Traditions & Twang

Old Crow Medicine Show did serious field research for its latest record, fusing history with heart

August 2, 2012
Old Crow Medicine Show is based in Nashville, Tenn. But its members, including fiddle player Ketch Secor, third from right, met while busking from upstate New York to North Carolina.

In 1999, fiddle player Ketch Secor and a few other members of string band Old Crow Medicine Show put live shows on hold and spent a summer harvesting tobacco in the Appalachian foothills.

“We cut it and braided it and suckered it and all the things you do,” Secor says, referring to a method of pinching sprouts on maturing tobacco to strengthen the plants. “Five bucks an hour on the back side of Beech Mountain, on a crew that was one of the last mountain crews.”

A little more than a decade later, that crew has been phased out. “They grow it all in Piedmont now,” he says, referring to the plateau region that runs through Virginia and the Carolinas. “They grow it on 600 acres, not six. Those were old family plots we worked on. People don’t do that anymore.”

That memorable summer inspired the song “We Don’t Grow Tobacco,” a fiddle-fueled stomp on Old Crow’s latest studio album, “Carry Me Back,” which was released last month. Secor says the band couldn’t have written or performed the song without experiencing the tobacco life firsthand.

“We’ve found that you can’t really tell a story unless you’ve seen it with your own eyes,” he says. “Otherwise it’s just an approximation.”

That’s been the Old Crow philosophy since the band formed in the late 1990s. The members grew up on punk rock in the Shenandoah Valley but turned to bluegrass and folk in their later teens.

“We read [Woody Guthrie’s autobiography] ‘Bound for Glory’ and we tried to make music that would open doors in the same spirited way,” Secor says. “We were doing it 80 years later, but we found that it still worked.”

After a few years tinkering with their string-band sound, Old Crow returned to a more traditional and acoustic sound for “Carry Me Back,” as though the songs themselves — about Civil War soldiers, country gals and small towns drowned by hydroelectric dams — demanded an older, earthier style of playing.

But Secor insists the band isn’t mired in history. “Carry Me Back” “is not a relic and it’s not a timepiece,” Secor says. “It’s meant to be shouted to and jumped up and down to and played around campfires and on your iPod while you’re waiting for your mom to pick you up at the mall. That’s what this music is for — it’s for y’all.”

Inside Track: Lead song “Carry Me Back” tells of a Civil War soldier longing for his home in the Shenandoah. “I grew up where the war was still real and present,” says Secor, who hails from the Shenandoah Valley. “So, that song doesn’t feel like a historical rendering.”

9:30 Club, 815 V St. NW; Fri., 8 p.m., sold out; 202-265-0930. (U Street)
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Marc Silver · August 2, 2012