Monday, July 16, 2012

Ketch, Critter, & Morgan of Old Crow Medicine Show Discuss "Carry Me Back"

The mighty Old Crow Medicine Show drop their new studio album this week called Carry Me Back. From the first listen it is clear that the band is embracing their own fiery stringband roots, while delivering some of their best written tunes yet. The band has gone through some significant changes recently, including the departure of Willie Watson, and the addition of original member Critter Fuqua and new player Chance McCoy.

As a longtime fan of Old Crow, I am absolutely thrilled to share this in-depth interview with Ketch, Critter, and Morgan with you. The boys were very generous with their responses, and the result is a feature that covers a lot of ground, including the band's recent lineup changes, Critter and Ketch's musical history together, and the making of Carry Me Back.

Ketch, for readers who may not know, you having been hosting a radio show for some time now. Can you please describe your experiences hosting the show?

Ketch Secor: Yes, it's called The Old-Time Hour on the Air Catsle for the South, 650am WSM. It's been great doing live radio, kind of like busking. It's the great equalizer. You can't fool 'em on live radio!

I've enjoyed digging through really old songs from the earliest commercial recordings of country music, and turning people onto those records. Back then, musical categories were much less rigid, so I've played black country music, jug band tunes, cajun dance tunes, songster ballads, and even some hell-fire preaching records.

How has doing the show added to your own songwriting, particularly working on the new material for Carry Me Back?

Ketch: A lot of the songs on Carry Me Back, though original, draw heavily from sources in that same era of folk music I play on the radio show. I've learned a great deal from playing records on the air, from song lyric to melody, and have applied a lot of what I've learned when I sat down to write a lot of the tunes on this album.

Critter, can you discuss what you have been doing over the years between leaving Old Crow in 2007 and recently re-joining the band?

Critter Fuqua: I left the band in 2007, just after a European tour. I realized I really needed help because I could not stop drinking, and was literally killing myself. I went back to Virginia where I was living at the time for a brief, drunken spell, then went back to Texas where my parents live, and checked myself into a local whiskey farm. That's my pet name for a treatment center. Anyway, while I was there, I got my head clear and was given a certain kit of spiritual tools that I use to stay sane and sober.

After getting out of the treatment center in '08, I decided to enroll in college. I got into Schreiner University, not named for the guys with the little hats who drive the little cars in parades, but for a French born, ex-Texas ranger/ Confederate war hero, which is located in Kerrville, Texas. I had a wonderful experience at the university. I focused on English, more specifically Old English and Old Norse, two "dead" languages that are quite beautiful, and was able to study the languages in Kent, England in the summer of 2011. One of my favorite kennings in Old English is "swan-road", describing a stream that leads to the sea. Look up what a kenning is. I'm sure all the readers can google it.

Aside from going to school, I wrote a lot of Sci-fi and horror short stories, and no, none about vampires, sorry kids! I also hunted feral hogs in the Hill Country west of San Antonio. 

Ketch, when and how did you and Critter decide to begin playing together?

Ketch: We were 13 or so when we first wrote a song together. There's a natural kinship between us that's just always been there since the first day we met in the 7th grade. I suspect we'll be making music together for a long time. Remember how sad it made you feel when you heard that Sonny and Brownie didn't actually like each other? I don't even know if that's true. Or how about Don and Phil? Rabun and Alton? Ira & Charlie?

I can say with honesty, Critter and I like each other a lot. We're cut of the same cloth, both moved to the valley at the same time. Critter had the fire and I had the drive, or maybe it was the other way around. In either case, we're pretty unstoppable. 

Can you each discuss your recent experiences touring together and how that led to Critter re-joining Old Crow? What was most memorable and inspiring for each of you during this time together?

Ketch: After Willie departed things were just kind of haywire for a while. Critter and I got to talking about wanting to play some Conjunto down in San Antonio, or maybe go back up to Maine like we'd done in the Route 11 Boys. Both of things as a way of getting back to the reason we set out making music in the first place.

What we decided on was heading back up the valley and playing at the Little Grill where we'd literally first got started. Being back home again was full of pure goodness and renewal, just to sing with an old pal in an old haunt. For some folks it was like we'd never left Rockingham County. As we pulled outta town, we picked up a hitchiker, a kid we knew from high school, and dropped him off at his Mom's house in Weyer's Cave just like time hadn't flinched.

