Old Crow Medicine Show

Old Crow Medicine Show

By Ketch Secor:

Old Crow Medicine Show began in late September of 1998 when a monkey wrench gang of old-time string band musicians, most of us still in our teens, left Ithaca, New York to cross the Canadian border and play our way to the Pacific. We brought our pawnshop fiddles and banjos, guitars and washboards to downtown street corners across Ontario, to paper mill towns above Lake Superior, farmers markets in Manitoba, Indian reservations in South Dakota, and out to the streets of Vancouver and Victoria, Seattle and Portland. Along the way, we discovered a unique country sound both old and new, foreign and familiar. We knew we had captured something special.

The lineup was fluid, just hitch up the best available talent around at the time…and if you had a car that was a plus! But right from the start, it was me in the driver’s seat of that black ’82 Volvo Station Wagon with the flames painted on the side, Critter Fuqua riding shotgun, and in the rearview there was Willie Watson riding in Kevin Hayes’ Ford Econoline van (we called it the White Whale). Standing behind the big doghouse bass was founding member Benny Gould and, when he wasn’t birdwatching, wily Kevin Ahearn played the banjo. We had painter/poet Jake Hascup along for the ride and Shani Abel, a sassy Lubbock Texan who sold found objects during our street corner sets.

After recrossing the continent we decided on moving to the mountains of North Carolina to further explore our newfound musical farrago. Once there, Old Crow lived off the land, worked in tobacco fields, made corn whiskey, and learned from the old-timers the affairs of plain living. Willie and Benny built banjos. Critter trimmed Fraser firs. Kevin and I shared a cabin deep in a holler with no electricity or plumbing (we did have a sheep, Daisy, and a potbelly pig named Jazz). We were a collective, immersed deeply in the richness of Appalachia, but more than that we were a pack of friends becoming a band.

After a chance encounter on a downtown curb in Boone, NC with flat pick legend Doc Watson we were invited to Merlefest where we caught the attention of Nashville, moving here in 2000, and bringing in tow buck dancing multi-instrumentalist Matt Kinman. Like in Boone before, busking continued to bear more than just tips. One night on Lower Broadway, Morgan Jahnig threw a dollar in the case and 20 years later he’s still our bassist. Gill Landry joined the band in a similar fashion in Jackson Square, New Orleans. During the early 2000s, as Critter struggled with addiction, Old Crow brought in banjo players from Richie Stearns to Dave Rawlings to help plug the gap; even Bucky Baxter played a few shows in the lineup.

No matter who was on the stage in support, there was always Willie and me front and center, our fiddle and guitar lines weaving and swooping in attack formation. Altogether we built a following around our string band revival sound, finding a growing legion of fans hungry for roots music and capturing the hearts of acclaimed artists like John Prine, Gillian Welch, and Marty Stuart who helped propel our music. We found early exposure from both Garrison Keillor and Conan O’Brian who helped fan the flames we’d been lighting across the country with a relentless touring schedule of club dates and opening slots for artists from Ricky Skaggs to Loretta Lynn to Dave Matthews Band to Willie Nelson.

With relentless touring and a growing fanbase, and with the addition of mandolinist/keyboardist/drummer Cory Younts, who joined OCMS in 2009, the band began fusing more and more rock and roll elements, further intensifying the live show and expanding our range in the recording studio.

In 2011, Willie left the band and Critter returned. Adding West Virginia’s Chance McCoy to the roster helped us become a Grammy Award-winning combination, one that saw us inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in 2013.

The late teens saw more changes to the lineup with the departures of Critter, Chance, and guitjo master Kevin Hayes, and the flourishing of new players like Charlie Worsham, Joe Andrews, and Robert Price. In 2019, percussionist Jerry Pentecost joined the lineup and during the global pandemic we lifted spirits with a trio of songs: “Pray For America”, “Nashville Rising”, and the chart-topping “Medicine Man (with Keb’ Mo’)”. Our Saturday night quarantine livestream Hartland Hootenanny was seen by well over 100,000 viewers, featuring performances by Billy Strings, Amythyst Kiah, Jim Lauderdale, and dozens more guest artists. The pandemic also brought the addition of slide guitarist Mike Harris and ruby-throated tenor Mason Via.

In April 2022, we released the critically acclaimed Paint This Town, our first album of all original material in five years, recorded in our very own Hartland Studios and co-produced with Memphis hitmaker Matt Ross-Spang. The album and title track landed in the top five of Americana Radio’s 2022 Album and Single airplay charts. After Pentecost’s surprise “call up to the major leagues” early in 2023, Dante’ Pope joined the Old Crow team on drums. Dante’ first sat behind the kit as a special guest back in 2014 and is featured in the “Brushy Mountain Conjugal Trailer” video of that same era. A former member of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, he brings to the stage more than just a mastery of percussion. Utility player PJ George III also was enlisted. A native of Salem, Virginia, and a master on banjo, accordion, and mandolin, PJ is a veteran of the bluegrass and Americana scene and brings a rascally energy to the band not seen since Critter’s departure. Together we’ll be crisscrossing the nation, connecting with fans who remind us night after night why a life in music is the most rewarding.

2023 celebrates our first quarter century together and in honor of that, we’ve released our new album, Jubilee, recorded in late 2021 and 2022 and co-produced by Matt Ross-Spang. 13 new songs on Jubilee harken back to the earlier days of the band, with up-tempo string band numbers and jug band sounds, and featuring collaborations with the legendary Mavis Staples, Sierra Farrell, and the band’s first recording in 12 years with Old Crow co-founder Willie Watson.

As we celebrate 25 years of making live music together, Old Crow Medicine Show has established itself as America’s most beloved Old-Time String Band and one of Nashville’s most revered musical torchbearers. Our travels have included concerts in a dozen foreign countries, as well as across the United States where we’ve delighted audiences from the Hollywood Bowl to Telluride, Bonnaroo and the Newport Folk Festival to Jazz Fest. Our signature song “Wagon Wheel” is one of the most widely sung folk songs in history and was recently certified by RIAA as one of the top five country singles of all time. Our influence has been felt across the Americana music genre from the Lumineers to Mumford & Sons. We continue to explore sounds both old and new, foreign and familiar, and keep bringing audiences to their feet night after night. The journey that began in a Volvo Station Wagon at the Canadian border in the fall of 1998 continues to unfold in ways unimaginable. Our exploration of the continent’s heritage in song keeps on producing. Until that vein is tapped we’ll probably just keep on digging. And that’ll likely take a good long while.



Banjos Played

Deering Sierra 5-String