These days, they’re known as robocalls, but if you lived around East Tennessee in the early 1990s and received a call from the Fraternal Order of Police asking for contributions, there was a human being on the other end of the line.
And back then, it might have been Ketch Secor or Chris “Critter” Fuqua of Old Crow Medicine Show. That was back before legendary North Carolina guitarist and folk icon Doc Watson discovered them playing outside of a drug store in Boone, North Carolina. Music was their passion, and playing it full time was the dream, but back then, they had to pay the bills, Secor told The Daily Times recently. And so the boys took whatever jobs they could get.
“It was a hodgepodge of work, and everybody sort of had the expectation that they would put a little bit of money into the kitchen drawer that we kept the rent in,” Secor said. “Willie (Watson) played on the street corner; me and Kev (former member Kevin Hayes) worked in the tobacco fields, and we all basically did farm work. When we lived in the city before that, it was all about day labor jobs. When the hospital was going up in Linville, me and Critter tied the rebar for the hospital floor.
“And then there was driving down to Knoxville to sell death benefits over the phone for the F.O.P. (Fraternal Order of Police) — raising money for widows and giving out sticker decals. Back then, you could just sit back, and Ketch and Critter would call you!”
While the work was hard (and occasionally unnerving, like the time he had to unload boxes of dancing Santa Clauses at a warehouse in High Point, North Carolina, and set off their automated routines every time the box moved), it was also a rung on a ladder for which he’s grateful, he added. He makes no bones about their circumstances back then — they were, in a way, tourists.
“It’s almost voyeuristic to do it when you’re a 19-year-old white kid with an education,” he said. “That’s the kind of guy that can breeze in and breeze out. The problem is when you’re the class of people, and that’s the only rung you get. I’m glad I got to put my hand on it, because I think if we hadn’t have fully submerged ourselves in that kind of lifestyle that we really cloaked ourselves in, then Old Crow probably wouldn’t have been a band.”
Or at least, not the sort of bluegrass fusion outfit that can headline a two-night stand at The Shed Smokehouse and Juke Joint in Maryville, one of which is sold out. (Tickets still remain for the Friday show.) The band got its start when Secor and Fuqua met in the seventh grade. The two grew up in Virginia, and Secor attended school in New Hampshire before moving to New York state, where Fuqua joined him. They found some like-minded musical peers and started traveling hobo-style across the country, busking on street corners and village squares all the way to Canada and through the Southeast.
“If you take music into isolated places (with) hard-working people, that’s what works,” Secor said. “Even before Old Crow started, me and Critter were playing in the dead of winter in Quebec on the street corner. It has less to do with society and the types of people as it does their wants — and if you’ve got something warm when it’s cold, then you’ll win.
“If you’ve got something authentic where everybody left the mountain a generation ago and now live in a city like Kingsport and the old folks are looking around their big-screen television for what’s authentic, you’ll win. It’s sort of like setting up a jam session, and everybody is just invited. That made us popular real quick, because everybody knows how to jam — and if they don’t, at least they can bring a covered dish.”
Watson’s daughter heard them playing outside that Boone drug store, and when she brought her father over to listen, he immediately invited the boys to play his annual MerleFest. That put Old Crow on the map, and by 2000, the guys were recording in Nashville with Americana icon David Rawlings, who produced the band’s debut album — which included the now famous “Wagon Wheel,” which has since become both the fallback song of bar bands and the bane of “serious” musicians who have come to abhor the song’s ubiquitous nature.
“‘Living on sponge cake,’” Secor said, quoting another song that took on a life of its own as both an endearingly popular cover and the bane of “serious” music lovers everywhere. “I feel like this is what happens when a good song gets too popular — a bunch of people say they don’t want to hear it anymore. The nice thing about this flip phone that I use, though, is that it doesn’t show me that (negative) post or that picture. I don’t care, because I’m not tuned in.
“I just don’t really care if it’s revered or reviled. I know my part in it, and I know anybody who sings it has their part in it, and it’s an open question of whether it’s good or not. Is it good for the 14-year-old kid who sets up his little camera and projects himself playing it? Does it make you feel authentic when you sing it, like it’s your story? It’s written in the first person, and it travels, so even if you’ve never traveled, you travel when you sing it.”
The band’s most recent effort, 2018’s “Volunteer,” is more of the same: a hodgepodge of American roots music traditions, with the goal being a collection of timeless songs that bring to life the stories that make up the rich tapestry of American history. Preserving it and celebrating it, as he does in the new Ken Burns multi-part documentary “Country Music,” is as important to Secor as writing and recording new material, especially in a day and age when modernity has made the concept of albums almost antiquated.
“I think really the place where the experience of the music we make is most genuine and powerful is in the live setting,” he said. “Guys like Don Was and Dave Cobb and Dave Rawlings taught us a lot about record-making, but what I really learned to do was to dance, and that doesn’t record very well. But it doesn’t really matter to me if the things change; it’s all about whether I change or not, and I don’t have to.
“And it’s totally wide open right now. It feels really kind of charged and charmed and amazing. Right now, I’m looking at a wonderful T-shirt that has 20 cities on the back of it, and it’s manageable. It’s our summer tour, and we’re going to places like Beaver Dam, Kentucky, and Maryville, Tennessee. What you won’t see are cities like Hollywood or New York.
“We’ve played those places for years, and we can sell out there or in Melbourne or in London, but we’d rather play in Eastern Tennessee or Kentucky as anywhere else. I’m just thankful that we get to go out and make music for the people we love in the places that we love.”