Doc Watson, John The Baptist, and Little Richard: Ketch Secor Talks Old Crow Medicine Show and Giving the Gift of Music

Old Crow Medicine Show has built a reputation for energetic, wild, roots-revival live shows that teeter on the cusp of homage, innovation, and reckless abandon. OCMS is bringing that enthusiasm back to Macon on September 6th, and if my conversation with founding member Ketch Secor is any indication, it’s gonna be a barnburner! Ketch is as much fun to talk to as he is to watch on stage, and I hope you’ll believe me when I tell you he had me laughing and marveling for nearly half an hour. See for yourself– and don’t miss this show!

AI- It’s been some years since you were here.

KS- It has been some years! I think we only ever played there a couple of times. And I think it was like maybe even 10 years ago, so… I don’t know what we did wrong to not get asked back!

I’m sure it was nothing on your end.

I think what it was… We didn’t play any Little Richard!

That’s what it was! You got to rectify that when you come back! You’ve got Live at the Ryman due out in October. I had a chance to preview it, listen to it. It’s amazing, man. The crowd’s energy, the way you’ve got all the instruments coming together. What’s it like to play the Ryman– and especially what’s it like to do it and try to capture all that heat?

Playin’ the Ryman… It’s kind of a cakewalk because it was so easy to do what we do in that space– because the space has had what we do for 125 years! So the walls, they know how to oscillate just right. The pews know how to reverberate like a larynx. Even the stained glass waves a little. It’s like everybody knows the cue in that room– how to dance to a fiddle and a banjo. It just feels supernatural and supernatural.

Your last album, Volunteer, you chose to work with Dave Cobb. Was that experience everything that y’all thought it would be?

Well, yeah! I mean, he’s a good Georgia boy and so we got a little bit of that low country boil on it! Dave’s wonderful. It’s really exciting to work with a producer at the zenith of their career. That had never happened to us before. Somebody who was really a tastemaker in present moments in Nashville. And you can see why, ’cause he’s great. But we made that thing a while ago. It takes these things a long time to come out, and we ended up sitting on Volunteer, I think, for too long. I think that you look back on these things and sometimes I wish it was like in the old days… Like Little Richard. He went into the studio, he cut a record that he had either written or stolen the week before or covered… And it might be a record that he just heard in the soda parlor on some rival recording, some rival singer. He’s like, “I wanna do a better job of that!” Or he chopped up some old folk tune or whatever it was. Anyway, the point is Little Richard goes into a studio and whatever is in his head, he puts on the wax. Well, that record comes out two months later and then he goes back into the studio and just keeps on doin’ it and doin’ it and doin’ it! That kind of song as currency, you know? I wanna spend the money in my pocket. That’s how you get more of it. And so sitting on these things like they’re commodities? It just doesn’t really keep with the spirit of live music.

That’s changed a little bit over the years. I think there are artists who are going and doing the studio album so they can placate their label, but then they’re also putting out regular albums just because they want to. Is that something you would like to get back into doing?

Yeah. That’s what we did when we were young. We made records, you know? And whether that was Old Crow or even in years before Old Crow, making a record meant getting a roll of duct tape and taping a microphone to your ceiling. It meant plugging in your tape deck, your four-track recorder and then all standin’ around that mic! And then it meant going to Kinko’s to go make your album notes and liners and your great cover! It was such a wonderful, do-it-yourself process. It was also cheap! I mean, it was free! All you had to buy was that 12 pack of Memorex tapes down at the drug store. They were like twenty cents a copy!

Well, talking about the old days… The band’s origin story– coming together, busking your way across the country– or the continent, I guess I should say. It’s a great story if you just left it at that. But when you get to the part where Doc Watson comes around the corner and you’re playing out in front of the drug store, then it starts to take on this mythic status. What was that like meeting Doc Watson and being sort of taken under his wing?

It was just the biggest break of our career. I mean, we didn’t have a career at that point. We were farming. We were playing gigs around North Carolina for $100. We had all the ideologies of a legitimate rock n’ roll band, but none of the cred. We acted like a band, but we just weren’t working a lot. Meetin’ Doc was incredible. It felt like when John the Baptist runs into Jesus down by the river!

Another mentor of yours was the great Marty Stuart, who took an interest in your career. And I don’t know that there is a greater champion and defender of country music on planet earth than Marty Stuart.

Similar to the Doc story, running into Marty also seemed very divine. Even though there’s a randomness to the divinity with all of Old Crow, essentially, as a busker band, we just opened our case– and the people came. And some really, really special people came. Like Marty, like Sally Williams, the director of the Grand Ole Opry, like Gillian Welch… And so many people came that, at the time when they arrived, it just felt like, “Oh, this is the latest amazing event in the history of a band!” But we weren’t thinking that! I mean, I never thought the band was going to make it for three years, let alone three months! It all felt so white-knuckle in those early years as we were trying so hard to get a toehold in all of this. We adored Marty Stuart and then got to meet him and then got to record with him… Then we got to open for him. And now oftentimes or conditionally, Marty’ll open for us! And that’s just this incredible thing in which the stream… One minute you’re the water and then you’re the stick on top and then you’re the leaf and then you’re the frog. And then you might eddy out and then you’re the reeds. You kinda get to be it all.

