Fueled by ’grass Old Crow Medicine Show plays the Garde Saturday
If you go
Who: Old Crow Medicine Show with opening act Never Come Down
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Garde Arts Center, 325 State St., New London
How much: $39-$75
For more information: www.gardearts.org, (860) 444-7373
Ketch Secor describes himself as an entertainer and says he uses his job as leader and frontman for the popular bluegrass/Americana outfit Old Crow Medicine Show as a soapbox.
Given that the colloquial “soapbox” is typically associated with folks clambering on top of one to orate in political or philosophical fashion — often stridently rather than to delight or amuse — has he employed a bit of a mixed metaphor?
Not if you follow Secor or the band or, better yet, spend a half-hour interviewing him before Old Crow materializes in your town — as they’ll do Saturday in New London’s Garde Arts Center in support of their exceptional “Paint This Town” album.
Secor, a native of Harrisonburg, Virginia who attended Phillips Exeter and has traveled globally making very fine music in Old Crow, which he formed in 1998, is an incredibly bright fellow who’s extremely invested doing what he can to make things better in this tired world. He’s also a fine singer and songwriter, a multi-instrumentalist with a focus on his “workhorse” fiddle and — yes — he’s a tirelessly charismatic entertainer.
You may well be familiar with Old Crow Medicine Show’s rollicking, infectious music. The core element is rocket-ship bluegrass with splashes of homespun country, but Sector and his bandmates have by design, and an investment in a sort of folkloric anthropology, absorbed all manners of roots music across the world.
In a phone call two weeks ago, Secor spoke about life, Old Crow Medicine Show and the state of the nation. He’s engaged, thoughtful and funny. He also references an astounding variety of historical tidbits, anecdotes, authors and books, musicians and politicians.
It’s like talking to his entire Phillips Exeter faculty if they were also members of the Grand Ole Opry — and helps explain why Secor was an adviser and featured on-camera source for Ken Burns multi-part “Country Music” documentary.
To his credit, Secor doesn’t seem at all intellectually deflated to be asked, right off the bat, whether his band had ever been offered sponsorship from the Old Crow whiskey folks.
“You know, that would seem to be the easiest idea for a young ad executive, wouldn’t it?” Secor muses. “One of those ‘taking candy from a baby’ things — and yet it’s never come up. For being in a 23-year-old band with not many endorsements, let me say that I’ve tasted plenty of Old Crow in my time and I’m not looking for an endorsement from them.” He pauses briefly. “Old Crow is a whiskey from a classic era, made by a company that makes many far superior types of whiskey NOT aimed at the just the alkies. So I think I’m content to leave Old Crow in its hierarchy.”
He's speaking of the alcohol, of course, because Old Crow Medicine Show has arguably transcended any hierarchy in terms of contemporary bluegrass/Americana acts — or at least been remarkably successful in terms of creating a distinct entity unto themselves.
It started with what’s become a timeless hit in “Wagon Wheel,” a tune Secor “finished” from an uncompleted scrap of a Bob Dylan song – and is now one of the top 5-selling country songs of all time. Before “Paint This Town,” the band released six CDs including the Grammy-winning “Remedy,” and all hit #1 on the Billboard Bluegrass charts even as they expanded the band’s sound and ambition. It's very much worth noting that, while much of their catalog is lighthearted and even archival, many of Secor’s songs are fiercely topical and are rooted in race and the mythology of the south.
In all these ways, “Paint This Town” is arguably their best work, and the video that goes with the wistfully evocative title cut is joyous. The songs “Honey Chile” and “Room to Run,” with a slight melancholic underpinning, are also standout cuts.
And, frankly, Old Crow Medicine Show a dazzling live force; to see them perform is to become a caterwaul-it-from-the-rooftops fan.
Though Old Crow has had its share of personnel turnover over time — being in a hyper-touring act for almost a quarter-century can be, well, tiring — the current lineup is exceptional. Joining Secor are upright bassist Morgan Jahnig, drummer Jerry Pentecost, guitarist/vocalist Mason Via and multi-instrumentalists/vocalists Mike Harris and Cory Younts.
