A DECADE and a half ago, Old Crow Medicine Show got its first big break from one of the band’s biggest musical heroes, Doc Watson.
Watson’s daughter happened upon the group playing on a street corner in Boone, North Carolina one day in 2000, thought her father would like Old Crow’s music and returned with him an hour later.
Right then and there, Watson offered Old Crow Medicine Show a performance slot at Merlefest, the popular Wilkesboro, North Carolina music festival named for his son, Merle, an acclaimed guitarist and folk artist in his own right, who died in 1985 in an accident on the family farm.
If ever a group of young musicians seemed primed to carry forward the legacy of artists like Doc and Merle Watson, it was Old Crow, a group dedicated to playing country music in the old-time string band style and introducing both vintage material and original songs to a new generation of fans interested in celebrating the roots of the genre.
“When we were discovered by Doc Watson on the street corner, we were playing in the same spot where Doc Watson played when he was 23 -- 50 years before that, the same spot, same side of the street, same corner,” Ketch Secor, a founding member of Old Crow, said in a recent phone interview.
That’s a sign of destiny, to be sure. Old Crow played Merlefest that year, and the appearance helped give the group (which in July released a new album, “Remedy”) a foundation from which to work. The group’s career has been moving forward ever since – although there have been some bumps in the road along the way.
The next key break for Old Crow came in 2004, with the arrival of the essentially self-titled “O.C.M.S.,” the group’s first release on an established label, Nettwerk Records.
The album contained the song that elevated Old Crow into the front ranks of the so-called Americana music scene and eventually became a mainstream country hit. The song was “Wagon Wheel,” which began as a song Bob Dylan started writing, but didn’t finish, for the soundtrack of the 1973 film “Pat Garrett and Bill the Kid.”
The partial song, however, surfaced on various Dylan bootlegs, and Secor heard “Rock Me Mama” when his close friend (and future co-founder of Old Crow) Chris “Critter” Fuqua brought home a Dylan bootleg with the song from a family trip to London.
Secor was all of 17 when he decided to write verses to complete the song, which he re-titled “Wagon Wheel.” Early on in Old Crow Medicine Show’s career, an agreement was reached to release the song as a Dylan-Secor co-write.
Despite getting next to no radio play, the Old Crow version of “Wagon Wheel” caught on and became a signature song for the group. It gradually amassed sales and downloads that topped the one million mark in 2013.
By that time, the song had gotten new life after country star Darius Rucker (also the frontman of Hootie & the Blowfish) covered “Wagon Wheel” and rode the song to the top of the country singles chart.
Secor is still amazed at the journey the song has taken.
“It’s pretty rare to have something like that happen, particularly now with the business, it’s so hard to break into the business,” Secor said. “And you’re talking about you’re going to get a song and sell a million copies of it, and it’s never going to be heard on the radio. And then a big star like Darius picks it up and it gets another four million sales, that’s unbelievable.”
By the time Old Crow got the exposure from Rucker’s version of “Wagon Wheel,” the group was well established and had survived a period where the group very easily could have fallen apart.
After releasing the albums “Big Iron World” (2006) and “Tennessee Pusher” (2008) and dealing with the departure of Fuqua in 2004 so he could deal with substance abuse issues, Old Crow went on hiatus in 2011.
“We knew something needed to change, and it was certainly, there was some real questioning of whether we were going to survive that time or not,” Secor said. “I think we had to be willing to let it (the band) go. That was sort of the test. Can we let it go, and if it comes back again, then it will be ours. But if it doesn’t, we would have to accept that. That was an important step to take.”
The group came back together, but not without major changes. Original member Willie Watson left Old Crow in 2011. That was a significant loss. But a healthy Fuqua rejoined – a big shot in the arm for the group -- and Chance McCoy stepped into Watson’s slot, playing fiddle, banjo and guitar. They joined holdovers Secor (fiddle, harmonica, banjo, vocals), Kevin Hayes (“guitjo” and vocals), Gill Landry (slid guitar, banjo, vocals) and Morgan Jahnig (upright bass). In 2013, Cory Younts (mandolin, keyboards, drums, vocals) returned after a brief stint in Jack White’s band.
Musically, Old Crow Medicine Show came into its own after returning from its hiatus. The group has released two albums, “Carry Me Back” (2012) and now “Remedy” that are widely being seen as the band’s finest efforts and the best representations of its high-octane style of old-time string band music.
Secor credited producer Ted Hutt with taking Old Crow’s studio work to a new level by punching up the sonic impact of the music. The songwriting has also sharpened, particularly on “Remedy,” whose 13 songs are all originals.
“Remedy” is a rich musical and lyrical ride, ranging from fun (and sometimes funny) romps like “Brushy Mountain Conjugal Trailer,” “S**t Creek” and “8 Dogs 8 Banjos” to weightier tunes like “Dearly Departed Friend” (which touches on the emotional damage done during a soldier’s time in the service) and “Firewater” (a Fuqua co-write that looks into the depths of alcoholism).
Perhaps most notably, there’s a second Dylan/Secor co-write, “Sweet Amarillo.” This time, though, Dylan actually sent the fragment of the song, which also came from the “Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid” sessions, specifically to Secor to finish.
Secor was thrilled over Dylan’s invitation. Finishing the song, though, was a challenge, in part because it was a country waltz. But Secor and his bandmates completed “Sweet Amarillo,” then held their breath after sending a demo to Dylan to review.
Dylan responded that he liked the song, but suggested replacing a harmonica with fiddle and moving the chorus – two changes that Secor felt greatly improved the song.
“It was really amazing to get his (feedback),” Secor said. “That he would come back with his quill and make a few marks in the margins, I really felt the stewardship there. I really felt like we were, I felt like the apprentice.”
Now Old Crow Medicine Show is on tour, sharing its sound and songs with audiences and hoping to spur fans to explore the string band music and its roots in country, folk, blues and bluegrass.
“We’re really playing the new material and we’re really playing our original songs,” Secor said. “That’s the primary focus of the set. It‘s things off of ‘Remedy’ and also, at this point we have five studio albums out, so there’s quite a catalog to draw from. It’s been really fun to go back and dust off songs from 10 or 12 years ago and give them a little bit of new life.”