Ketch Secor is dressed in a blue pearl snap shirt with white piping, jeans and worn leather cowboy boots. His hair is slightly tousled, and he has a wad of dip in his lower gum. He speaks slowly and with intent, pausing often in thought—his vocal delivery echoing the cadence of some of his songs and lyrics, almost as if it’s a spoken word poem. Sitting backstage before his band’s headlining show at New York’s Central Park SummerStage, he comes off as earnest, passionate and well learned.
Secor has the road-worn look of a musician who’s traveled many miles, but also the sincerity and wide-eyed wonder of someone much younger, just seeing it all for the first time. And maybe that’s because only now—after 16 years with Old Crow Medicine show— he’s finally entered the pop-culture consciousness, and he continues to see “it” differently over and over. He doesn’t really believe in technology but he champions pass-along value, face-to-face conver- sations, and handing down stories through generations, times and places.
“I actually don’t put a lot of stock into the computer as a source for music,” he says as an album by blues singer and banjo player Karen Dalton blasts over the venue’s loudspeaker. “I think that with folk music, it’s so much more powerful to discover what your older brother’s listening to. Music is such an emotional expression. It is almost spiritual, the way it draws you in—like a sermon.”
He pauses before mentioning his band’s signature song, “Wagon Wheel,” a slow-burn anthem that he built from the scraps of an unreleased Bob Dylan ditty called “Rock Me Mama,” intended for the 1973 soundtrack to the Western film Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid.
“A song like that stays with you because you’ve heard it in a coffee shop or some cute girl was singing it on a street corner with a dog on a hemp leash when you were 14,” he says with a laugh before changing the subject to his beloved Atlanta Braves baseball club.
At 36 years old, the multi-instrumentalist (fiddle, harmonica, banjo, vocals) has already traveled much of the world and festival circuit playing to sold-out crowds, received platinum certification for “Wagon Wheel” and been inducted into Music City’s famed Grand Ole Opry—all since he and Critter Fuqua (slide guitar, banjo, guitar, vocals) founded Old Crow Medicine Show at age 19 in Upstate New York.
“It all feels like it was yesterday—the songs that we wrote back then,” Secor says of Old Crow’s early days. “I had this relationship with those songs, and I still sing them every night. It’s like asparagus. It takes about three to four years from when you put your seeds in the ground to when you can start eating it the next spring—you have to invest in it and keep working on it. There are crops that come through stages in their development before harvest time. And the way that we’ve kind of cultivated the landscape in the past 16 years, there are places that are ready to reap and there are places where we’re still sowing.”
Secor speaks in long, somewhat rambling metaphors and cloaked references that recall the narratives made famous by the folkies who served as his original inspiration. He has a low-key demeanor and slow, Southern drawl, yet describes his band’s ascent with a sense of sharp, business suavity.
“It’s exciting on a night-to-night level to be able to cross the country and see what we’ve done before and to know almost immediately what we need to do,” he muses. “From the earliest days of this band, Critter and I were playing street corners anywhere that we could get to in a car, and it was really limitless. Once you get in the door— that’s when the game starts. But when you’re on the curb, you’re a free agent.”
Old Crow Medicine Show's roots date back to the 1990s when Secor, who is originally from the South, and Fuqua first started playing music together as middle school students in Harrisonburg, Va. Secor drifted North as a teenager to attend the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy—where he overlapped, for a time, with future Arcade Fire leader Win Butler—and Ithaca College. During his time in the Northeast, he met future Old Crow members Kevin Hayes and Willie Watson. Along with Secor, they hit the road, picking up musicians and odd jobs along the way.
They landed in the Appalachian Mountain town of Boone, N.C., and busked on street corners until legendary folk artist Doc Watson eventually discovered the group and slated them for his local folk festival MerleFest. While already a great inspiration, Watson also became a great mentor to the band he found on the very corner where he’d played 50 years prior.
“Doc actually picked that spot because he could plug in there,” Secor says. “Doc was a rock and roller, but he learned that he couldn’t make a living playing rock and roll and became a folk singer. He made the music of those hills accessible to people in the North in the 1960s—the bearded 18 year olds who were getting ready to dislike their government but hadn’t yet. Doc whispered in our ears and we felt the responsibility to carry that on.”