Newly-signed Nettwerk America artists Old Crow Medicine Show are in New York, scheduled to perform on the Peeps float at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Yes, Peeps. Those little yellow sugar-coated marshmallow chicks. The band’s hanging in the VIP area, having coffee, juice and donuts with Gordon from Sesame Street, Ronald McDonald, Miss America and American Idol’s Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard. Not bad for a bunch of musicians who didn’t even have a record deal last summer.
Playing atop a Pennsylvania-Dutch barn covered in Peeps, singer-fiddle player Ketch Secor was nearly overwhelmed by the experience. “We were really high up. When we got to Times Square we were looking down on the ticker tape and the MTV studios. There were two million people on either side of Broadway. We were lip-synching to three tracks from our live record over and over. The crowd knew but didn’t care. No one told me we’d be doing a harp tune, and I didn’t have a harp. So I just blew into my hands, which was nice because it was cold. Everything was really intense. When it was over I wanted to throw-up and cry.”
This February, Old Crow Medicine Show will be promoting its third studio release, OCMS, with in-store performances and TV and radio spots around the country, followed by a similar stint in the U.K. in the spring.
While the energetic, old-timey stringband’s first two albums drew heavily from Appalachian, Memphis and Mississippi Delta influences, Old Crow’s latest has more of
a Texas feel. Secor is a veritable folk-music encyclopedia, always relating stories of virtually unknown musicians.
“When you play this kind of music,” he says, “it’s not just about playing the notes—it’s thinking about these old characters who made the music, studying them, conjuring them up. We’re into bringing old voices back.”
Half the songs on OCMS—produced by David Rawlings and featuring a cameo from Gillian Welch—are originals and half are covers. Secor explains, “if the band’s songs aren’t supplied by old dead men, they’re inspired by them.” “Trials & Troubles” was inspired by Henry Thomas, a black songster who was playing square-dance tunes in East Texas in the early 1900s (“He broke all the rules,” Secor says). Then there’s “Take ’em Away,”—a song penned by banjo player/guitarist Critter Fuqua, inspired by another Texas songster, Mance Lipscomb—as well as the Grant Brothers cover, “Tell It To Me,” a decadent white-hillbilly tune about cocaine and corn liquor.
Since 2001, when the band’s Grand Ole Opry debut at the Ryman received a standing ovation, Old Crow has been invited back to the legendary Nashville auditorium seven times. “You feel like Hank [Williams] whenever you’re on that stage,” Secor says, “So many tunes of ours come from what I consider to be the heyday of the Ryman—the 1930s. There was this four-and-a-quarter-foot-tall black kid named Deford Bailey. He was in his early 20s and blew harp and told jokes. Whenever I blow harp at the Opry, I think about Deford. When you’re there, you can feel all the ghosts running around.”