Critter: The whole "Ketch and Critter" tour in January of this year was pretty special. It is hard to describe all the emotions that I felt as Ketch and I rolled off the Cumberland plateau and into the Smokies, then up to our old home place in the snowy Shenandoah Valley. It felt so right, so pure, so redemptive.

Ketch and I have both been through a lot during our separation these last four or five years, and this trip was cathartic in a cosmic sort of sense. We have always remained the best of friends, but at the core of our friendship, among many other things, is this passion for music, an old, bardic spirit that needed to be rekindled.

The highlight of the trip for me was playing at the Little Grill in Harrisonburg, VA. This is where Ketch and I cut our teeth when we were 13, and it felt like the hero's journey, the one we all take in life, and we had come full circle. All the money we made at the grill went right back to the grill to support the OCP, Our Community Place. Ron Copeland, the Little Grill visionary and now Mennonite Preacher, was thrilled, and it felt so good to give back to him, because he gave us so much. A place to smoke and drink coffee and play songs and fall in love with velvet paintings of Bob Dylan. Our good buddies from the Route 11 boys, the St. Ours brothers, Phillip and Robert Holy Bear, got on stage with us, and that sealed the deal. Heaven. 

Critter, what does it mean to you to be back in the fold? What excites you most about playing in Old Crow again?

Critter: What excites me about being back in Old Crow is that, just like Willie Nelson said, "The life I love is playing music with my friends." I can't think of a better job to have. And now being sober and happy, I feel such a sense of freedom with the music that had been lost for me through the darkness of my addiction.

Ketch, what does Critter's contributions bring to Old Crow?

Ketch: Critter brings all that sweet stuff from his beautiful vocal delivery. He also brings the pork rinds. And the cracklin's. He has some of the best natural talent for clawhammer banjo playing I've ever heard. No frills, just pure heart. He can play all up and down the neck on a guitar, but when it comes to banjo, it's all about heart,  drive too. He can snake that thing like a damn garden hose.

We were playing recently at a nursing home for wards of the state, a place where people need music more than anywhere. You look out at the people in this sea of wheelchairs and you see the music just getting down to their very soul and the joy filling up in their faces and runnin' down their chins. Well, I turned to Critter and he looked back at me and we were beaming even brighter than that just to be together making music like we set out to do 20 years ago.

Critter, what does playing with these guys mean to you now? How has it inspired, influenced, challenged. surprised you?

Critter: Playing with Old Crow for me has always meant more than just getting on stage and playing, and now, with some new blood in the band in the form of music virtuoso Chance McCoy, we have a lot of creativity and freshness going on behind the music.

Ketch in particular has always been a positive influence on me. I tend to have a lot of ideas, just like Ketch, but when it comes down to doing the work to get a song idea into a tangible something that exists in this realm, I can get a bit untethered. Ketch grounds me and has a way of getting the best out of me.

Ketch, can you take us through the writing process for Carry Me Back?

Ketch: It's a "scribbled-on-beer-coasters, to cigarette packs, to torn sheets of green construction paper, to moleskin, to Underwood, to trucker log, to stone tablet, to laptop notebook" kind-of-writing-process. It all varies in the margins.

I guess we just wanted to write a whole bunch of songs Doc Watson could have recorded if he'd wanted, or had time to do. Songs that John Hartford never finished. Songs that Steve Goodman and Jim Croce would have gotten around to eventually. Songs good enough for Jerry and Grisman to record if they'd got around to making another. We could have called the record Songs For Pigpen. 

Can you each discuss your own writing process as well as share some of the other members' contributions to the new album?

Ketch: "Levi" was a cool song to write, kind of like that nursing home gig I alluded to. It's powerful stuff, this old-timey music. It didn't last 400 years by laying down and letting the grass grow over it. I like to sledge my way through those "museum-relics-kinda-songs" and write the sort of stuff that actually works. Songs that still can haul a load. Songs to chop cotton to, even if all ya ever chopped was the tip of your pinkie finger trying to pair fruit to top your cereal bowl.

There's a whole lot of people in America still working their asses off and they need a hard working song now more than ever. A lot of these folks are working for uncle sam now, and they're reading No Depression in Jalalabad or Basra, wishing they were back in Kentucky on some fake lake riding around in circles with a girl that smells like a Walmart detergent aisle. But they're not, they're on some God-awful army base eating green slop and taking orders and wishing to gawd they could crank up just one song that's written and recorded just for them. Well fuck that, here's a whole album for ya!

