by Jesse Hill
On September 23rd, Old Crow Medicine Show will release their third album Tennessee Pusher, a beautifully cinematic and empathetic album about a people and from a people, the American people, the people from which this musical tradition is sprung. After going into the lost alleys and forgotten trailer parks to find the real Americans, the lost Americans, the Old Crows stand up here as their representatives. And they sing! They sing for the people. They sing because that is what they do. It is their lifeblood.
The album was produced by the legendary Don Was (Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan) at the famed A&M Studios (now called Henson Sound Studios) in Los Angeles. Members Ketch Secor (fiddle, harmonica, banjo, vocals), Willie Watson (guitar, banjo, vocals), Kevin Hayes (guit-jo, vocals), Morgan Jahnig (upright bass), and Gill Landry (slide guitar, banjo, vocals) along with major session men Jim Keltner (John Lennon, Neil Young) and Benmont Tench (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers) recorded 13 tracks about this America, using Tennessee as their canvas.
I had a chance to speak with founding Crow, vocalist and musician Ketch Secor. This man’s speech reveals the way his mind and heart work, and to witness it is truly a beautiful thing. He cares about us all. Despite the clinical agenda of the interview, we had a relatively organic conversation, and though it would be more typical to lay down the press info I got from their publicist and some brief highlights of our interview, I don’t think I do this man, this band, this album or the people justice unless I just print the interview in its entirety.
Country Music Pride: Hey, Ketch, my name’s Jesse Hill and I write for Country Music Goodness.
Ketch Secor: Well, hey Jesse thanks for your call. I apologize. My other interview went really late. So, I know you’ve been waiting to get through so I appreciate your patience.
CMP: Not a problem. How you doing?
KS: I’m doing great. Where you calling from this morning?
CMP: I’m calling from Austin, Texas.
KS: Right on.
CMP: How ’bout you? Where you at right now?
KS: I’m in Nashville. Wish I was in Austin.
CMP: Well you ain’t coming through here anytime soon, are you?
KS: No. It doesn’t look like the Texas tour has been put together yet. It might be in the spring for us. I know it’s way over due. We keep getting e-mails from places all over the Lone Star State. Getting ‘ancy. When are you gonna come back to Dallas? When are you gonna come back to Pflugerville?
CMP: Yeah, y’all played Pflugerville before?
KS: No, I made that part up. Nobody ever wrote that. But meanwhile I got my own thoughts thinking, ‘When are you gonna take that plunge in Barton Springs? When are you gonna dance the two-step with that girl down in Victoria that you want to? When are you gonna get back to Port Aransas and go for a slurry dip?
CMP: I was just in Port A two weeks ago. Got swimmer’s ear.
KS: Well, that’s a good place to catch it man.
CMP: Well, I listened to Tennessee Pusher yesterday. Three times. It’s great, man. It’s really fucking great. I really love it. Best album I heard all year.
KS: Hot damn! Hey, thanks. That’s what we’re hoping for.
CMP: You hear it all in there. Hanks crying, Dock Boggs sly grinnin’. Trickster cool and humble hearts. I really dig it.
KS: Cool. Well, I can tell you do and I can tell you got out of it what I put into it.
CMP: Now I’m not going to ask your influences because I think what’s obvious is that they come from this American music tradition. And anything you could have possibly come in contact with is basically a part of this tradition. Do you feel like you are now a part of this tradition? Do you feel like you’re contributing to it?
KS: Oh, I definitely feel a part of it. I mean it’s all around. Everything that this band does is very related to everything that’s been done before. I feel, I’ve often spoken about this great thing that Pete Seeger once said about making folk music back in the late 50’s. Pete talked about us all being links in a chain and that chain going way, way back. And that all of us are fused together in the forge. So, I read that when I was 14, and thought, ‘Wow! You mean I could be like Leadbelly? I could be like Bob?” So, I’ve spent the last 15 or so years since I was first dreaming of those things trying to make them happen, trying to, well, trying to build up my repertoire. I like to fancy that we could go into any barroom in America and be their hometown band. That we could be the boys that they looked upon fondly. The band that the old ladies felt wistful towards and that the old men wanted to throw their daughters at. And in our travels we’ve found that to be true. It’s a little different now in the climate controlled comfort of the tour bus, but when you get into the studio, particularly a band like us, I think it’s just fun to be evocative, to evoke, I’m always talking about who my influences are and I say that they’re just old dead men and women and old dead men singing about old dead women. And that’s really true, but I like being able to, I like the controlled atmosphere of the studio because you get to say it exactly how you want to.
