The first time Ketch Secor and Old Crow Medicine Show played at the Ryman Auditorium, it was early in the morning, a time when the room glows with a holy light and every step on the hardwood floor, every word, reverberates with uncanny clarity. It was the year 2000, and the band of twentysomethings was new to town and a bit dazzled at their own unfolding story.
“We were a busker band that was already playing the Ryman stage!” Secor says in Episode 106 of The String. “Granted, it was a 7:30 am WSM show. But that was good enough.” Yet it was the first of dozens of appearances at what they’ve called the ultimate, unsurpassable venue, first as support acts, then as headliners, including annual New Year’s Eve shows.
Old Crow was something of a black swan in roots music, certainly in 21st century Nashville – an unpolished and rollicking string band made of young guys who’d made a study of pre-war hillbilly music in a time of gentle bluegrass and folk personified by Alison Krauss. Their musical kin were more like the banjo punk Bad Livers or the Sub Pop Records band The Blue Rags. They set out in the Fall of 1998 on what Secor says was just a road trip, a musical odyssey across the country, funded in part by playing on street corners with their cases open. They settled for a while in western North Carolina to soak in mountain folk culture, and there, playing on the street in Boone, they caught the ear of none other than folk music icon Doc Watson. Doc asked them to play Merlefest in May of 2000. There, again busking on their own after their official set, they were spotted by Sally Williams, the future general manager of the Ryman Auditorium and Grand Ole Opry. She helped them get plugged in on WSM, at the Opry Plaza outside, and ultimately on the Opry stage itself.
“The Ryman was so incredible - to have that be a venue where we could stretch our wings out,” says Secor. “It really began for us when we made our Grand Ole Opry debut in January of 2001. Marty Stuart brought us out. Vince Gill was there and Steve Earle was there, and BR549 was on the bill. We played and we got a standing ovation. It was just like a hillbilly dream come true.”
Once again, the Ryman is looming large, as Old Crow has recently released Live At The Ryman, a retrospective highlights album. “We’ve culled some of our favorite tracks over the past decade since we’ve been recording shows at the Ryman and put them together and hope to capture the spirit of us as a live band,” Secor says.
The ten song set isn’t epic in length, but it does tell key chapters of the Old Crow story. “Tell It To Me” gives us OCMS as historic revivalists, reclaiming a song first recorded in Johnson City TN in 1929 at one of the open call Appalachian recording sessions held by Columbia Records at the dawn of country music. “CC Rider” taps Americana’s debt to the blues with a song first cut by Ma Rainey and made a standard by Big Bill Broonzy, Lead Belly and others. While “Methamphetamine” is an original song by Secor that rocks like Neil Young and puts the scourge of drug abuse in rural Tennessee in sympathetic relief.
Of course, they’ve included the signature Old Crow song “Wagon Wheel,” perhaps the most improbable national hit to come out of the Americana music world since Dan Tyminski’s “Man Of Constant Sorrow.” It goes back to Secor’s high school years when he was obsessing over everything Bob Dylan. He took a sketch of a song, just a chorus and melody that appeared on a 70s Dylan bootleg, and wrote verses about hitchhiking from up East (where Secor was in boarding school) to Raleigh NC to be with his baby and play fiddle in a string band. Only when Nashville began asking, even demanding, that Old Crow come up with some original songs, did Ketch do the legwork that led to a co-write and co-publishing arrangement (50/50) with Dylan himself. Old Crow’s version came out on record in 2004 and grew gradually over the years into a platinum single. Darius Rucker covered it, and made it a No. 1 country song. And it’s become so ubiquitous in jam sessions and bar sets that some venues have banned it due to over-exposure
“I don’t think it (the Old Crow trajectory) would be at all the same without a big hit song,” Secor says. “That’s just part of country music. Would the Roy Acuff story be the same without “The Wabash Cannonball” or “The Great Specked Bird”?” Yet it started as a bit of escapist fantasy, he says. “Songs are gateways to go to worlds that we can’t explore without a bus ticket. And ‘Rock Me Mama’ (the original Dylan fragment/chorus) was such a bus ticket. I’d never been to those towns. I’m 17 years old, and I just wanted to go. I just wanted to get out of high school. So I wrote myself a bus ticket.”
Now here Secor is in his early forties, a father and owner of a 1900 home in historic East Nashville. And more and more, he’s being called on to speak across generations to the timeless power and beauty of the art form he threw himself into. The apex of that might be his extensive screen time in the new Country Music documentary by Ken Burns.
“I was such fan of The Civil War when I was a kid,” Secor says. “Because I grew up in Shenandoah Valley, so it was like Ken was showing me my own back yard. And I just totally related. It was the first time except for family albums that I could spend hour after hour looking at grainy, sepia-toned photography. I thought at age 12, it just really spoke to me.”
He says that Burns style and storytelling showed him a way of looking at and listening to history, which fed straight into his fascination with early American music and the mix of styles, races and classes that made country music possible. Secor calls that phenomenon “the rub” in his Burns interview, and it proved such a potent turn of phrase, that Burns used it as the title of Episode 1.
Old Crow again plays a two-night stand at the Ryman at year’s end, Dec. 30 and 31, with opener Yola.