Having been mentored. Are there any artists or bands that you’ve taken a shine to or who have benefited from your accomplishments and wisdom?

Oh yeah, totally! You pay it forward. The whole chemistry of music is about gift-giving. Performance is giving a gift to an audience that’s going to give you a gift right back. Now, they might think that you’re the gift giver, but actually, they are the ones giving the gift. You’re just the conductor. They are the orchestra. By that same transitive quality, the gift that you get when you produce a record… I’ve produced records on Pokey Lafarge and Valerie June and shared with them what had been shared with me by Dave Rawlings and Don Was. We gave the Mumfords a big gift, you know? They heard our records when they were teenagers and then they went on to sell out football stadiums and be a #1 band. So then the gift that they’re able to give to their listeners is exponentially increased. When you give the gift, you find that the gift keeps on giving.

You have been mentored, you have mentored, you have become bonafide members of the Grand Ole Opry, you’ve amassed so many awards… You’ve got Bob Dylan giving you songs to finish or to retool. John Carter Cash contacted you a couple of years back with some old Johnny Cash songs. What happened with that project?

I dunno… I’m glad you’re reminding me of it, ’cause I need to call him! It was so amazing! My favorite part about this was that I went to the dump… ‘Cause I get a lot of good stuff at the dump. What I got at the dump one day was a talking telephone, and I mean like the top of the line 1987 talking telephone. So I plugged it in and one day I got a call and it said [robotic voice], “Call from House of Cash.” When the House of Cash called and the talking phone told me, it was almost like a voice of God– if God were a robot in the late ’80s! Yeah, I gotta give John Carter a ring ’cause we really hit it off. I was going through a divorce. I was just heartbroken– and have been for a couple years now. But one of the first signs that I felt of God’s presence and directive in my pain was this call from the House of Cash. I got two kids and I’m sober as a judge, and I can barely walk down to the grocery store ’cause I’m so heartbroken. But when Johnny Cash’s son called me and asked me to rewrite two of Johnny’s songs, it just sewed my heart up with silver thread! I felt like I could do things again. I know that was a blessing from Johnny Cash, who had walked the line that I now needed to walk.

And speaking to the things that you would go on to do… You penned a children’s book, Lorraine. What made that a project that interested you?

A couple of years ago, I had some kids and then I started this school here in my neighborhood called Episcopal School of Nashville. We’re four years in now. It’s been an amazing project starting a school. One of the ways that I’ve found that I can keep giving the gift that I myself have been a recipient of is to now start giving to kids in ways that are different than Old Crow Live at the Ryman. There are going to be some little kids who love that too. Little kids always liked Old Crow music ’cause it’s so fun to bop to and spirited. But education can come in many forms and I actually want to be an educator, not just a song and dance man who might accidentally help turn some kids on to real music… But actually, help kids learn to read. So I’m looking at the children’s book offerings, and they’re all about growing up in New York City, taking your elevator, and waving to your doorman, and Central Park. Well, what about a fucking book from Tennessee, right? How ’bout a book from Tennessee? And then let’s examine literacy rates in New York City where all the books are based and literacy rate rates in Georgia? We need more books about growing up in Macon! We need for kids to read, so kids can see themselves as the hero in their own reading… Because reading is a heroic thing. It is the most important tool. It’s really that from which all opportunity stems from. Because right after reading comes writing! And you write your own ticket! This is a dream world! “Wagon Wheel” was a Greyhound bus ticket that I wrote myself so that I can go out and do all the things that I’ve wanted to do. I wrote on that ticket! It said, “Wanna meet Doc Watson!” It said, “Wanna meet Marty Stuart!” It said it all!

You bring up that song. “Wagon Wheel” made Old Crow Medicine Show a part of the American music landscape forever and onward. Now, somewhere in the world right now someone is singing “Wagon Wheel”. How’s that feel?

It feels wonderfully spiritual. I got a good tune out there that made everybody want to sing it. It’s funny, ’cause for me, I wouldn’t want to have “Wagon Wheel” sung at my wedding, funeral, or high school graduation– because I grew up with songs that I think are a lot better! But I think if you grew up and you’d never heard “Like a Rolling Stone” and you’d never heard “Blowin’ in the Wind”– especially the way that Peter, Paul, and Mary sang it… Or you never heard “Wimoweh” by Pete Seeger or that great doo-wop version of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”… If you grew up and you never listened to Little Richard sing “Good Golly, Miss Molly”, you might think that “Wagon Wheel” is a great song. And so it is! But it all depends on what you heard before you heard “Wagon Wheel”. I heard “Good Golly, Miss Molly” long, long before I heard “Wagon Wheel”. So I’d much rather have “Good Golly, Miss Molly” be played at my wedding, funeral, or high school graduation.