Though Old Crow Medicine Show, a folk band from Upstate New York, has caught the attention of Doc Watson, influenced the likes of Mumford & Sons, and co-written songs with Bob Dylan, they’ve managed to hang onto the spirit of their humble, grassroots beginnings. The folk aesthetic has seen a recent resurgence in popularity in everything from music to fashion to interior design but for Old Crow, folk is more than a sonic bend, it’s a way of life.
In an origin story penned by Ketch Secor, one of the group’s original members, Old Crow’s genesis is described as a DIY, self-sustained tour in 1998 that saw the band—which was then comprised of “a monkey wrench gang of old-time string band musicians, most of us still in our teens”—play their way from eastern Canada to the Pacific Northwest with instruments purchased from pawn shops. Their sound, which pulls from traditional American folk, old-school country, blues, and even a touch of punk, emerged naturally. Over the decades, they’ve continued to develop sonically while holding onto their homemade energy. Managing to deliver songs that are equal parts fresh and timeless, their music has played a big role in shaping the folk revival genre and has earned them wins at the Grammys (Best Long Form Music Video, 2012; Best Folk Album, 2015), CMT Music Awards (Top 10 Bluegrass Albums, 2004), and the Americana Honors & Awards Show (Trailblazer Award, 2013).
After their initial tour, they found their place in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, where they lived in tune with the land, built their own banjos, and continued to develop the band. Their big break came after Doc Watson, a folk legend in his own right, heard them busking in their hometown of Boone and offered them a spot at his folk music festival, MerleFest. This led to an invitation to participate in several summer music events at one of the world’s most important country music venues, the Grand Ole Opry. The group relocated to Nashville at the turn of the century, where they’ve remained ever since. Unafraid to change things up, their sound has become edgier over the years as new influences and members weave in and out, but they continue to honor traditional folk in both their sound and their impassioned themes.
In the spirit of their early days, Secor describes the group’s lineup as an “evolving cast” of musicians and singers. Today, the band features Secor (fiddle, harmonica, guitar, banjo, vocals), Morgan Jahnig (upright bass), Cory Younts (mandolin, keyboards, drums, vocals), Jerry Pentecost (drums, mandolin), Mike Harris (slide guitar, guitar, mandolin, banjo, dobro, vocals), and most recently, Mason Via (guitar, gitjo, vocals), who spoke to us about the band’s influences, the future of Americana music, how they’re using their songs to promote causes they believe in.
“As the newest member of OCMS,” says Via, “I’m so proud to have joined a band that eloquently uses our platform to shed light on various issues that need attention.” Take for example, “The Medicine Man,” a recent Keb’ Mo’ track that features Old Crow, which was written by Keb’ in response to the early, panicked days of the pandemic before vaccines were available. “Well, it looks to me like the end is coming,” sings Keb’. “Feets hurt and my nose is runnin’ / Friends and neighbors are droppin’ like flies / Better cover your face, sanitize / Everybody’s doing the best that they can / And we’re all just waiting on the medicine man.”
Via explains, “One highlight of touring last year was singing ‘The Medicine Man,’ a song that immediately flows well with our band’s imagery, but also helped us relay our encouragement of getting the Covid-19 vaccine/ booster and taking related precautions.”
Despite the stereotype that country music is largely created and enjoyed by conservative America, folk, bluegrass, and the genres that make up the loose category of “country music” have firm roots in a more liberal philosophy, with these genres emerging from marginalized groups that used song to tell their stories, which were often silenced or ignored.
Taking a cue from their genres’ spearheaders, Old Crow’s upcoming album, Paint This Town (out April 22), doubles down on using music as a tool for positive social change. Via says the album “is beautiful to me because it showcases vivid stories that circle around injustice and Ketch Secor lyrically presents them as a modern day Woody Guthrie. The song ‘Used to be a Mountain’ is a protest song in support of the environment that calls out mountaintop removal and the mining industry. The song ‘Deford Rides Again,’ pays tribute to famous African-American musician and Grand Ole Opry star Deford Bailey who was primarily whitewashed from country music history. ‘New Mississippi Flag,’ is a song that describes the appreciation of a new state emblem and displays a love for the southland without the stars and bars.”
Conscious of the sensitive nature of some of the group’s lyrical subject matter, Via says they follow the example set by their own musical heroes. Roots N Blues Alum, John Prine, is “high on our bands list. He was a songwriter who really could present what some might consider controversial material in a way that felt like you were talking with a friend and sharing a soda pop together out front of an old general store. I think we all aspire to follow in those giant footsteps of the legend we lost 2 years ago who exuded music and lyrics with down-home, witty, Americana elegance.”
He adds, “All in all, I hope that the genre of Americana music continues to pursue inclusivity and that songwriters aren’t scared to use their platform to give real commentary on the issues that matter to us.” Secor echoes this sentiment in his story of the band’s origin: “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 simply keeps on producing. Until that vein is tapped we’ll probably just keep on digging. And that’ll likely take a good long while.”
You can see Old Crow Medicine Show perform on Sunday evening, October 9th, at Roots N Blues Festival in Columbia, MO. Get your Weekend or Single Day Pass here: https://rootsnbluesfestival.frontgatetickets.com.