- - Monday, July 21, 2014


Vince Gill once told me that on very rare occasions he has heard virtuoso musicians whose artistry outshines even their most gifted counterparts.

He made the statement about mandolinist Ricky Skaggs, but his words came to mind when I heard “Remedy,” the new album by Ketch Secor and his band Old Crow Medicine Show.

I could join the choir of critics telling you it’s “rollicking,” “joyful” and some of the best music created by “one of the foremost American string bands.” Instead, I’ll say it’s the gold standard of American roots music.

It’s that powerful.

“For me, this album’s real personal,” said Mr. Secor. “I am a real baseball fan, and I think in terms of baseball metaphors. This was a little like spring training. I could tell, right away, this was going to be a great team.”

A native of Harrisonburg, Virginia, Mr. Secor began playing music as a child, and in 1998 formalized Old Crow Medicine Show. The group has grown to seven members, including returning co-founder Critter Fuqua and Chance McCoy, a D.C. native.

“We all really care about folk and think of it as a responsibility to be stewards of country music, to carry on [the legacies of] Roy Acuff, A.P. Carter, and Mother Maybelle Carter,” said Mr. Secor, 36.

He doesn’t count himself among those greats but instead compares himself to the awkward kid who is a bit out of step with the family he adores. While his modesty is admirable and understandable, one can’t help but note the great Doc Watson wouldn’t have plucked just any buskers off a Boone, North Carolina, street and given them a slot at the 2000 MerleFest as he did Old Crow. And country legend Marty Stuart would not have championed the band if he didn’t hear magic in their sound.

Mr. Secor’s reverence for old-time music expands well beyond Old Crow. He recently produced the self-titled album by Pokey LaFarge — a joyous romp through Dixieland, jazz and country blues, with enough western swing to put one in mind of the great Bill Willis and his successors, such as Asleep at the Wheel.

Old-time country harkens to the 1920s, but it seems to appeal to fans in their early 20s to late 30s. That was the case this month when a near-capacity crowd danced in the aisles at the Birchmere in Alexandria during a performance by Mr. LaFarge and his band.

One can’t help but wonder what attracted Mr. LaFarge, 30, and his generation to traditional sounds. While he couldn’t speak for fans his age, Mr. LaFarge’s own devotion centers on the heartfelt storytelling and purity of the music passed down by the early artists.

“It was 3 chords and the truth. It was honest,” he said in an email before embarking on a European tour. “[The musicians] cried when they sang. The back stories were the true history of our country, our people. They influenced us all whether we know it or want to accept it. I want the true, real, unfiltered American expression. I went back to the source of the music to find it.”

There’s arguably no purer source than Virginia’s Carter Family, whose traditional folk music of the ‘20s and ‘30s profoundly influenced (some would say birthed) American country music.

Carlene Carter, daughter of June Carter Cash and Carl “Mr. Country” Smith, said audiences that come to hear her as she tours behind her recently released album “Carter Girl” are ardent devotees of traditional country. Yet those fans delight in Ms. Carter’s continuation of her family’s treatment of music as living art that she reimagines.

“They are coming to have the live experience that was passed down from the Carter Family and from [my stepfather Johnny Cash],” said Ms. Carter, 58. “I have the white-hair fans and the young 20-something fans They are all true music lovers.”

The respect for traditional music that allows an artist to interpret it seems to connect old-time performers, no matter their age.

As Ms. Carter reworked her family’s songs, Mr. Secor famously completed “Wagon Wheel” by Bob Dylan. A recording by Old Crow went platinum, and Darius Rucker’s 2013 cover of it went to No. 1 on Billboard’s country charts.

After that success, Mr. Dylan asked Mr. Secor if he would finish another of his songs — “Sweet Amarillo,” on the “Remedy” album.

Mr. Secor declines to define his role as a songwriter, musician or producer.

“I asked Bob Dylan that once,” Mr. Secor said. “He said, ‘I’m a song and dance man.’ That’s what I’ll say, too.”



Click to Read More

Click to Hide