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- Old Crow Medicine Show will bring their folk-revival string band to The Egyptian Room on July 19.
Ketch Secor: Hello, this is Ketch.
NUVO: Hi, is this Ketch Secor?
NUVO: Hey nice to talk to you man. My name is Jordan Martich, I'm calling from NUVO magazine in Indianapolis.
Secor: Hi Jordan. How are you today?
NUVO: I'm doing well. How are you sir?
Secor: Well I'm terrific, thanks.
NUVO: All right. Where am I reaching you at?
Secor: I'm home in Nashville, Tennessee.
NUVO: All right. So you guys are just home from tour right now?
NUVO: That's got to be nice.
Secor: It sure is.
NUVO: All right, well I've got some questions...
Secor: Where do I find you today?
NUVO: I'm just in Indianapolis. Downtown Indianapolis, right now.
Secor: What a town.
NUVO: Yeah it's not too hot like it's been, but it's pretty good.
Secor: Well all right.
NUVO: So I've got some questions for you. I'm just going to jump into it.
Secor: Lay it on me.
NUVO: I've heard a lot of people describe your guys' sound as 'old-timey' and then your live shows like you have a lot of rock 'n' roll or punk rock swagger. Do you relate to those?
Secor: Yeah, a lot of the folks that would call us 'old-timey' don't really know what that means. There's a kind of music that's called 'old time music' and it's the precursor to bluegrass. It's the father, the parents of bluegrass. It's kind of a catch-all term, sort of like Americana. And everything that would fall into the net of old time music would include, you know everything from, Tejano to Texas blues, to fiddle music, to sea-shanties. And all of this American folk music that was recorded in the 1920s for the first time, before the advent of radio, is called old time music. As Old Crow we draw off a lot of sources within the wide range of old time musics that are available for us to listen to, and more or less feel. As far as the punk rock thing goes, playing old time music is likened to punk rock because, well one there's no solo-ing. We don't play a lot of solos, like in bluegrass. It's just a drive, like a steady, almost mean, very unsophisticated, very crude kind of drive that just feels like you're kicking up the wilderness or you're hell-bent for leather. There's a few phrases that seem to conjure it up like, 'Geronimo.'
NUVO: Definitely. That's not something that I've ever thought about before, that you guys don't have the same kind of solos that punk rock was straying away from in the progressive rock bands.
Secor: Yeah. Everybody kind of plays at once. We're on a track. It's like a rollercoaster.
NUVO: Like all for one and one for all.
Secor: Yeah. Everybody's going out. Somebody might crest the hill before the last car does, but we're all screaming.
NUVO: I like that. What I felt about the punk and the rock 'n' roll swagger is that those are just elements from your background as a street performer, you and the rest of the band. It might just be like the energetic live nature of your shows.
Secor: Well certainly none of us, as budding musicians, could get away from the influence of rock 'n' roll. All of our first bands were rock 'n' roll bands. Whereas most of the people, like at the festival we played this weekend in Kentucky (the ROMP festival in Owensboro, Kent.), all the other bands they would have grown up in a bluegrass tradition or they would have grown up, some of them, playing classical music and then they switched to fiddling. Oftentimes you'll find people that play old time or bluegrass music, grew up playing old time or bluegrass music. And we grew up playing rock 'n' roll because we were in the 8th grade and there was nothing to get pissed off about , so we pretended that there was and we wrote songs about it. About how our principal was a dip-shit or because the cops in town played Christian rock at the local coffee house. You could find something to protest against. There were actually things in our town, Critter and I grew up in the valley together, in the Shenandoah valley, there were things worth mentioning in songs but for the most part we were just trying to pretend that there was something bigger going on than the business as usual of our community.
NUVO: What were you listening to a lot of in the eighth grade?
Secor: I guess we were listening to shit on the radio but mostly it was the bands coming out of our community that were of interest. It wasn't so much national bands, it was more like if the kid at your school wore a Slayer shirt you wondered about that. It wasn't so much that you liked Slayer records, you liked the kid that wore the Slayer shirt.
NUVO: You like him for wearing the Slayer shirt?