CMP: You’re the hometown. And this music comes out of the American people. I know you cite Nashville’s inhabitants as definite inspiration for the album. How do you stay in touch with the people? How do you relate with them when you are riding in the climate controlled comfort of the tour bus these days?
KS: Well, you know, you get off at the truck stop. You go to the pay shower and it’s right there in front of you, staring you down with a soap bar in its hand. Me and Critter had this song once about these bad signs everywhere. We said, “If you don’t see the signs, then you must be blind.” If you can’t see the wasteland, you must be wasted. Cause it’s all around. It’s in everything. It’s in all avenues of American life. Whether they’re looking for love or a fix (which is their love), whatever their love is, whatever their fix is, they’re always on the hunt, on the prowl for it. That’s just the way that the world goes round, especially now. So, there’s no membrane impenetrable enough, there’s no wall that can be built between folk music, all music, if you got your feet in the ground or on the ground, then there’s nothing to keep you from singing the songs of the people. What are the people up to? The people are hungry. The people are sleepy. The people are tired. The people wanna fuck. The people wanna lay down and die. All these different emotions are represented in song. So, here are a handful of songs that thematically go for a certain range of them. I needed to write something convenient for the press; so, I said Nashville, but it’s not really true. Tennessee’s a good example. We go from Mountain City to Memphis. We start up in the Southern Islands. We start in this place that the Cherokee got pushed away. Well, some of them stayed and it really has effected the bloodline. You can still talk to women with Indian features there, and more so than that you can feel the reverberation from after the Buffalos thundered through. What’s the sound that follows? Well, I think that sound is what’s happening all over the country. The Buffalos jumped off the cliff, and there’s a sound that follows the emptying out of the American landscape. And you can still here that. And Tennessee is a good canvas to work with. It’s easier than trying to tackle the whole thing. But I feel my influences in writing this record have been much more across the continent.
CMP: And under a climate that’s been developing since the Buffalo jumped off the cliff, do we Americans have a heavy, black curtain on us?
KS: No, it’s not heavy and black. It’s light and airy and mystical and magical. And if you can tap into it, you can know something much greater about where you are. And it’s had a great effect on folk music. It’s the reason why there’ve been songs that, whether they’re topical or not, have been, it’s the reason for the universal theme. You can’t really have the universal theme without the landscape having a role in it. I mean the history of America has so much to do with what we’re working over. What we’ve plowed and at this point, what we’ve paved. Underneath all that, well, if you wanna know what the story is, don’t go asking a dude. Dude’s story is down at the bus station. He’s hungry, he’s thirsty, he wants to fuck, and he wants to sleep. Dude’s got a lot on his mind right now. A lot of nothing. But underneath dude’s feet is what makes dude. And that’s where you go asking those five journalistic questions. That’s where you go looking to get to the bottom of it all. Is at the bottom.
CMP: And do you feel comfortable there?
KS: Oh yeah. I got to be there. I’d go crazy. And I do go crazy every time I got to come up for air and see the things that you see, that we all see like the Bush regime and the fucking Iron Curtain. If I pick up the newspaper and read about Saakashvili and Putin squaring off in Georgia and Daddy Cheney on the way and I think about, ‘Oh, what if it was Sarah Palin instead,’ that kind of stuff makes me just crazy. Just thinking about it.
You know I saw Greenland for the first time coming home from England. I saw it from the plane, from 35,000 feet. You know it’s there, you see it on a map, but to see it with your eyes is everything. It wasn’t real before. But now I know that’s there and I could go to it. I saw an ice sheet that stretches for 800 miles, maybe more, and at the very end of it, it’s green. It’s just like any other rock in the ocean. There’s life.
