As it prepares for a breakout year, Americana favorite Old Crow Medicine Show is dedicated to keeping old-time music from becoming just a thing of the past.Traditional American music knows no better friend than Old Crow Medicine Show. The Nashville band brings an energy and a focus back to the roots scene that is matched by few contemporary acts. Still riding the success of its 2008 album, Tennessee Pusher, which spent 78 weeks on the Billboard Bluegrass charts, OCMS took its act on the road — er, the rail — this year along with folk acts Mumford & Sons and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. The Railroad Revival Tour took the bands to six stages across the southwestern United States and yielded a documentary, which will be released early next year. Also on tap for OCMS in 2012: a new, as-yet-untitled album, set to hit stores by spring. Vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Ketch Secor talked to American Way about the band’s meager beginnings and the importance of keeping bluegrass alive.
American Way: How did the band get its break?
Ketch Secor: It was the fifth of July. We rolled out of bed just in time to catch the last of the tourist crowd that had gathered in Boone, N.C. We were busking and had made about $45 when a woman walked up and said, “Y’all gonna be here long? My dad loves this kinda music. I’m gonna go fetch him.” We didn’t think nothin’ of that. She disappeared, and about 30 minutes later she showed up with her dad, [legendary bluegrass player] Doc Watson, who took a long listen to us like [he was] sippin’ a cold drink of tea. … He gave us a gig on the spot; it was our big break.
AW: What’s helped the band be successful?
KS: Being true to the roots of the music we play. There’s an important relationship between our sound and the traditions that form American folk music, and we’ve been in reverence to American music traditions since the early days of our band, performing on street corners.
AW: Why is preserving bluegrass important, and how has OCMS contributed to that effort?
KS: This music is meant to be played — it’s just as applicable now as it was in the past. I don’t want to see it at a museum; I want to see it at a frat party, you know what I’m sayin’? I want to hear it being sung loud and proud.
Now, I’m all for the preservation of it too. Old Crow Medicine Show has built a career on playing with the instrumentation of a 1920s string band and with a lot of the same musicianship. When you see our show, the kind of entertainment that we do is just as applicable now as it was 85 years ago. We took our name from a medicine show — from minstrelsy. That’s an entertainment form that predates vaudeville [and] that sort of swept the American South and many other environs across America starting up at the Civil War.
AW: What was the highlight of 2011 for OCMS?
KS: Taking the train from Oakland to New Orleans on the Railroad Revival Tour, which was rollin’ down the iron rails for about three blissful weeks in the spring. We assembled on 15 vintage railcars and crossed about half of the North American continent, from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico, playin’ music all the way — the whole way. Lord, the music was just beltin’ out of the smokestacks.
AW: What do we have to look forward to in 2012 from OCMS?
KS: A new record! We just signed a new record contract with ATO Records, so we’re in good company, and we’ve got a beautiful record we have already finished up.