Secor: The way that you found out about music wasn't from the radio at that time. It was much more like what the black kid said at the water fountain. Whoever he was quoting, that's what was cool. It wasn't that I had any of that music in my collection, but I knew who they all were. I knew what was weak and what was hip. For some reason I kept putting my feet down deeper into the soil and despite all of the pop-culture references all around me and as a young teenager I became engrossed in American roots music.
NUVO: You talk a lot about bringing the past out in your songs and in your performances and in everything Old Crow does, is that something that we should expect on Carry Me Back, this album coming out on July 17?
Secor: Yeah I'm still as fascinated in the early days of the forces that make up the American culture we know today. I'm interested in the primitive roots of it all. I like to trace the music back to a bygone area. It just fascinates me for a personal pleasure, I just really like knowing. I'm into regionalism in music. I like to know the origins of music, where a song comes from. I love to trace a song back. I love topical songs. I like a song about a murder that happened three counties over and I'd like to sing it right in the town where it happened. I feel that music has a powerful force, that by singing these old songs you can connect with an older way of living that, though it isn't really lived on the surface, the trees know it and the soil knows it and the rivers know it, and it's possibly more American than what is on the surface.
I remember the last time I played in Indianapolis. I went down along the White River on a walk. We were playing in some strip mall and, typical of playing in any American city, you stand way out on the edge of town like 115th street or something, you could maybe take a bus downtown if you could figure out when it arrives. If you don't have an iPhone you got to figure out from a bus bench, you know, your motel don't got no concierge, so you're sitting at a bus bench all day hoping to catch ride into town so you can see something that says 'Indiana' on the side of it, instead of 'Anywhere USA.' Oftentimes I'll go looking for a watershed. When I found that White River, that coursed through the strip mall, and a Wal-Mart parking lot and a Best Buy and a Dick's sporting goods, there were a lot of signs, a lot of blacktops that said 'Anywhere USA,' but that White River said 'Indianapolis. It actually knew the old name, it knew whatever the name of Indianapolis was before it got called Indianapolis. Music is like that too. Music knows the old names. Music can unlock that, dust it off. I mean Indianapolis, that's only what it's been called for what, a hundred years?
NUVO: Yeah hundred, hundred-fifty maybe.
Secor: Yeah. So it's got another name, and I don't know what it is. Maybe I could figure it out if I could catch a bus to the library but I'm stuck in a strip mall. At least the White River, that I can get to, knows the name. Anyhow I got up to the White River and I saw a rattlesnake.
Secor: That's just something really great to me. That's what I'm searching for as a musician in your town or any town. I'm just looking for a rattlesnake on a river that knows the name of the town I'm in.
NUVO: I love that sentiment. That's great. I think that's completely valid too, the first time I heard 'Wagon Wheel,' I'd never been to North Carolina in my life but I sing-along with the same kind of feeling.
Secor: The Australians do the same, and so do the Norwegians, and in Berlin. They all sing, 'Johnson City, Tennessee,' like it's right down the road. Like Mickey Mouse rides on Trigger right down the main street, shooting his guns and, you know, doing Wonder Woman from behind.
NUVO: How's it feel to write a song that so many people, you know that they can't have been there, or at least not most of them, but how's it feel to write something that so many people can connect to on such a base level?
Secor: Well, more so than a nod to the song writing but more something that illuminates the power of the American place in popular culture. Like the cowboys and the Indians. They know more about cowboys and Indians in Germany than they do in Kansas. There's a reverence for the American story. A lot of times people got to leave their roots to go figure out what they like about where they're from. It's just good to step outside of yourself. What is it though? I guess fiddles and banjos just tell a great story. So much of American music has been told by people from all over the world, but people all over the world are fascinated by American music and this is pretty much the same thing. I guess what it is, the popularity of these tunes and the fact that you can hear them in Scottish groves, singing out, 'Johnson City, Tennessee,' or talking like Kiwis down in New Zealand, when they seem to say, 'Johnson City, Tennessee,' like the squawk of a parrot, the way they talk down there. It speaks to the power of country music. And I don't really play country, 'cause country got co-opted and they put a saddle on something that wasn't country that says 'country' on it. I'm a little confused about what country music is. But I know that country music is Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash, and that's why they're singing along. And I know it's John Denver, and that's why they're singing along.
