That old-time pre-rock ‘n’ roll
Ketch Secor thinks, of course, the surging interest in old-time music is a fine thing. For one, it means that his band, Old Crow Medicine Show, gets to play big festivals like Bonnaroo and Merlfest, and in comfy theaters like the Wheeler Opera House – where they open for the duo of Gillian Welch & David Rawlings on Thursday, Sept. 2 – instead of busking on street corners as they did in the band’s early years.But Secor, the 26-year-old fiddler for the Nashville-based Old Crow Medicine Show, wonders just how deep that renaissance goes down. Sure, upward of 8 million people bought the soundtrack to “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and Welch & Rawlings were treated like rock stars on a recent U.K. tour that Old Crow opened. And, as Secor sums up, “you can buy a Balfa Brothers compilation” – referring to the Cajun music act whose popularity dates to the 1940s – now at Cracker Barrel, or at an interstate truck stop in Wyoming.” Whether this represents a shift in cultural appreciation or just another commercial opportunity, however, Secor can’t say.”Looking around me, it’s not like you see people returning to old ways,” said Secor, speaking from a roadside pay phone in Charlottesville, Va. “I see prefab houses and corrugated steel buildings and people at gas stations filling up their cars. So it’s not like people are returning to an old style. The people brought into this music because of the resurgence – they know maybe a couple of tunes, and they’re so tickled that this music is everywhere now.”Secor isn’t cranky about the sudden popularity of the music he has loved most of his life. Still, he knows there is a level of appreciation that a listener doesn’t get from ordering up a copy of a massively popular album on Amazon.com. To get a more meaningful experience of the music, it’s best to hear it played live in its indigenous surroundings – in a Mississippi roadhouse, on a North Carolina street corner, or in a home in rural Nova Scotia. “It’s a lot more special when you can stumble into a bar in Louisiana, like I did, and play alongside these old Cajun guys speaking French and playing fiddler,” said Secor. “It’s a lot more special to me to be able to come across it like that.”
Secor has devoted much of his life to searching out just such experiences. An inveterate traveler, Secor has wandered the South, upstate New York and Canada, poking his nose in doors to find the sounds of old-style fiddling, banjo-picking and timeworn songs.”Learning how to do it firsthand – that came from traveling to various communities and seeing people play this music,” said Secor, who formed Old Crow Medicine Show, with his high school friend, banjoist Critter Fuqua, in Ithaca, N.Y., some six years ago. “I went around. I realized early on that that’s the easiest way to do it, that people can direct you to this. If you dig, that is. You have to knock on a lot of doors before someone comes in and says, ‘Yeah, I’ll show you to play this old acoustic instrument.'”Secor – who grew up in lots of places, including New Orleans, St. Louis and Nashville – says the mother lode of such information is in Canada. “Hands down,” he said. “In Canada, it was so easy to be taken in and be fed music and food and wine and song. Once you cross the border, it’s easy. You’re treated right. You’d get a phone number from an old gas station, and the next thing you know you’re in an old blind fiddler’s house.”It was in Ithaca – another old-time music stronghold, according to Secor – where he and Fuqua began to assemble other like-minded musicians. All were self-taught, and interested in furthering their education the same way Secor was. And all of Old Crow’s members – guitarist Willie Watson, guitjo (combination guitar and banjo) player Kevin Hayes and bassist Morgan Jahnig, in addition to Secor and Fuqua – were looking back in time for their musical inspiration.”Somehow, at the age of 15 or 16, we started thinking about making our acoustic instruments speak with the ferocity of our electric instruments,” said Secor. “And it took awhile to learn how to play with that ferocity.”After the band was assembled, the first place they headed, no surprise, was across Canada, playing and absorbing. It was during their year in North Carolina, five years ago, where the lessons began to pay off. Busking one Saturday afternoon near a crafts fair in Boone, the band impressed a young woman. “She said, ‘My dad loves this kind of music,'” said Secor. “She said she’s gonna go get her dad. We said whatever.”
Their interest turned up several notches when the woman returned with Doc Watson, the aged flat-picking icon. An impressed Watson invited Old Crow to play Merlfest, his acoustic music festival that attracts most of the biggest names in bluegrass, folk and the like. The Merlfest gig led to the band’s debut at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, home of the Grand Ole Opry, in January 2000. Listening to the live broadcast that night on their car radio were Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. The two checked out Old Crow’s gig a month later at Nashville’s Station Inn and soon adopted the band as their own. Old Crow was signed to the couple’s Acony label, which released the band’s recent CD “O.C.M.S.” Old Crow frequently opens for Welch & Rawlings, and Rawlings becomes a member of Old Crow on such occasions. Secor played fiddle on Welch’s latest release, last year’s “Soul Journey.”Oddly, for someone so adamant about getting his music from the direct source, Secor traces his love for old-time music to the record player, and the record collections of his parents, aunts and uncles. Secor sang in church, but “mostly, I fell in love with recorded music,” he said, “the idea of taking a record and putting it on the turntable and hearing the music go down.” In addition to his reverence for old things – old people, phonographs – Secor liked old music, particularly children’s albums by Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie.Still odder, Secor’s first instrument was an electric guitar. It seemed like a necessary detour at the time.”At the same time I was learning about folk music, I was also discovering the joys of middle school,” said Secor. “And that’s all about wanting to rock. You want to be in control, and there’s no more in-control feeling than having a battle-ax guitar. All of us in Old Crow were that way.”The press notes that accompany “O.C.M.S” state that the band plays their music – “fiddle tunes, rags, hollers, hokum and jug band music” – as filtered through such modern influences as Nirvana, AC/DC and Public Enemy. Listen to the album, though, and one strains to hear anything but old-time music played by a bunch of contemporary converts.
“It’s not like I didn’t fall in love with Nirvana when I was 13. I did. It was huge,” said Secor. “But these sounds aren’t available in what we’re doing. But the music of the Grateful Dead, Neil Young, Gillian Welch, Bob Dylan – that’s there. Because when you’re playing banjo and fiddle, you can’t be so original that that you don’t have a debt to the Four Horsemen of this music, whoever they are. We have to have an influence from Jerry Garcia, because Jerry is the one who taught us this music. He’s the one who turned me on to wanting to play this music.”Along with tunes like a Leadbelly-inspired version of the ancient blues “CC Rider,” “O.C.M.S.” features six original tunes. At least one of which is unusually modern: “Big Time in the Jungle” is a Vietnam War tune, but done in the style and even the language of pre-World War II music. Old Crow aims to continue writing its own material. But Secor says it will always be done with a nod to the past.”It’s about singing songs that are useful and valid, songs that sound like they’re from the American vernacular,” he said. “Not ‘here’s my new song in this new style.'”There’s no urge to make an album that’s all our songs. Because there’s a continuous stash of songs from the tradition. We’ll always be inspired by songs that are a hundred years old.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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