CMP: Was the European tour a good deal this go round?
KS: Man, this was a great trip. It was real low key. It was a lot easier than the last one. But it was just a short thing that had to do with generating press in the UK for our new album.
CMP: And do you get a chance to connect with people their too?
KS: Yeah, you know. Really everywhere that we get a chance to play, I’m always on my eternal quest for truth. And there’s always something different about all of the towns and I’m always trying to get to the bottom of it. I’m always trying to understand, ‘Why is it this way?’ I like to ride a lot of public transportation. I like riding public transportation in England especially, well in the British Isles, because of just how pleasant it is. But I like riding it in America because of how unpleasant it is. But in England, it is so different. Where here in America social order has been completely bulldozed on our buses, it is still very much in place on the buses in England. It’s breathtaking to see.
CMP: Well, I can’t wait to get the chance to experience that one day when I can get out of Texas. I recently read a Jakob Dylan quote where he says, “There’s a reason why imagery that sounds like it’s been dragged right up from the middle of the earth keeps getting re-spun every year—’cause it’s the best. Yeah, I work within those parameters, and I see those images, and I hear music that way. [My dad’s] stuff is the high water mark for anybody doing what I do so there is no way to avoid it, not just for me but for any songwriter. If your goal is to not be referenced to his career, there are not a lot of options.” This quote is certainly applicable to your music as well. Can you rap on that a bit?
KS: Well, I think that we’re all in debt and we all need to know the gratitude of the era of music that comes after all of the great artists. To talk about Tennessee Pusher being a great record is a bit superfluous when you imagine that somebody got an advanced copy of Sergeant Pepper’s and was the first to hear it for five hundred mile and got on the phone with Paul McCartney and said, ‘Your record’s really good, man.’ So, for a long time, I really felt like I had a foot full of concrete over that. That somehow being in the shadow was a bad place. But as I got older…well, you know, you just have different eras and times of creative thought. You have a Renaissance and then you have another time that comes after it.
I think that anybody who heard those Dyaln records when they were a kid wanted Dylan to be there father too. I always like this quote that Pedro Martinez said. He said, “Maybe the Yankees are my daddy.” Anyway, we all wanted that man to be our old man cause he’s been such a huge influence. He really taught Us a new sense of beauty. Or re-taught us. Because what Bob did was to recount what’s been said before, and that’s all that anybody can ever do. Because it’s all been said before. I’m looking at floor to ceiling shelves of books in which it’s been said since the Age of Bronze. They’ve been saying the same ultimate truths about the world. You can read the mystic writings of poet Rumi and know that Bob read them. Or you can read William Blake’s A Little Boy Lost. You find the trailings of Dylanisms throughout all the literature of the world. He really read the greats. And he listened to American music. And that was his medium. He needed to find a way to be William Blake and Robert Frost and Dickinson with guitar. He needed to be Hart Crane with a harmonica. So, what better way to do that than sing Black American music? To wear the mask, you know, minstrelsy. Well, Jews have been wearing that mask a long time. Look at Al Jolson.
I grew up in the world where Black and White is now so blurred. And those signs for whites and ‘coloreds’ have been painted over a dozen times. But they’re still there underneath the paint. And it’s all a part of the social fabric. So, the themes may have been totally diluted by the mall, and seventh grade lunchroom politics, but underneath it all, it’s still the quintessential Mark Twain America that you hear referenced to when you listen to Bob Dylan.
CMP: You ever read John Leland’s book Hip: The History?
KS: No, but it sounds like a good one.
CMP: Well, it does a really good job tracing the history of the masks and getting to that point where the delineation gets blurry. I actually read it right after I read Greil Marcus’ Old, Weird America, which by chance was the book that got me into you Old Crow Medicine Show. I was reading it and somebody thought I was reading a book on you, and I said, ‘No. Who’s Old Crow Medicine Show?’ And they gave me O.C.M.S.
KS: Well, man, I take that as a real compliment. I don’t really have this memorized, and I wish I did, but my band was given a quote by Greil Marcus that’s…negative. And it’s fucking the money. I want to see it reprinted bad.