After they play 'Country Roads,' when they're closing down in County Claire they'd play 'Wagon Wheel.' They sing it in Honduras and they sing it in the Peace Corps, in their camps in Chad. It's not so much because it's a popular song. In our country we sing 'The Land Down Under' by Men At Work. It's a different kind of cultural reference point. The reason that they're singing it in Kiwi and they're singing it in Chad is because kids from Indianapolis who volunteered to go to these far-flung places have brought the song with them. It's not because it's on the radio or even on your iPad shuffle. It's because it's a song that comes out of your mouth and gets strummed by your fingers, not mine.
NUVO: I like your anthropological viewpoint. From where you are as a musician I think that's really interesting. Is that something you think about a lot on the road, how your songs are influencing the different places you're going to?
Secor: I try and tailor things to the places that I am. I like to talk about the rivers in the towns I play in. And I like to talk about the interstate spurs that cross the rivers in the towns I play in. And I like the high school mascots in the towns I play in, and any kind of local color I can give. I think that's out of a respect for place. Music is the song of place. To sing any old tune like it's any old night at the arena, and you're looking out at the Jumbo-tron at the crowd gathered and it's just any old crowd - I don't really feel that way as a performer. I feel like I'm playing to Hoosiers or I'm playing to Wildcats. When I'm playing to Wildcats I like to rag on Hoosiers. And when I'm playing to Hoosiers I like to rag on Buckeyes.
NUVO: Is that a thing you do to cater to different audiences? What else would you change between different audiences like that?
Secor: I guess, at this point I've been making music in all these different towns now for upwards of 15 years or something, and I've doubled back time and time again. I've got a little bit of a liturgy of the highways and byways of America that I can draw from, that I got worked up. So when I go to proselytize I can just kind of 'insert your town name here.' It might sound that way on the stage, but I feel really rooted in place. I feel really rooted in space and time. I really like the old crow medicine show to be like a revival and to be like a stake driven down deep into the ground, by a whole lot of hammering.
NUVO: Every show, every city you're trying to point out the roots.
Secor: Every show, every town, I want to get down deep.
NUVO: All right.
Secor: I'm interested in the mystery of it all, of American places and the way music can unlock the secret that every American place holds. Like we talked before about the real names of places. Legend and lore, why lines got drawn the way they did, and ethnic make-up, religion, the poetry of the land. Music is just one of these many faces of a place, but I want to know it more completely for my own reasons. I also think it's entertaining, but mostly it's just kind of funny, to sit there and watch a band rattle off your high school football team and pose them against one another. That's entertaining. But for me, everywhere I go I'm writing a song.
NUVO: I like that. So now that I'm looking at the name of this new album written on this page, Carry Me Back, where are we being carried back to? Or does it even matter?
Secor: Most of the songs on the album come from some personal experiences centered and around the place that this band cut their teeth, up on the corner where Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee all come together. Not every one of them, but the majority of these songs, and that's kind of the case with all the Old Crow stuff. Though we're into a lot of sounds, from the Memphis blues to the Mississippi delta blues, to Texas songsters, those are all things that don't mean much to anybody that's my age or younger, and those are all terms coined by old bearded white men in colleges whose record collections have long been sent to the Salvation Army. It doesn't really matter in the grand scheme of things that Piedmont blues is different than hill country blues, that fife and drum music came out of a black tradition in Mississippi versus the military fife and drum bands of New England, which exist too. How all these sounds came together, it doesn't really matter if you turn on the radio. The radio doesn't care or know. Maybe one station on the band does.
It's sort of like is the glass half-empty or full, or does it really matter if I vote for the school board? Does it really matter if we make records anymore if they just get turned into little digital chewed up soundbites so that you can have something to be mildly entertaining when you're at the gym? Or when you're waiting for the next thing to come along, on a bus bench? My answer to that is that I'm going to keep making music whether it matters or not in the grand scheme of things. It's 109 degrees out. There's something fucked up about that. You know, they say, 'The world is fucking hot, fuck you if you say it's not,' and I think that's true, but it's not stopping me from playing the fiddle. And I'll play the fiddle while it all burns.
NUVO: That's what you've got to do.
(Mr. Secor's phone lost power, but we were reconnected after few minutes.)
NUVO: Hey Ketch. It's Jordan.
Secor: I got you now. Hi Jordan.
NUVO: When we finished I think you'd said something about playing while the world burns.
