With names like Chance, Ketch, and Critter, you just know that the guys in Old Crow Medicine Show (OCMS) are the real deal. From busking on the streets of upstate New York to hitting the stage at the Grand Ole Opry, they’ve kept their string band roots strong and deep while growing into a Grammy-winning recording and touring outfit. What’s more, they enjoy a unique connection to that ever-enigmatic Nobel Prize–winning no-show, Bob Dylan. On Thursday, May 4, OCMS will take its relationship with Dylan one big step further when it begins a series of concerts in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Blonde on Blonde, the 1966 double album recorded in Nashville that many consider to be Dylan’s finest.
Last spring, the group played its all-Blonde on Blonde program for two nights in the CMA Theater of Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame, and on April 28, it will drop a live album on Columbia Nashville, 50 Years of Blonde on Blonde, which documents those shows from May. They will then play the record in sequence and in its entirety every night on a two-month tour of the U.S., the U.K., and the Netherlands. Thanks to UCSB’s Arts & Lectures, the opening night of that tour is here at the Granada.
Old Crow multi-instrumentalist, singer, and songwriter Ketch Secor’s history with Dylan rivals that of any artist working today. As a teenager, he devoured every scrap of recording he could find by the man, claiming to have listened to “nothin’ but Bob for four years.” Through bandmate Critter Fuqua, Secor discovered an abandoned track called “Rock Me Mama” from the Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid soundtrack sessions. As a homesick kid at a New Hampshire boarding school, Secor completed the song, which he eventually dubbed “Wagon Wheel.” Years later, after having played it thousands of times as young buskers, Old Crow Medicine Show went into the studio and Secor contacted Dylan about acquiring the rights.
He got more than he bargained for. Dylan liked the idea of a young man bold enough to write a new Dylan song and signed a cowriting agreement with Secor back in 2004. Since then, “Wagon Wheel” has become both a signature song for the band and a hit for former Hootie & the Blowfish frontman Darius Rucker in 2013; that renewed chart momentum earned OCMS its first certified Platinum recording in 2014. Since then, the group has gone on to win a Grammy for Best Folk Album with 2014’s Remedy. The album includes “Sweet Amarillo,” another song cowritten with Dylan.
All this has now led to one of the most interesting adventures in musical time travel of this, or any, year. A couple of the tracks from the live record have been prereleased, and, while there’s no attempt to imitate either Dylan’s voice or the original arrangements, it feels like the soul of this monumental classic has been resurrected intact. “We didn’t want to be too precious,” Secor said in a recent phone conversation. “We altered things like a seamstress would alter a fine garment. In concert, we will honor the sequence [of the songs on the album], but in many instances the songs are now in different keys or different time signatures.”
Pressed to account for the attraction of the project, Secor said that “we did this because of Bob, but also because we’re from Nashville, and this gives us a way to celebrate Nashville’s contribution to rock and roll.” In pondering the ambitious nature of playing such familiar music for an audience that will include so many diehard fans, Secor expressed great enthusiasm, saying that “it feels dramatic, especially now that we’ve moved from Obama to Trump. It’s time for us to get greased up and get back on that horse again to ride. We love this music, and with this tour we aim to put a new scope on it. Folk music is a populist musical form, and I think this record has the highest level of lyrics that folk music has achieved.”
4·1·1 UCSB Arts & Lectures presents Old Crow Medicine Show’s 50 Years of Blonde on Blonde Thursday, May 4, 8 p.m., at the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.). Call (805) 893-3535 or see artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.