For 15 years, the band Old Crow Medicine Show has been rocking audiences with their unique, progressive and energetic twists on traditional folk, Americana and Bluegrass. In that time, they’ve drawn together a large and diverse fan base. Those fans live across the world, but perhaps none are more appreciative than those in North Carolina, where the band first got its start after being discovered playing outside a Boone pharmacy by none other than Bluegrass legend Doc Watson. And, their 2004 hit “Wagon Wheel,” recently covered by Darius Rucker and certified platinum this year, is among the most iconic Carolina-themed songs around.
The band performs Thursday evening at Ovens Auditorium in Charlotte. For the first time, one of its members is chatting it up for an interview with the LGBT press.
“Having never done an interview with the gay press, it’s exciting,” Ketch Secor, Old Crow’s fiddle-and-harmonica-playing lead man, told qnotes in an interview via phone. “I was looking forward to being able to reach a gay audience in North Carolina. I know a lot of people of all persuasions who have ‘Wagon Wheel’ as a ringtone. Let it ring…let it ring, loud and proud.”
Secor’s views on gay acceptance within Country music, as well as his sense of progressive and folk history, are strong. Those traditions, he says, are reflected in his music. In his interview with qnotes, Secor, a founding member of the band, beckons the rest of the Country music industry to join his band in being “a voice for the disenfranchised.”
Our Q-and-A with Secor, below:
Matt Comer: Given the popularity of your song, “Wagon Wheel,” is there anything special about your North Carolina fan base?
Ketch Secor: We lived in North Carolina for about two years. We lived up around Boone. Before that, right out of high school, I moved to Greensboro to play with a band. When we first got to North Carolina as Old Crow in 1999, my goal was for us to be a band that found success in North Carolina. I knew that it was possible because the roots music scene in that state is so vibrant and so healthy. Fifteen years ago when we first got started and first ventured toward North Carolina, there were lots of venues, lots of bands, lots of promoters and, most of all, there is a hoard of eager fans of roots music and all different genres as well; people who love Zydeco, people love old-time music and Bluegrass. I’ve always been pleased to play in North Carolina, probably more than any other place in the South. I also like North Carolina because it reflects my politics. I grew up in the Jesse Helms era and when North Carolina went blue, I felt a particular pride in that.
North Carolina has a strong tradition of Bluegrass and folk music. It also has a strong progressive political and cultural history. Despite the stereotype that Bluegrass fans might be conservative, how does traditional music and progressive culture mix and live comfortably next to each other?
To me, Country music is a kind of progressive voice. When the United Mine Workers of America came in and taught West Virginia coal mine families that they deserved a livable wage, they did that with song. They didn’t do that with guns. They did it by teaching people to believe in themselves and music was a big part of that. When the attempt to unionize the textile mills in Gastonia happened, in the 1920s, there were a lot of people killed. You can bet they were singing songs about cotton mills, the cotton mill blues, about working for company bosses. Those sorts of social events always have music to go with them and it was always Country music. Country music gave a voice to the disenfranchised. Nowadays, Country is something different altogether. In many ways, Country music seems to be a distraction — get your mind off of the disenfranchised and get your happy meal and shut up, the song’s playing. That’s why I play this old-time music. At its core, Country music is hardcore, being a music of the disenfranchised people. That’s everybody, anybody who hasn’t been given a fair shake. That’s anybody who is unwelcome. This is the song for you. This is your music.
Alternative Country and folk music has, indeed, been kinder to all sorts of people, including openly gay singers and songwriters. But, mainstream Country hasn’t been and only one mainstream artist, Chely Wright, has come out as gay. With the recent announcement by the NBA’s Jason Collins, do you foresee a mainstream Country artist who is still performing today coming out as gay?
I think it’s just a matter of time. Mainstream Country is maybe the last place that in the entertainment industry, which has in general been a place of acceptance of people who are gay. You would think that the same stage that can have an openly gay Elton John, you would also have somebody who is gay and wears cowboy hats. It just hasn’t happened yet; I think it will. I think Country music is changing, and reluctantly. But, fans like mine force Country music to reckon with its past. Country music, at present, is something that has fully disinherited its past. But, the popularity of groups like mine and scores of others that are speaking outside of that arena are forcing it to think about what makes up this body of Country music. Is it really the voice of America? Is it speaking for all Americans? I just don’t think Country music can accept it has loyal gay listeners, but it is going to have to if it is going to grow.
Your song, “Wagon Wheel,” is a favorite of many, including North Carolinians. It’s getting a lot of radio play with Darius Rucker’s cover. What do you think about his performance?
I’m glad somebody finally cut it. I know it is a good enough song to be out there. Everybody was already singing it anyway without the radio telling them to. I was sort of biding my time wondering who was going to cut it. I was just so pleased it was Darius. I really like him. It just could have been somebody who bungled it; there’s a lot of put-on in the genre. But, he did a really great job with the song. He’s been really true to what the song is. It’s not auto-tuned to hell; it’s got a banjo and a fiddle.
Do you think Darius’ non-Country background helped him see the song more clearly and perform it better than others might have?
Well, I think he was able to recognize the power of the song. Having been a pop singer, he could see that it was a pop song with these Country roots. Anybody else who was going to cut it probably would have made it a lot slicker. For me, I just love to see a black man with a guitar. I don’t really care what he’s singing; [Darius] just happens to be singing my song. In the video, he’s down there on the railroad tracks and strumming a guitar. That’s a face that’s been missing from Country music for so long. You know, there are only three black members of the Grand Ole Opry — DeFord Bailey, Charley Pride and Darius Rucker. Three black members of the Opry when the contributions of black America to Country music is immeasurable? They brought the banjo to the party, for crying out loud! What is it without that banjo? It ain’t nothing. It’s Irish and Scottish and English balladry. You know, that stuff gets pretty boring after a while.
Do you consider the success Old Crow Medicine Show has had as maybe opening the doors to groups like the Avett Brothers or Mumford & Sons?
We’ve been together a little bit longer than those guys, but only just a few years. With the Avett Brothers, for example, they feel a lot more like half-brothers of ours. Mumford & Sons haven’t been around very long, but because they are friends of ours, we think of them like peers. I don’t think we’re old enough as a band to really think of ourselves that way. For us, we saw Doc Watson. We got to know Doc and get blessed by him in a powerful way and then just went off and did our thing. What interests me about the bands that are at the top of our game is that they are inspiring so many people to turn to Country music. A lot of people don’t even know it’s Country music. They say, “I want to play like Old Crow.” That’s Country music. “I want to play like Mumford & Sons.” And, that’s from the British Isles and those boys don’t necessarily sound all that Country, but harmony-singing and banjos — that’s gospel music, that’s Country. I’m really pleased that, like Doc who educated so many people about what mountain music is and inspired them to head to the hills, we can do the same thing in this time and this generation.