Secor: Sounds like Nero. I don't think I said that.
NUVO: Let's go on a different path. I wanted to talk about the Railroad Revival Tour, and the Big Easy Express, the documentary they're making. Can you talk about that experience at all?
Secor: Sure. We made a concert film on a bunch of vintage rail-cars, a real exciting trip from Oakland to New Orleans. Two of my favorite bands were on board. It's a rock 'n' roll film. It's fun to watch, beautiful cinematography, and terrific music as well.
NUVO: And you guys went from San Francisco to New Orleans?
Secor: Yeah from Oakland to New Orleans, stopping in some really great towns. Some less often traveled locales. Most of the music was not on the concert tour, it was performed on the train. All through the night we were playing.
NUVO: The music featured in the film?
Secor: Some of the jamming that we did is in the picture as well.
NUVO: What did you take away from that as a musician? Playing with Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and Mumford and Sons; all three bands are solid acts. Did you take anything away from those guys?
Secor: Kinship. Kinship and a feeling of comradery. And it pleases me so that there's three bands in the country that are making good music, that are on the scene right now, that are young, and making good records. Old Crow and Edward Sharpe and Mumford and Sons are three good bands that are doing it their way, we're not the same we have different skill sets, different talents, and yet there's something so true about each one of those band's reasons to be on a stage, reasons to be on a train that it was just validating as a musician who wants to see good things happen in the scene that he's a part of, to go out and make merry with those two groups.
NUVO: Yeah, what you'd said about place, and your search, I just thought that was really interesting. The things you must have been able to find on the railroad, and to tour with those bands must have been just incredible.
Secor: We traveled down along the Mexican border where the tracks go. We traveled where the tracks go. One thing that's great about being on a train is you can only go where the tracks take you. You can't change your mind. It takes a lot to stop a train. More than your will. So it's really exciting to be on a vehicle like that, as opposed to a car on an interstate. One of the things I love about traveling on a train, and I've been traveling on a train since I was a kid, in fact the last time I was in Indiana I was on a train. I was coming up through on the Crescent. No, I'm sorry on the Cardinal.
NUVO: Oh yeah?
Secor: The Cardinal goes up through Goshen and Gary. And when you're on a train in Indiana you see the backside of everything. You don't see the glittering strip the way it was intended. You kind of see the rusted backside that you weren't supposed to see from your shiny automobile. And what's going on in the backside of Gary is fascinating. The train is a great ticket to see that. There's also who's riding on the train, but that's Amtrak. The train tour was a little bit more cloudy daydream because we weren't picking up anybody, we were just out there in the arid country and blazing fast. We happened to be on the tail of a forest fire that was burning up Texas, and as we rushed into New Orleans tornadoes touched down in Alabama. It's like a wild wind was coming across the country with us. I think the film captures that, some of that wildness.
NUVO: You talk a lot about fated things like that, like a wildfire chasing you across Texas and tornadoes touching down as you get into New Orleans. I've heard the stories about playing outside of that pharmacy and Doc Watson's daughter saw you guys playing.
Secor: Yeah. God bless you Doc.
NUVO: Those stories are just nice to hear. Are there any other stories like that that have influenced you personally as a musician, being in this band, or the band as a whole?
Secor: It's always seemed like we were on the backside of things. There was something shadowy about the Old Crow Medicine Show that allowed us to sneak around. We kind of snuck into Nashville the back way. We snuck our records up music row and got ourselves management and a good agent. We didn't do it the way you're supposed to do it. We didn't do it with websites and Facebook pages. We didn't even do it with a working telephone. We just knocked on doors, and the music has so much to do with that. I guess if you trust in the music it opens up all those doors for you anyway.
