Old Crow Medicine Show: Front man Ketch Secor talks about his passion for Dylan, touring the UK and the 50 years of Blonde on Blonde tour.

With all of the modern pop country around at the moment bands like Old Crow Medicine Show can be a little
under rated. The Opry-members have co-written with Bob Dylan, toured with Willie Nelson and seen their hit ‘Wagon Wheel’ score a number one slot (at least the Darius Rucker recorded version!). They’re currently on the road supporting their latest live album which celebrates 50 years since the release of Bob Dylan’s first Nashville recorded album ‘Blonde on Blonde’. We were lucky enough to catch up with singer, fiddle and, well, everything else player Ketch Secor as they tour the UK…

We were at the show in Manchester on Saturday. I have to say it was one of the best live shows that I have ever seen. How much did you enjoy it?

What a nice compliment! Thanks for saying that! It’s really special to get to play Blonde on Blonde. It’s been really fun for Old Crow to get to find a new way to express ourselves with old music. We’ve always been in the business of exploring roots music and Blonde on Blonde is just that.

You’re effectively doing the same set every night playing Blonde on Blonde from start to finish. How do you maintain that same level of excitement and energy without it becoming routine?

That’s one of the tricks of Old Crow. I think we’ve always been a band which enjoys the ‘fifth Beatle’ or, I don’t know, passion. There’s something about playing this kind of music, whether it’s Blonde on Blonde or an Old Crow set or a different cover, there something about playing fiddles and banjos and singing in harmony that just… it’s like marathon running. Usain Bolt runs hard every time. When you’re an athlete you can’t not be passionate about your work just because you know how to do it really well or you’ve run this quarter mile a million times before so you’ll run it passively this time – you wont win!

I guess even though the set might not change every night it’s a different crowd, a different place and it keeps that excitement I guess?

There’s something of a challenge in trying to make it understood why you’re coming to a concert where you’re not going to hear any of the songs that you’re familiar with or our band plays so I think we’ve already created a dilemma that needs to be resolved through the concert. You know, there must be a kind of scepticism because if you’re a big Bob Dylan fan you’re like “these guys can’t pull this off!” and if you don’t like Bob Dylan then you’re like “why isn’t this band going to play the shit that I like?”. Both of those audiences we have to say “1. This is Old Crow music and this is actually probably better than any Bob Dylan show that you’re ever going to see” unless you can go back to 1966 and even then Bob is not, I don’t think that joy is the fifth Beatle in Bob’s band, I’ve seen Bob fourty times – I fucking love Bob Dylan – I’d go see him sit on a stage and mumble and not play a tune. I’d just want to go and be in his presence because it’s like being around Moses or Elijah.

There’s not many of those big legends left, for instance Hendrix or BB King, I think Bob is probably one of the last ones still with us…

Yeah he’s the last one for me. We’ve played a lot with Willie Nelson and Willie is a showman, he’s all heart but Bob sneers. Bob is frowning and sneering. It’s not an inviting metre but that’s ok because those of us who love Bob as much as I do don’t care what he does we just want to be near the guy.

You first played this show last year at the Country Music Hall of Fame. How did that opportunity come about?

They came up to us and they wanted to figure out a way to honour this milestone of Blonde on Blonde so they asked Old Crow to do something to mark it. Whatever we wanted really. They said “we’ll give you the stage and you guys figure out how you want to celebrate Blonde on Blonde”. We started rehearsing for it and through the process of learning the tunes again, you know because I’d heard them all my life but never had to recite them in order and not fuck up the lyrics, but through that process we learned really quickly and caught a glimmer of something really special. What you saw in Manchester – we saw that in the garage behind Corey’s house about a year and a month or two ago. It was “oh damn! We’re really good at this! This is really fresh and alive and vital! This thing makes a lot of sense and it makes a lot of sense for Old Crow to help conceptualise Blonde on Blonde in the greater spectrum of music”. That seems to a positive role for our band to take on as members of the Grand Ole Opry as, there are not a lot of bands in Nashville that have been together twenty years, if you’ve been together in a band for twenty years then the chances are that you’re about fifty or sixty years old in Nashville.

The great thing about this is that it sounds like Old Crow. They’re definitely Dylan songs but they sound like Old Crow without losing that Dylan-ness if you will! Once you got together as a band and started rehearsing the set was it difficult to take such iconic music and, I know it’s a bit of a cliché, make it your own?

