Pick of the litter

Before I interviewed Old Crow Medicine Show vocalist/fiddler Ketch “Hawkster” Secor, I was assailed by an interesting rumor. It went something like this: “There’s a lot of posers out there in music land, but these boys sound like the real thing.”

And while I pride myself on my ability to spot a phony, I’m not a native of these hills, so I wondered, would I know the difference?

First, I weighed the facts. Doc Watson, the world’s unchallenged flatpicking king, calls the band’s music ” … some of the most authentic old-time music I’ve heard in a long time” — no idle flattery, it would seem (the band was recently booked for Merlefest). And then, the group’s home base also murmured authenticity: band members dwell on the Tennessee side of Beech Mountain, N.C. — a damn good place to be, if you’re into mountain music.

On the other hand, the band’s debut, self-distributed CD, Greetings from Wawa, includes radio clips recorded in Canada. And the contradictions play on. Band members met through stints in migratory farmwork (specifically, grape-picking), but they play as if they’d all grown up in the same remote mountain cabin. They didn’t: Doghouse bass player “Senator” Ben Gould makes banjos and gets around in a 40-dollar car — but he’s the son of a New York lawman. And Gould’s buddy Willie Watson sings and plays a rowdy guitar, banjo and fiddle — but claims no relation to Doc and is as big a fan of Bruce Springsteen as of any country peformer. Vocalist Kevin “Kirby” Hayes hails from Boston, but honed his musical skills on streetcorners all over America before settling in Appalachia. Chris “Critter” Fuqua helps with vocals and plays a mean banjo and slide guitar, but he learned to be a Tejano accordionist while passing time in San Antonio, and reportedly also plays the bagpipes!

Many of the band’s tunes are interpretations of traditional songs — i.e. “Cumberland Gap,” “Kitty Clyde,” “Gospel Plow” and “Oh, My Little Darling” — replete with the mournful howls, good-ol’-boy rejoinders and rollicking arrangements that characterize the genre. Yet, these guys play with an abandon and grit that are truly their own. What drives that level of feeling is a subtler force: At times, it’s hard to tell if the band stands as a true homage to string music, or if the boys are aping the form just to prove that they can.

The first time I talked to Secor, he had just finished digging post holes, had a beer in his hand, and very politely informed me that he probably couldn’t schedule an interview, because he was about to hitchhike to Ohio to see his sister. This sure sounded like an authentic mountain-music player to me (though Secor hails from Missouri). When he called back a couple of days later — from an outdoor phone nook in Harold, Ky., during a driving Floyd County rainstorm — the fiddler shed some more light on the subject of the band’s raison d’etre. (I asked him first if he was afraid of getting shot or beaten up while hitching cross-country; his reply, like the rest of his story, evinced a good dose of latter-day Beat junkie and Gen-Xer tempering this bluegrass boy: “Well, that’s the whole principle of the Medicine Show … you put your trust in the medicine, and you don’t get beat up.”)

Secor places the same faith in the band’s relationship with its live audiences: “Well, you know, music comes out of a little box in somebody’s car, or a little box in somebody’s house. So rarely does it come out of the interaction that people have with other people. And so rarely do people know that you can have music free all the time: You just have to pick up your hitchhikers, or go to your local VFW, or walk on the streetcorners and just see that it’s still going on, in the same form that it has always been before it got bought by RCA and Sony and all that s•••. We’re trying to keep a good hand on the importance of music for the country.”

The musician bristles when people mistakenly lump Old Crow Medicine Show’s sound in with contemporary bluegrass: “String-band music has been around since slavery started coming to this country, because that’s how you got the banjo here,” he says. “It wasn’t until 1900 that you ever really saw string-band music in the commercial sense, and the styles were just evolving really quickly then. A fella named Charlie Poole [who played with his own three-finger banjo technique] totally revamped how to play the banjo. And then following after that is a whole lot of other people. … They mostly credit it to Earl Scruggs, but bluegrass was a long time in the making, long before Earl Scruggs. … We just tend to stick to the older, more traditional stuff, because it’s got … the same qualities of all other music, it just does it in such a raw, untainted way. It’s like playing punk rock. … music really needs to hit people real directly.”

In its liner notes, the band predictably thanks such acoustic influences as blues singer Mance Lipscomb and banjoist Dock Boggs — but Kurt Cobain also gets his due.

“The only thing you could get that was real in the early 1990s, if you were growing up in middle-class America listening to the radio, was Nirvana,” Secor proclaims. “They had this authenticity to them. … everything else was like Janet Jackson and Madonna on the radio, but Kurt Cobain and those three fellas in Nirvana really had an impact on all of us, just to show us that you could be at this big level in music and you could still play really, really authentically.” Interestingly, Secor’s other influences include Janet’s brother Michael, Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie and even old-school-college-punk darlings The Dead Milkmen.

“I’ve never been interested in being in a strictly traditional old-time string band that plays only festivals and always credits the tune properly to what old dead man wrote it or what old dead man you learned it from,” he muses. “It’s the process of making something, and it’s not always about the product. Sometimes it’s nice to sound like an old ’78, and other times it’s nice to sound like you’re breaking old ’78s.”

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