When we first became a band we went out on this journey across most of Canada. We were in New York state and we crossed the border. We didn't look back, right, and we weren't really a band, we were just on a trip. Nobody really thought, 'Hey, let's be a band for the next 14 years, and go travel across the world and make a lot of good records and have a lasting impression on the world.' No it was,'Man, let's get out of town. Let's go have some fun, let's go get into something. Let's go see if all this stuff that Woody and Bob talked about, let's see if it's still out there. Let's go see if the grand coolie dam is really as impressive as it sounds like in that song. Let's go see if there's any wild Indians left in South Dakota. And let's go see if music can open all the doors, if music can feed us, if music can clothe and shelter us.' That's how the band started. It wasn't like 'Let's go get successful,' or anything like that. Going into it that way has made a big difference. Just like we found out that music could pay your way when all you needed was two doughnuts, a cup of coffee, a suitcase of beer, and a carton of cigarettes. If that was your way music could pay it. Then we moved to Nashville and we had to get ourselves a tour bus, and a lighting rig, and four sound men, and a guy to tune the fiddles. The way we did that was the same way we got doughnuts and coffee. It was all about meeting people and bringing them into the fold the old-fashioned way.
NUVO: That's the main thing I take away about the band's personality as a whole is making connections for so many people to music in general, to roots music, to the past. Is that something you do consciously or is that an element of the band?
Secor: I think it's just playing to the strengths of humanity, really. People like to dance. People like to cavort and drink, people like to get together. So if you've got the soundtrack to what people want to do, and you show up when they want to do it, then you've got yourself a job. And we've found that when we've played to six Indians in a bar in White Clay or when we've played to 1600 16-year-olds in Johnson City. There's ways to make connections now that gives you a false sense of security in your connection. Like the telephone we're talking on. This is not a secure line. I've got to be connected to make this connection. I've to plug in and get juice, man. And this is a way to encounter somebody. The band, we tipped each other. I met Kevin (Hayes) on a street corner. I met Gill Landry on a street corner in New Orleans, I met Morgan Jahnig on a street corner in Nashville. They all just came up and threw a dollar, and then they hung around. Fourteen years later, we're still friends. It's this random circumstance that makes you feel like you're in some sort of a predetermined, kind of cosmic string band, and not just another band on the scene today.
NUVO: Let's talk about the scene today. I don't know if I'd say there's a lot of mainstream folk artists, but there are elements of folk rising up to the mainstream. What do you think about that?
Secor: Well, I'm happy that there's a lot of banjos and fiddles being played and plucked. I'm happy that people are making the same connection that I made, that music is meant to be utilized and not just let it squawk at you. I came at it at a different pace and place and time in my life and I happened to be real young. It happened to me real cosmic and heavy, I got whopped up in the head by it. I learned to play the banjo and it bowled me over. I don't know that that happens when you hear something on the radio, because it didn't to me. I didn't hear something on the radio that knocked my socks off and I had to pull over on the side of the road to catch my breath. I didn't hear that and I don't think I ever have. But I hear that on record and I got a radio show, and I'll play that on the radio. Maybe I'm causing traffic jams up there around Valparaiso, but I don't know. I guess I don't put a lot of stock in what the scene is. I love my friends in Mumford and Sons, and I just love them because they're so damn good. They're also singing in a beautiful harmony that reminds me of what I love about country music and what I love about English balladry. I love the way Whinney plays the banjo. It's not because they're playing some derivative of folk music that I love them, it's because I know them and they're true. They could be playing punk rock and I'd love them just the same, and they do. I guess, for me, it's not so much about whether you've got a banjo in your band or you're blowing on a jug; it's if you're being true to your calling. Are you hitting it hard? Are you giving it your all?
NUVO: Is there anybody else out there, maybe not Mumford and Sons status, maybe someone more under the radar that you've had your eye on or been impressed by?
Secor: Yeah, there's a lot of people. I've felt that way all through the course of making music. I've been rooting for people even when we were the ones that needed rooting for. I've always been impressed with the cracks in the pavement and what manages to grow in the kind of sterility that we're all growing in. It's like rattlesnakes finding their way past the strip mall and under the interstate and somehow to the White River, even though everything on the roadsigns and everywhere on the roadside map tells you, 'Oh, there ain't no rattlesnakes here, we got rid of them years ago.' I'm rooting for them in music, in art, in poetry, in letters, in politics, in sports. I love an underdog. Go Pacers.
NUVO: Hey, there you go. You guys are widely respected for your live performances. How does the transition come between the live touring to the studio? Is it hard or does it just kind of happen?