Thanks for all your great questions by the way! It was really fun to make it our own. We made it our own because of the limitations that our band has and one of the biggest limitations is that we can’t play rock and roll – it doesn’t work without electricity! We have to find ways to approximate rock and roll and really play the roots of rock. You know, Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat is as rock and roll a song as anything that those guys in Led Zeppelin tried to do… probably more so. It’s so rooted and blues derived. It’s more blues derived than the Stones playing the blues or any other British invasion bands that played the blues. Actually, it kind of reminds me of Dave Clark! It’s like Dave Clark stuff! Dave Clark really knew how to play black music in a way that I don’t think any of the guys that get all the credit for it, Zeppelin or The Who, everybody in the British invasion is talking about black music but who is actually playing it? Fucking Dave Clark Five man!

I think that, as much as I love some British invasion bands, it doesn’t have that essence of blues. It’s such an American thing really…

It really is an American thing! The kind of blues that Bob is playing on Blonde on Blonde, the other thing about Blonde on Blonde is that the guys who played on the session couldn’t deal with Bob! The session players to Bob is like Old Crow to rock and roll. Country music session players didn’t know what to do about Bob Dylan and they didn’t know what to do with fourteen verse songs that lasted eleven minutes. They didn’t know how to play a twelve-minute waltz or a song like ‘Stuck in Mobile’ or bizarre songs. There’s just so many kinds of tunes that were just out of the scope of reasoning for these players so they found commonality and common denominators. One of the easiest ways to do it was to play electric rock and roll blues music so Blonde on Blonde is primarily made up of just one kind of sound “bum bad um bad um da bum da da” and there’s some great standouts and Old Crow never did that very well because you have to have sustain on a guitar to do it right so we kind of treated it like “ok, what would a jug band sound like if they played Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat?” well it would have a bowed bass and staccato fiddling and we added a circle of fifths chord. For every song on the album if we didn’t know how to play it we would play the rooted version of it. Other songs, instead of taking the Blonde on Blonde version, because so many of the songs on the album have been re-recorded by Bob Dylan time and time again on dozens of others albums so we could go to another album. For example our version of ‘Most Like You’ll Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine’ so the record version is ‘dun da dun da dun da dun’ and we don’t fuck around with that! But there’s another live version from ‘Before The Flood’ and we can do anything that the band does because they don’t go ‘dun da dun da dun’.

It’s also 50 years since the release of another ground-breaking Dylan album in ‘John Wesley Harding’ this year. Would you consider doing anything to mark that?

Well ‘John Wesley Harding’ would be a much easier choice. Of the Nashville records ‘Blonde on Blonde’ is the least like Old Crow Medicine Show. Each one of the others is just a lot more country. Those would have made more obvious choices but it’s nice to make a less obvious choice and see what it does. Make a hard choice and see if you can adapt. That’s been the success of this project is that only a band that’s been around for a while and has shape shifted can pull something like this off and still sound like them. It’s been a place of growth for our band. It’s just been kind of fun frankly to get to put on Bob’s mask every night and not just one of Bob’s mask but fifty years of them.

Do you think it’s made a difference to the band going forward? It’s been three years since the release of ‘Remedy’. Have you got any plans for new music and will the ‘Blonde on Blonde’ experience affect that?

Yeah, in fact after we recorded ‘Blonde on Blonde’ at the Country Music Hall of Fame about two weeks later we were in the studio making our new studio record which will come out, well they’re saying the Winter of ’18. In fact the producer we worked with, a guy named Dave Cobb, said “don’t rehearse anything. Just play your Blonde on Blonde stuff and let that be your rehearsal”. So we just got like regular Dictaphone demos and half of the songs people had never played before but we were so greased up from Blonde on Blonde that we could have played any kind of record. It was like Spring training for a pennant winning season!

You made the decision to put the original show at the Country Music Hall Of Fame out as a record. Was this always the plan or did it just naturally and organically progress from a one off show to releasing it then touring it?

That’s exactly what happened. It was a conversation that turned into some rehearsals where we weren’t sure were they’d go, then it was one night which sold out then it turned to two nights then we thought “what the Hell let’s get a recording rig in there because these rehearsals are sounding kind of exciting” and then when we heard the playback, oh and the other thing we said was let’s get a three camera shoot on it and capture it for posterity, when we heard the playback we just thought, for me personally, this is the best record that this band has ever made! All of the songs are masterpieces! Bob is the reason, I didn’t want to be a musician because I listened to the Dave Clark Five or The Beatles or The Stones, nobody modelled what I wanted to do more than Dylan. Dylan was the guiding light and I think that’s true for people who don’t even like Bob Dylan. That’s how big the shadow that he casts is. I think he’s influenced people who would swear that they don’t even like him!

