Bob actually is whispering in our ear. He’s scribbling in our margins.
Fuqua: To see “Wagon Wheel” and then “Sweet Amarillo,” it’s not a coincidence. There’s something working there.
Secor: Country music has a lot to learn from Bob Dylan. Country music has learned a lot from Bob Dylan already. Bob Dylan might be the most important country music maker in the 20th century. He may be the most influential country musician. But we don’t know it. We think it’s Hank [Williams Sr.].
Fuqua: It’s because of categories. You see Bob under “folk” and you don’t think of him as a country artist.
Well, what about Dylan makes him so country to you?
Secor: Because he’s America’s master songwriter. Country is reliant on song, much more so than other genres. It’s all about the song in Nashville, so it’s all about Bob Dylan. Because Bob Dylan taught us how to write songs. He taught the great songwriters — Jon Prine, Kris Kristofferson, how to write songs.
And he also showed how to use imagination. Dylan never lived on “Maggie’s Farm,” and you’ve never had a conjugal visit in a trailer, like on “Brushy Mountain Conjugal Trailer.”
Fuqua: Imagination has been lost in country music. If we didn’t have imagination, then Ketch wouldn’t have written “Conjugal Trailer.” You can only say “I feel bad about losing my girlfriend” so much.
Secor: My favorite songs in country are about heroes. I love a song like “Brushy Mountain.” We’re trying to make a new hero there. He’s in cellblock D and he’s gonna get some. “Doing hard time just got a little hotter.”
When did imagination get lost? I think a lot of it has to do with people believing they have to “live the hard life” to effectively write about it.
Secor: Look at the songwriters on charts: they are fellas who are college-educated, with great complexions, hair and teeth. We all love Merle, but none of us are Oakies because they don’t make them like that anymore. When we hear a real country story we run for the hills. Mindy McCready — that’s a real country music tale right there. But it didn’t serve her well.
But people are also losing touch with their roots in a major way. You drive around rural communities and you’re more likely to hear “Red Solo Cup” than old Doc Watson tunes.
Fuqua: Where the real country music comes from — in parts of Appalachia, I see more of a disconnect than I see in East Nashville. I see people here who know more about roots music than people there who have blood lineage to these players. It’s sad to see.
Secor: When we were teenagers we went to Ithaca, New York because where we lived there were pool halls blaring Alan Jackson, not old time music. There’s a cultural disinheritance. Somewhere between Loretta Lynn standing up and being the coal miner’s daughter, to the women and their role in country today, somewhere there’s been a crime committed. People have slowly lost a connection to the voice of the land that they came from.
Why do you think that happened?
Fuqua: Poverty and economics has a lot to do with it. The lower class, economically, usually gets fed a mass-produced something — canned food and such. You go to Appalachia and things are canned and things are frozen, not so in East Nashville.
Secor: We have the responsibility to go plant the seeds in those communities and say, “Hey, this is y’alls. You taught it to us.” If Old Crow can go out there and sow those kinds of seeds, we’d see a lot more fiddles flying off those racks. To me, what would make for a great song is an East Kentucky hillbilly singing to “Red Solo Cup” and show his life while it’s playing: he’s in his trailer with odors that can take out four horses just on the scent.
But maybe Old Crow can be the catalyst to bring people back to their roots — they listen to you, to “Wagon Wheel,” and they will want to discover what inspired you. You can be the gateway drug.
Fuqua: We’re pot. We’re a dimebag of scraggly, swag weed you get in ninth grade. Actually, take that off the record.
Secor: No, keep it! I like that. We’re definitely a dime bag. If we can teach the hipsters that this music came from the coal mines, well, that’s really stirring the pot.