Secor: It's one of those things that Ted Hutt did such a good job of, and I think Ted is growing in renown for being able to do, is to take a kind of energy from a live show and encouraging a band to refine it in a way that doesn't lose it's teeth sonically, and have the kind of balance and weight of a good, quality audio recording. If you're in front of 1500 16-year-olds and you're screaming, and they love you for it, you're in a moment there. A good record is actually a timeless non-moment. A good record doesn't record the moment. They used to, they're different now.
You know, it's fascinating. Indiana right? No one thinks of it as the heart of American music. I know what the bumper sticker says, but is it really the Crossroads of America? Maybe if you're from Indianapolis, or Valparaiso, or Vincennes. Maybe you think it is, but the rest of the country doesn't think that it all comes from Indiana. We think it really doesn't. We're pretty sure of that. Then you listen to the music and, you know, all those African-American fiddlers, jug-blowing, comb-blowing, kazoo music-makers, all those white hillbillies from the deepest, darkest hollers singing old Scotch-Irish ballads, women singing songs about dashing out children's brains, railroad songs, picketing songs, and colored aristocracy; all of those songs, they came to Indiana to get put on records. They came out of the hollers, and they came up the rivers, and they came down dirt roads and they found their way to Indiana to get put on wax. To get put on shellac. To be preserved for an eternity. That all happened in the Crossroads of America. Maybe that's why they call it that, I don't know, but damn did they make a lot of records in Indiana. Especially in Richmond, Indiana, but they made a lot of records in Indiana. And who knows why? Maybe it's just some sort of Petri-dish or some kind of cosmic medium. I guess what interests me about it is that it could happen in a place where the music wasn't really that good, at least the music that I'm concerned with. I'm a huge Jackson 5 fan. The music that's indigenous to your state is not as exciting to me as other places. Like Nashville, a place that received a lot of music because of your recording industry. That's something that I think is just so honorable about your place.
NUVO: Right. I agree with you. I don't think that Indiana would be the Crossroads of America, but I definitely need to look more into how, regionally, how music has been over the entire nation. I think that's really interesting to look at things that way.
Secor: Did you know how many records were made in Indiana?
NUVO: I knew a little bit about how popular Richmond was.
Secor: Man, it was huge. It was a place where a black man could walk down the same side of the street. It was a free place. It was a place where a black man could get paid to pick a guitar better than a white man. Now, isn't that what Indiana is supposed to be about? Isn't that what that Ohio River crossing is supposed to be? Free. It's really a beautiful thing that it actually happened that way in music. That music allowed that as a vehicle for emancipation in that way.
NUVO: I think that's definitely true. So on this newest record, what all did you guys put into this record that you'd like people to get out of it?
Secor: I guess the songwriting craft here at the 14 year mark as a band is honed to its sharpest edge yet. Don't cut yourself kids. Some of these songs are pretty razor's edge.
NUVO: Is that a feeling you have as a musician?
Secor: I just know that after a certain amount of time passes you're able to really use all of your skill. It comes in stages. Apprentice, and journeyman, and then somewhere along the line you wind up being a master craftsmen. I don't want to blow our own horn here. We never put brass in the band. I think we did a pretty good job on the record.
NUVO: Well I can't wait to hear it.
Secor: After a while you find that the thing that turns you on ten years ago and the thing that turned you on last week are all different shades of the same installation. As a songwriter, time being on your side, you can more formally look at the things that inspire you. Your songs can have a little bit more angle and depth. I feel like the songs on this record are deeper in their scope than the ones that I was writing on the same subject five years ago.
NUVO: All right. Are you guys doing anything special for July Fourth or just staying home?
Secor: Yeah, no plans. I celebrate Independence Day every day.
NUVO: All right. Well, listen, it was a real honor talking to you. I'm a huge fan.
Secor: Well thanks for your kindness and thanks for your understanding. I'm sorry I got disconnected with you.
NUVO: Oh it's totally fine.
Secor: Thanks for the press there in Indy. It'll be one of our very first shows in the past year, you know. We haven't played at all. It'll be great to rub up against Indiana.
NUVO: I can't wait.
Secor: We'll see if we can't get off.
NUVO: I think the 19th you're going to be here. I'll be out in the crowd somewhere hollering back.
Secor: Well right on. If you come on back we'll be by the dumpsters. Come say hi and bring me a copy of your article. I'd love to read it.
NUVO: I'd love to man.
Secor: All right. Happy summer.
NUVO: You too.