I think that’s the thing with Dylan that he’s influenced people who’ve influenced people. Whether it’s Jimi Hendrix doing ‘All Along The Watchtower’ or Guns N Roses doing ‘Knockin’ On Heavens Door’ I guess Dylan has influenced everybody…

Everybody! By being the great songwriter than Bob Dylan was in the greatest period of rock and roll’s infancy. It sort of became a teenager when Bob Dylan wrote ‘The Times They Are A Changing’ record. It just really changed the world and Bob Dylan’s work coincided with some of the great paradigm shifts of the 1960’s. The fact that it didn’t stay for that long and was sort of ‘dry-erased’ by the 1980’s is sort of beside the point. The fact of the matter is that when the world was on fire with passion and change Bob Dylan music was on everybody’s tongue. That’s why five hundred years from now it’ll still matter.

You’re over here in the UK touring the Blonde on Blonde show. Judging from the crowd on Saturday night our country has really taken to the band. How much do you enjoy coming here for shows?

You know we’ve been playing over here in the UK for about nine trips. That’s over the course of nineteen years so throughout all of that time I’d like to think we’ve made some lasting friends. Our band has never really gotten to a point where it feels like we’re all that successful in Great Britain. We’re not on the radio here, we got on Jools Holland once about ten years ago! We haven’t been on since! We opened up for the Mumford’s in some places around the country and the world and we’ve gotten to have some great experiences but this isn’t a place that we’ve had true success in that we’ve been able to sell a shit load of records or tickets. We’re a lot bigger in Alabama!

You’ve obviously struck up a good relationship with our own Mumford and Sons and toured together in the past. Do you think that’s a mutually beneficial relationship for you over here and them in the States?

They have such a different trajectory than us. It’s so much different being in a pop band. Imagine what it was like when Bob Dylan came here in the 1960’s first for his folk tour then his 1966 tour with The Hawks. He arrived and everybody knew it! He was such a big fucking deal! I can’t even fathom what that element of a performers life could be like because it’s never been like that for us and that’s fine. I just don’t think that is part of my idea of success. I think of Ariana Grande in Manchester and I didn’t even know who Ariana Grande was until then but as a performer I thought “oh no, people died at a show in Manchester!” and it made me think about Morrissey and the Manchester scene, making music in a Northern town and how vital that is. If you’re going to kill us, to kill us there is even more cruel because that’s a place of life. I mean, Manchester sucks, I think it’s a shitty town but the music is a fucking ramrod! The music is like a beautiful flower, like a rainbow, the music that has come out of Manchester could topple the buildings, it could clean out the estuaries, it could clean the canals and make them run crystal clear! That’s how good that music is! To kill people there with the war and to use that war machine in a live performance space is really heart-breaking. So I don’t need to know about that level of success playing the O2 Arenas and shit, that’s not important to me, it’s about being part of the vibrancy of music making and the life force of it. If you can be in that life force, oh man, it’s a healing and restorative place.

I agree and I think a show like yours on Saturday helps that healing. People will have been a little bit worried or conscious or scared but as soon as those instruments kicked in it went away. People can forget those fears and the irony of what those monsters did at that concert is that the music will fight through and fix it.

Yeah man. It’s why when Dr King got to the top of the bridge in Southern Alabama, even though there were snipers all around him, what did they do? They sang! That’s where music belongs. It’s got to be on the front lines and in the places that’s the most dangerous.

Hopefully we’ll continue seeing you back here on a regular basis?

It’d be nice to come more often. I think it would probably help. I was up in Glasgow last night and I was thinking about Mike Scott because sometimes my voice sounds like Mike Scott from The Waterboys. I don’t think that the Mumford and Sons are like The Waterboys and I don’t think that U2 are like The Waterboys or Ed Sheeran is like The Waterboys I don’t think you got The Waterboys! They’re not here any more! I just think that you guys live on these islands. You need fiddles, you gotta have them be loud and in your face. You’ve got to have rock and roll violin playing happening because you guys invented that shit! You sent that to our country in the eighteenth century and it fucked us up forever! It made rock and roll with the violin and banjo coming together!

Thanks to Ketch and Old Crow Medicine show for spending some time chatting with us. The live album ’50 Years of Blonde on Blonde’ is out now. Check out our review here.

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