Ketch Secor on Ken Burns’ ‘Country Music,’ Why Nashville Needs a Reckoning
In conversation, Ketch Secor, the Old Crow Medicine Show frontman and fiddler, is always ducking down the backroads and side alleys of American musical history. And it’s impossible to not tag along. Credit his old-soul personality and charisma, but especially his encyclopedic knowledge of country music, which makes him a perfect commentator in Ken Burns’ sprawling Country Music documentary. The series premiered Sunday on PBS and runs nightly through September 18th, before resuming for another four episodes on September 22nd.
Aside from being interviewed, Secor was also brought in by Burns’ Florentine Films as an advisor and historical consultant, a role the 41-year-old fit seamlessly. During a recent Old Crow gig at Pisgah Brewing in Black Mountain, North Carolina, Secor took a seat at a backstage picnic table to talk about his contributions to Country Music, living a “country music life,” and why a reckoning needs to happen on Music Row.
How did you first come across Ken Burns and what was your involvement with the Country Music documentary?
I started watching Ken Burns movies when I was about 11 or 12, when The Civil War came out. I grew up in the Shenandoah Valley [of Virginia]. So, these films, they really had an effect on me. I watched them every night when they came on. It’s all that I was thinking about was The Civil War — it was like Ken Burns giving me a tour of my own backyard. All the towns were named for battles and all of the high schools were named for generals. And I was just living in this place where the echo of the war resounded the loudest.
So I always loved Ken Burns from that time on… years later, I met him at the Ryman [Auditorium in Nashville]. We became sort of quick pals and did an interview, and he really liked it. And then I went to his birthday party a couple of times in Walpole, [New Hampshire]. So I just sort of took the opportunity to get to know him better than just being involved with the movie as a talking head. I’m an advisor to the film, so I read early scripts and made suggestions, mostly to the script that I was involved with. However, they showed me the other ones, but I gave direct input to Episode One and said, “These are the things I think you should talk about.”
What was the big takeaway about diving deep into that history and really navigating your way through it?
Well, I learned a lot about country music that I didn’t know before and that was really exciting — that I’m still learning about country music both through this film and just by living a country music life. I’m learning all the time about this, this thing that we do collectively. But I’m more interested in what the effect [of the film will be]. I’m sort of waiting to see what the takeaway is, because if there could be some sort of increased national consciousness about country music because of this film, then that would be a really great thing. And particularly in the way that can tell us the story, because it’s America’s most beloved documentarian telling a story that’s been told a million times, but by all the wrong people.
And that’s the underlying conversation in Nashville right now — whether or not country music is going to look itself in the mirror. What do you think of where the genre is?
Well, I think all institutions — be they higher education or primary education, corporations, and the arts — all need to have this moment of reckoning right now, in which they are able to talk about ways in which they allowed and supported a particular paradigm to exist for a long, long time. And that conversation is going to help us undo that paradigm. Where I see the reckoning that needs to happen most in the music business is not on the stage. It’s not in the studio. It’s on Music Row. It’s in the ownership and empowerment of a status quo — that’s who’s running the show. I want to see diversity in the ranks of the music business. But I’m the guy on the stage. So there’s some things I can do about that, but there’s a whole lot of people that don’t play instruments that are the ones who really need to pull the reckoning.
It’s got to shift with leadership, because that’s who’s holding the cards — that’s who decides what’s country and what’s not. It ain’t me. Like, I played this summer [during the Grand Ole Opry showcase] at Bonnaroo. I played [Lil Nas X’s] “Old Town Road” on Roy Acuff’s fiddle. I mean, what more proof than on the Grand Ole Opry do you need of country music?
Was playing that fiddle a full-circle moment of sorts for you?
I played the Roy Acuff fiddle a lot with Ken. We went out on the road and we went up to Sevierville, [Tennessee], where we played by Dolly [Parton’s] statue [in front of the courthouse]. I tell you what, some of these times you get these moments in which you know there’s a powerful spirit that is drawn to the things that are country music. It happened for me in Sevierville. It was this cold spring day and everybody looks sort of a little hungover walking around. We’re at this really poorly attended press conference, nothing but empty chairs, all full of rain water, and then like six people standing in slickers — us giving our full presentation for this, with this expectation, and we rolled off a bus that says “Country Music” and delivering Ken Burns to the statue, but there’s nobody there.
So I’m waiting for my moment to play. We’re going to sing the Porter Wagoner and Dolly [Parton] duet of “Just Someone I Used to Know.” And then, all of a sudden, a couple of white vans pull up and they begin to walk probably 25 shackled men into the courthouse. And the thing that’s most arresting about it, is that they’re all white and they’re all 25. And it dawned on me that incarceration is something that I have a preconceived notion of. You see, I’ve been hanging around jails since I was a kid. There was one in my town with a public viewing area beside the jail. I’ve had a thing for jails. Country music has a thing for jails. It was both the image of them all being white drug offenders. It made me think about crank in the mountains. What’s that reckoning going to look like? When’s country music going to address those issues in the hills?
One of those names that’s really pushing that through musically is Tyler Childers, about what’s going on in the real depths of West Virginia and Kentucky.
Yeah, and that’s great. We were singing for the miners in Harlan [County, Kentucky], the other night at some gig. And I’m thinking about all those guys in Harlan stopping the train. This isn’t the first time that coal miners have stopped trains. It’s not the first time that an outspoken guitar player from East Kentucky has drawn a line and said, “This is where I stand.” That role was taken on in the 1950s and 1960s by artists who were blacklisted. Samantha Bumgarner did that in the 1930s. So, I mean, we’re still doing what we’re supposed to do.
What do you think the biggest threat is to country music?
The death of the art form of country music will be an about face from the artistic merit of the genre in order to lift up instead the commodity to this particular country lifestyle demographic. The country lifestyle demographic is the thing that’s going to kill country music’s soul. If Nashville is just a place to go have a [Las] Vegas kind of experience on your bachelorette weekend, then that’s cool for the bachelorettes, but it doesn’t require the music to serve much. If the music is just serving a lifestyle and the lifestyle is fun or fast cars or drinking…
It becomes a parody of itself.
Even the heartache songs are too damn happy.
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