Critter: I haven't really written many songs as of late,  I'm just getting back into it. I have a couple I'm sitting on right now though. For the past couple of years I have written a lot of essays and short stories, and maybe I'll get some published some day. But writing is writing, and I believe it is all beneficial to the soul, whether it is poetry, prose, songs, novels, grocery lists, or sticky note reminders.

It had been a long time since I had played with Gil or Kevin, and having been rehearsing these past couple of weeks with them made me realize how much fun I have playing with them when they sing their songs. Kevin is hilarious, and his songs are balls to the wall, party in the car kind of apocalyptic. Gil writes some of the best bluesy rock and roll rhythm nasties, coupled with some beautiful love ballads.  I feel blessed to be working with such a talented and nutty team.

Ketch, when I listen to Carry Me Back, I am brought back to the earlier Old Crow records, as opposed to say, Tennessee Pusher. Was there a set direction for the record?

Ketch: We figured it was time to get back to what we're best at. Being a string band has its limitations and we've tried to push the boundaries in our live show, on the records, and in our own individual projects too. We've made some pretty good country records, played some decent live rock shows, Kev even fronted a punk rock band this winter. But at the end of the day, we're a hillbilly string band.

When we play blues it is hillbilly string band blues.When we play folk it is hillbilly string band folk. It comes from our origins as a band. We played street corners so well that they invited us indoors! We played dive bars so well they invited us on the Opry!

Carry Me Back and the songs on it is what we do best with what we know how to play. The entire record could be performed live on the curb, out in front of the Ryman, or through the door, up on stage.

What were you guys listening to during the making of the album that was particularly inspiring?

Ketch: Firetrucks! The Cowboy Arms Recording Spa and Hotel was up in flames just down the street. The quote in the Tennessean that day, straight from the cowboy's mouth was "I don't like it but I guess things happen that way"... God, I love you Nashville, Tennessee!

That is great! Can you discuss your other musical and non-musical sources of inspiration this time around?

Ketch: Faulkner, The Felice Brothers, Lincoln, Andres Galaraga, Taco, Santiago Jimenez, Tic-Tac-Toe, Cryptozoology, Crunk-Fish Sandwiches, Zola, Charlie Poole, Scott Howard, Buster Coward, and Mule Days. 

How does location influence you and benefit you most?

Ketch: Being American roots musicians, the music is all about origins. You got a lexicon of place and names to sing the blues about. Every damn hole in the wall in America has got a blues about, got a dance named for it, got a hero to praise, got a dastardly deed to disclaim, and got a killer to glorify.

Look at bastard Leadbelly with his Cushatta mouth and Ivory-billed woodpecker eyes! He's from Caddo and Bridgeport too, and he's black, white, and injun, country, blues, hillbilly and sukey jump.

American roots music is all about origins, but when you look back to the beginning people start looking like nothing that exists on this earth anymore. I guess what I mean to say is there's no way to measure the pulse of that beating heart that is American song. It's stronger than any instrument we've invented to measure it. We invented the music and it's stronger than any of us...But if you put us all together....

Morgan, can you discuss the recording processes of the album?

Morgan Jahnig: From the beginning, we wanted this record to be the biggest and liveliest record we've ever made, and interestingly enough, that meant not tracking live. We tried every song together for a while, but with 6 guys clanging away in the studio, getting everyone to have that solid, energetic assault at the same time was a challenge.

We're such a performance-driven band, but capturing that energy in the studio always somehow eluded us. I think we got it down with "Mississippi Saturday Night", but even there, we left all the vocals for overdubs. For all the other songs, our producer, Ted Hutt, spent time having us get rock-solid rhythm tracks, usually guitar and bass, sometimes banjo, and then we'd lay everything in after.

It was a completely new experience for us, and it taught us how to play with as much energy and feel as a duo or trio as with a full band. Crafting that sound from the ground up let the songs develop into the full, driving, live band you hear on the record. It allowed us to get the feel we were looking for and the performance we wanted without wearing it out, and it allowed the individual players to experiment without taking down a whole pass. Ted was always having us "lean forward" into the takes and push the song almost to the point of snapping, and it's the controlled tension, the taut string, that makes it alive.

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