(Greil Marcus’s quote, “Old Crow Medicine Show. Why people hate folk music.”)
CMP: What’s the gist of it?
KS: That we’re junk.
CMP: He’s probably just jealous that you share a songwriting credit with Dylan.
KS: You know I heard some great Dylan stories working on this album with these guys (Don Was, Jim Keltner, Benmont Tench.) Especially from Don. But I heard this one story. They were in England in the mid-sixties and someone asked Dylan, ‘What do you think about the Rolling Stones?’ And Dylan said, ‘Oh, you mean that cover band?’
CMP: And for Dylan of all people to call someone out on that?
CMP: How was working with [legendary producer] Don Was?
KS: Man, that was great. To work with someone who’s had a hand in stirring up so many great artists. To help them reach their great potential. It made me listen to those records differently knowing that Don said to dig a little deeper here or play a little colder there. He’s made scores and scores of albums, and so many of them have been Grammy award records and so many seminal records of the eighties and nineties. I was always surprised to hear just whom he worked with as we were rapping. I like to get down to it with folks. And I tried to get down to it with Don, this Detroit born, Beverly Hills cat with his dreadlocks and his jewelry and his Cadillac SUV that he got from like a sponsorship. All those things make up Don. There are a lot of masks to Don too, but they’re only on the surface. Don is really real. In the studio, Don listens to music. The best thing I can say about the way Don is how he listens to music. When he’s in the studio and he’s supposedly producing, he’s just listening. He’s listening with his whole body; it’s like he’s breathing in the music. His whole face is listening, and his hands are listening, and his hair is listening, and his feet are listening. And it’s like he’s breathing it in like a vapor.
CMP: And he’s doing this under all these Beverly Hills masks?
CMP: Werner Herzog said something along the lines of, ‘Beneath the glitz and glamour, Los Angeles is the city with the most cultural substance in America.’ Well, I totally disagree. Maybe when he said it was in a time of classic America where I think that certainly that thing happened, but it’s come and gone. L.A.’s great. I like L.A., but if you’re trying to find the most culturally fascinating place in America, I just wouldn’t go looking at the place with the longest lines and the thickest traffic and the loudest horns. I think that what’s fascinating about America is all old news. What’s fascinating about America is rubbish, stuff in somebody’s old garage. It’s junk. Just like Greil says, ‘its just junk.’ What’s fascinating about it all is the evidence that remains of what was once fascinating. The homogeneity has done more to destroy America’s sense of itself than any neutron bomb ever could have. The sameness and the cultural sterility and the spiritual decay disguised as consumer advocacy. I don’t know where I would go looking for something truly American. Maybe Mexico.
CMP: Your sense of hope is obvious in your music. How do you maintain it?
KS: They sang when the great ship went down. (Long pause…)
And it’s going down baby. It’s going down to the icy depths. But it ain’t gonna stop me from singing. We might be in the dark shadow cast from the great arch. We might be in the time of the great undoing of our nation. And we might face a dark and lean time, but you gotta sing! I was taught to sing. I was taught to sing and play and make that joyful noise. So, regardless of what it is around me, inside me I feel like singing.
CMP: Is fortune really just a painted stone?
KS: Yeah. I guess so. Frog-skins. Green frog-skins. There’s a great old time tune called “Fortune.”
(Sings…) “Once I found a fortune; locked it in a trunk. Lost it all in a poker game one night when I got drunk.”
That’s the kind of fortune I’m up for. I like an easy fortune, the kind that’ll make you king for a day.
CMP: Spend it if you got it?
KS: Yeah. It ain’t worth holding onto.
CMP: Yeah, I’m living in a dog kennel right now.
KS: Well, you’re in Austin, man. That’s perfect.
CMP: Pretty forgiving town to the broke folks.
KS: You got a good bus system, the Dillos. You Texans, man. You Texans you see what you can do.
CMP: I appreciate it, Ketch. It’s been a real pleasure.
KS: Yeah, man. I appreciate it to.
CMP: Take care.
It’s going down folks, but the Old Crow Medicine Show is singing. Listen!
Old Crow Medicine Show – Caroline (Lead Single from Tennessee Pusher)