“Memphis in the ’20s was a crazy town. I mean, bodies washing up on the river every morning-life and lust and good times and short times,” Ketch Secor, principal singer and songwriter of the Tennessee-based band Old Crow Medicine Show, told me on a recent September morning. “Well, there was this music [being played then] about hooch, about getting high, about transcendence. It’s some of the best music that you’ll hear.”
Although Secor was talking about old-time jug bands, he easily could have been describing Old Crow. Formed in 1998, the band have spent the past 11 years turning 21st-century audiences on to music that harkens back to the early 1900s. Whether it’s old songs or “new songs that sound like old songs,” as Secor said, Old Crow are musical raconteurs who speak to folks who know how to work hard and play hard.
On tour to support their latest record, Tennessee Pusher, and their first live DVD, which drops this month, Secor spoke with me over the phone about how he categorizes Old Crow’s music, the reason behind their songs’ recurring drug references, and his love of Michael Jackson.
You’ve been called country, bluegrass, folk, old-timey. How would you describe your music? I think we would classify as country okay. I mean, if you like the kind of country music that you turn on in your old truck when you go out to the field in the morning to go check your fences or to go feed your cattle or go make sure that the lettuce is coming up. If you like the kind of country music that sounds good in your trailer at night when the stars are shining, then you’re going to like to hear us because we’ve got fiddles, and we’ve got banjos on the stage. We’ve got harmony singing. If you like Buck Owens, you’re gonna like the Old Crow.
Your latest CD, Tennessee Pusher, feels a bit different than your previous albums, more contemplative. Well, that’s because we made it in California. [Laughs.] All the other ones we made in Nashville, Tennessee. But we took that one out to Hollywood and recorded it with [producer] Don Was. It’s contemplative because it’s the first time we’ve made an all-original album. : The studio [we recorded in] is called Henson. It used to be called A&M, and it was where “We Are the World” was recorded.
No kidding. Were you in L.A. when Michael Jackson passed away? I was out there pretty soon around the time when he passed away. I must say I’m a huge Michael Jackson fan. I’m somebody who heard the Jackson 5 as a young kid because I had my mother’s record collection and she loved the Motown sound. I heard so many Jackson 5 songs at an early age and was just really, really moved by them. I thought they were all kids’ songs, honestly. : I knew that he’d been a child sensation, and I wanted to be a child sensation. I knew that he was a great songwriter, and I wanted to be a great songwriter. He was from Gary, Indiana, and my family is all from Toledo. Gary is an awful place. It’s a terrible town; so is Toledo, so I could kinda get with that. : I was really sad to hear that he died. : That music is so significant that he made. And if that’s his gift to the world, Michael Jackson should have been lauded as a hero and not so stoned like he was.
Tennessee Pusher has a lot of drug references, which isn’t uncommon in your songs, but I noticed this one seemed to have more. Is there a particular reason why? Well, when we were making that record, there was a lot of addiction going on around the principal writers of the record. Some of the songs that are more moody and are more serious and about substance abuse actually are really close to home. A little too close to home.
What is the strangest place you’ve ever played? We’ve played a lot of strange places. Of course, you will when you play street corners and you’ll go wherever a hundred dollars is leading you: “Oh sure, we’ll go play your party.” And we’d get there and it’s like a crack den. : We’ve played a lot of strange places, but I hope that the strangest are yet to come. I’m having a great time, and I think that all of us would say the same thing: It’s still a wild world out there. You can’t : strip-mall it and run an interstate through it so much to the point that it’s not wild out there-unpredictable and untamed. It’s not safe, and I like that. And that’s the landscape where music like this belongs.
Old Crow Medicine Show plays the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.) on Sunday, September 27, at 8 p.m. For tickets, call 963-0761 or visit lobero.com.