IT MAY seem odd for an old time band like Old Crow Medicine Show to headline the Rock 'n’ Roll Marathon.
The road running event brands letterheads, flags, and merchandise with flaming electric guitar raphics, and you’d be hard-pressed to uncover such an axe among the Tennessee string band’s gear. But Old Crow Medicine Show isn’t just any old time string band.
If the band’s name isn’t ringing a bell, their hit is unavoidable: “Wagon Wheel,” that gentle, fiddle-laced number covered by Darius Rucker and every working musician with an acoustic guitar and a Southern accent, could very well be our National Pop Anthem for its familiarity and memorable hook.
Written from the scraps of a Bob Dylan demo when OCMS’s Ketch Secor was just 17, the tune was certified platinum in 2013. There’s more to this hard-working band of Grammy winners than one hit, though: their nine-album catalog boasts a bevy of similarly timeless and catchy tunes that celebrate Appalachian musical history and show off the stunning chops of each player.
We chatted with founding member Critter Fuqua about the band’s Savannah return.
You and Ketch have known each other forever. Did you bond over music initially?
We bonded over music, we bonded over a lot of things. I remember the first thing we bonded over was doing a little skit of The Red Badge of Courage in seventh grade. It was a lot of things, it was music, it was creativity, it was one of those deep connections.
Were y'all into old time music early on? Did you grow up around it?
No, seventh grade was Nirvana. Nevermind had come out, so I was listening to that. I grew up with Guns n' Roses, AC/DC, so I was in my Nirvana phase, but I was into Alice in Chains, Metallica. We didn't get into old time music 'til about ninth or tenth grade. I think a lot of people think we grew up with old time music and fiddles and banjos, because we come from Virginia, but no one was doing that in the '80s and '90s. You had to look for it.
So how's a metal kid come around to country and old time music?
I think Bob Dylan was a real link. I was into metal, Ketch was into Phish and jam band stuff, and he was getting into Dylan. Then I got into Dylan, and with Dylan, you can go back and forward, through Jimi Hendrix back to Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, the blues. And Ketch went back to Pete Seeger and some of the old time fiddle players down in the South. He started playing banjo, so I accompanied him on guitar. He got a fiddle, and I started learning banjo. It was a real organic process.
Were you taking lessons or learning by playing together?
Ketch took some claw hammer lessons, and I learned a lot from him. We learned by playing. We played with everybody we could get to play with.
Ketch wrote 'Wagon Wheel' when y'all were teenagers. When Darius Rucker covered it years later, how did that impact Old Crow?
It was great. It's a really special song; it's kind of cemented us as an established act, and it's pretty cool to go from playing on the street to that. And the thing is, Darius Rucker was in Hootie in the Blowfish, he was the big stuff in the '90s, the stuff you'd listen to on the radio, and if you'd have told me he was going to cut 'Wagon Wheel,' that would have just been a trip. It was good. We love Darius. We played with him on the Grand Ole Opry. It's a real win-win situation for everybody—for Darius, for us. That's the song we play every time we play the Opry, and more people know that song than us as a band. I think when they hear that, they start checking out our stuff, which is very cool to see.
It's kind of become a modern standard. I can't think of another song that's reached that kind of status.
Yeah, it's really cool. It's the first four chords anybody learns on guitar, it's one, four, five...it's such a folk song, really.
You released your last album, Remedy, in 2014. Working on anything new?
We just record a Blonde on Blonde tribute album. We played the whole album at the Country Music Hall of Fame, and we're going to put that out on CD, or whatever the kids like these days. CD, iPod, whatever! It'll be out as an album and a video. I think we got a greatest hits thing coming out, too. There's going to be a lot of stuff out there for the fans.
Your songs are very rich in storytelling. Are a lot of them folk tales, or are they true stories?
Some are true, some are folk tales, some are fiction, some are made up, some are true. We get inspiration from all kinds of places. A lot from growing up in the South, I think—taking cliché sort of trite tales and putting a unique spin on them.
Old Crow has been playing bluegrass and old time music before this revival happened. The trend has stuck—do you think it's here to stay?
We'll always have old time, which is great. We didn't see this big upsurgence until 10 years ago, which is really cool. Like the '60s folk revival. Americana has spread, now all the dudes have a beard, a vest, an upright bass, and a claw hammer banjo. This whole resurgence will kind of die away a little bit in the pop culture scene—everything else does—but I think that old time, the core of old time and Appalachian string music, will always be there. Then it'll be something else. That's the way pop culture works: it ebbs and flows. I think the pop culture element will die away, but I don't think the original core ever will. I think the beards will get shaved and artisanal cheeses will be less and less. But I could be wrong!