Few musicians know the thrill of waking up, gathering their gear and heading down to the street corner to play music all day. For the boys of Old Crow Medicine Show, a five-piece old-time string band from Nashville, busking – the technical term for street performing – is a way of life.
“We still keep playing on the street corner because it feels good,” said Ketch Secor, fiddler and vocalist for Old Crow Medicine Show. “It’s such a great tool. You can really school yourself by playing on the street corner of your town.”
For Old Crow, school has been in session for a while.
Almost 10 years ago, Secor gathered up his close friends with the idea of playing old-time music anywhere they could. So, along with guitarist Willie Watson, banjoist Chris “Critter” Fuqua, guit-joist Kevin Hayes and bassist Morgan Jahnig, the five packed up their gear and headed to Canada.
While most people would find it strange for an American string band to head to Canada to get their start, for Secor, it made sense.
“The phenomena of this style of music is that it transcends all race and creed. It is an amalgamation of our soil and all the
peoples who have lived on it,” he explained.
Canada was also a wise starting point because Secor felt that in some places, music was very inaccessible.
“It was great because some of these places were so music starved. No one would have expected to wake up and find an old time string band on the corner of their town’s street,” said Secor.
In today’s world of technology and instant communication, one might find it odd that a group of musicians would approach the spreading of music in the way Old Crow does, but to them this was tradition.
“The approach to music today is all about MySpace and and iTunes and CD Baby,” Secor said. “That didn’t even sound like fun to us; it wasn’t even in our minds. We were fired up and we wanted to play. We didn’t care if we were playing inside or outside, it just felt so good to be living on the road.”
Sometimes, working as a traveling band can be a lucrative experience. After gaining popularity, the band started booking shows across the United States. For some, such as one in Colorado, it was hardly worth it to drive all the way from the East Coast for $300, so the boys would go and work for their pay. By busking all day before their show, they would sometimes earn more money on the street corner than in the clubs.
No matter where Old Crow is playing, their ability to draw a crowd is noticeable. When they were invited to play Merlefest, a large-scale folk music festival coordinated by legendary flatpick guitarist Doc Watson, Old Crow still set up their own stage and eventually gathered a crowd well into the hundreds.
It’s not all easy being an old time string band, though. With the ever-rising popularity of modern country music, a large shadow is being cast onto the genre of modern folk music. Unlike the formulaic country-pop music flooding radios today, the music of Old Crow sets itself apart with its honesty and deep American roots.
“Everyone who hears us knows they are hearing something very true,” Secor said. “When you sing a song a slave sang 200 years ago, you can feel it, and it resonates in you. It’s no trick of ours. That’s just how it is.”
With such energetic live shows, the band does its best to try and capture that feeling in their studio recordings.
“When you hear an Old Crow record you are hearing a musical moment that happened in a time and a place, and there it is,” explained Secor. “We record live track – no overdubbing – and we aren’t in all separate rooms or chambers. It’s just warm and physical.”
Two of the keys to Old Crow’s success are their lyrics and their ability to reach out to people. By being both current and timeless, Old Crow songs have already found themselves part of tradition.
“Last night this guy told me that after every party his frat has, they play ‘Wagon Wheel,'” said Secor. “That’s a good song, and it’s good that it can make it into people’s hearts and minds, and into their drunken ramblings, because there is value in that too.”
With younger fans jumping on the wagon every day, Old Crow only hopes that their music stays true and pierces people’s hearts.
“We aren’t a revival,” declared Secor. “Nothing died and nothing was reborn. It’s all concurrent and all still happening. Folk music is still a force in the American people.”
Don’t miss Old Crow Medicine Show this Sunday, April 22 at the Canopy Club. Tickets are $18 in advance, and doors open at 6 p.m. for the 7 p.m. show.