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Old Crow Medicine Show dispenses the right potion

By Dan MacIntosh, March 2004

When you listen to Old Crow Medicine Show's new album, "O.C.M.S.," you hear a little string band music here and a touch of bluegrass there, which leaves it a few giant steps away from much of today's country music mainstream.

So just because this Nashville act has just put out an album on the relatively large non-country Nettwerk Records, it nevertheless harbors no illusions about becoming some kind of a voice for anybody's generation. .

"If you're real people, doing real things, you can only connect with a certain number of people," admits Ketch Secor, the fiddler for this five-piece group, which also includes Willie Watson, Critter Fuqua, Kevin Hayes and Morgan Jahnig. "Kids just aren't going to accept it. But if you can get through to the few that are on the fringe, that are ready to be welcomed in, it's a pretty cool feeling when you can turn somebody on."

Even after a show that Secor calls the group's worst ever gig, these Old Crows were still able to reach at least one impressionable young mind.

"The most difficult gig I ever played with the O.C.M.S. was on the Pine Ridge Reservation (in South Dakota)," Secor remembers. "We played at Little Wounds High School, and it was the toughest crowd I've ever played to. Playing to Indian kids...it takes your breath away to play to these guys because there's so much angst in the crowd. Whenever you're playing for high school kids, there's lots of aggression, angst, confusion and all the shit that goes on with people of that age group. But when you're playing to the poorest kids in the poorest county in our country - they're the poorest socioeconomic group - and you've got a bunch of white guys trying to tell them about old time fiddle music, it was pretty rough. They spat on us. They blew up condoms, and they tossed them around like balloons. They took a dime and wrote things into the paint on our car."

"But at the same time," Secor continues, "there was a kid that came up to me after the show - a kid named Luke Brokenrope - who said that his grandfather was a fiddler, and that they come from a long line of square dance people and square dancing and fiddle music has been amalgamated into Indian culture since a long time ago - especially with Western Indians. The fiddle became an instrument that was widely used and played. But not anymore, these kids like rap music. But this guy remembered that we were part of bringing that circle back for this kid."

This aged circle of musical traditions that Old Crow Medicine Show upholds is bruised, broken and worn in more than a few places. Yet it's still a living and breathing entity. And sometimes, its odd circumstances leave Old Crow Medicine Show feeling like strangers in its very own homeland..

"Well, because there isn't really a set place for us - us guys that are playing like variations of bluegrass and variations of old time music - and because there isn't really a set box for us to fit into, we tend to sort of float between the bluegrass festival world and the clubs alternative country and rock acts are playing at," says Secor, trying to explain how this group tours.Although its traditional roots are amply displayed on disc, Old Crow members are not at all ignorant about the wide variety of music that is out there..

"Critter, who's our banjo player, grew up with a real love of AC/DC, and he's a real master of rock guitar styling," Secor shares. "He can read all that tablature. He can play note-for-note all that Yngwie Malmsteen stuff."

The band's bio may name-drop everything from Nirvana to Public Enemy as its inspirations, but Secor, at least, sticks closest to the group's more acoustic heroes.

"I'm the guy who came at this with maybe the strongest background in the folk music," he explains. "I grew up (listening to) Pete Seeger and my mother, who played a little guitar and loved the folk revival stuff. So I grew up with all those Newport Broadside records. And I also have a real love of Stevie Wonder and some Motown stuff."

The members of this group first met in New York. (That's the state of New York, by the way and not the famous metropolitan city of the same name).

"It makes sense," Secor explains, "when you know the story of Ithaca, N.Y. There's more old time music in Ithaca than in anywhere in the Appalachians. Being raised around the old time music community in North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia, we always heard about Ithaca because there are so many string bands up there. None of them (the string bands) were from there, but they all gravitated there because after these players went down to North Carolina to play with the old greats, they had to go somewhere, so they went straight to Ithaca. So Ithaca became this place where the music was more traditional than where the music was (originally) from, (and) where the music was from, everything turned to bluegrass."

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