The musician is similarly contemplative but politely disagrees when a reporter suggests Secor possesses significant instrumental virtuosity —despite the idea that many audience members at Old Crow shows might well believe he’s a terrific player.
“I never thought virtuosity was visited upon me because it never did,” Secor says. “I learned to play well enough to enable me to do what I do bet — which is to entertain. There are a lot of virtuoso musicians in my field, and when I’m around those folks, I can certainly recognize it. I do play a lot of instruments because it helps me in what I do. But, as with my skills on harmonica, mostly I suck and blow.”
Secor, in a tone of mischievous pride, takes the analysis a step further, saying, “One of our calling cards when we were first launched was that we WEREN’T virtuosic like Nickel Creek. Virtuosity was a very active component of bluegrass and, frankly, we had more in common with the Sex Pistols. By now, I have been fortunate in my own band to surround myself with virtuoso players. I just do what I do.”
Preacher’s on fire
In referencing Acuff, one of the true giants of country music – in fact his nickname was “The King of Country Music” — Secor is alluding to the icon’s panoply of skills.
“Roy wasn’t classically great but he was a great entertainer — more preacher than choir,” Secor says. “You don’t even need to be good. The choir needs to be good and the organ needs to be in tune, but the preacher just needs to be on fire. And I’m burning.”
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Success has enabled to Secor to realize a few dreams that wouldn’t have been possible earlier in his career. He didn’t buy a fancy guitar or vintage fiddle, he says, though he did buy a hybrid Ford pickup truck. But he had bigger expenditures in mind.
“When the money got good and I could afford to give a lot of it away, I started a school. My parents were lifelong educators who went from school to school as teachers and then started resurrecting schools,” Secor says. “It’s expensive to start a school, so that’s what I did with the money.”
In 2016, the Episcopal School of Nashville opened its doors to Pre-K through 2nd grade students. The first class contained 16 kids and enrollment is now up to 154 students.
“I like to think the sky’s the limit,” Secor says, adding that, despite the titular Episcopalian identity of the school, it embraces all faiths, children of same-sex marriages and children of refugees.
Secor says, simply, “If you choose to be in the band life, you’re a person who wants to do something impossible. And sometimes it’s not impossible.”
One other and vitally important aspect of Old Crow Medicine Show is Secor’s propensity for writing about controversial issues of both historical and contemporaneous nature. A lot of his songs concern race and characteristics ascribed to the south.
“Having lived most of my life in the south, it’s a defining characteristic of the work I do,” Secor says. “It’s in my inkwell because it’s so indelible. But I’ve lived in a lot of places and what I’ve learned — and what a lot of people don’t realize or want to believe — is that the mythology of the south isn’t necessarily rooted in the south. I’ve been on tour, and I might see two Confederate flags in Alabama and Tennessee but 14 flapping in New York state.
“The line ‘I wish I was in Dixie’ was written in the north by free persons of color. What I’m trying to say is that we’re all one; it’s important to remember the legacy of the south — good and bad — exists in all places.”
In recent years, Secor has been dismayed by the divide between the so-called red and blue political philosophies. He thinks about the role of songwriters in terms of activism and documenting the times.
“I grew up feeling too late to the party,” he says. “For a while, all that was left was memories. All the people who invented rock and had a wild time doing it had checked out. Or Phil Ochs, the folksinger in the 60s … there was always something for those artists to write about. Burning churches or turning fire hoses on protesters. There was always something inspirational and important.
“But, particularly since the Trump years, the more hypocrisy blooms again. Our times are bitterly divided, and that creates a sense of urgency that music must regain its topical intensity and take it back to the streets.”
Just a few of many notable Old Crow songs in this context, eloquently and passionately taking on a variety of issues, are “Motel in Memphis,” “Pray for America,” “Painkiller,” “Used to be a Mountain,” “New Mississippi” and “DeFord Rides Again.”
Secor takes a moment, then refers to the famous Pulitzer Prize-nominated photograph of a Vietnam War protester placing a carnation into the barrel of a rifle held by a soldier. “You know, I never lived in a time I could put a flower in the barrel of a gun, but now I am,” he says. “My songs are flowers in gun barrels.”