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Old Crow schools us on W.Va. history

By Staff | Jul 28, 2009

It’s not very often we leave an interview with a band actually smarter. On the contrary, we often feel like we’ve lost brain cells.

But Ketch Secor, fiddler and vocalist for Old Crow Medicine Show, definitely knows his stuff. And by stuff we mean drugs. Oh, and West Virginia and music history, too.

Graffiti: So tell me about the new DVD. For a band that’s known for its live shows, I’m a little surprised one hasn?t been released yet. What’s been the hold-up?

Ketch: It was just a matter of taking the time to do it and do it right … there’s a lot of slipshod movies and records that get out there because people want to have it on their merch tables.

We took a lot of time to get this right and I think it’s going to stand up beside the best of rock concert footage.

Graffiti: The guy who did this has done a few of your music videos, too, right?

Ketch: Yea, here in Nashville, Lee Tucker and Roger Pistole, a couple of guys involved with the film work here in Nashville.

(Ed. note: At this point, my cat crawled up onto my lap and began meowing into the phone. Ketch asked about the cat and where I was calling from, leading this exchange.)

Ketch: Actually Marietta was on my map a few years ago because it was between where I live and where my wife lived. I kept saying let’s meet in Marietta.

Graffiti: Have you ever stopped here?

Ketch: That’s where I go to buy my crystal meth. When it’s out there I stop at Steubenville (Ohio) and Gallipolis (Ohio).

Graffiti: Both good places for meth, I hear. Speaking of meth, did you happen to hear about that NASCAR driver who tested positive for meth? If you were to ask me which sport was most likely to have an athlete test positive for meth, I would have said NASCAR.

Ketch: Yea, I did. You know fast cars and speed seems like a natural pairing.

Graffiti: So much of your music is fashioned around drugs, hustlers, gamblers and thieves. How much of that is fictionalized for the song?

Ketch: I think that it’s all fictionalized and yet none of it is.

It’s all true but sometimes it’s easier to tell a story with a character than using your own name or somebody you know.

I think the high life has been a noted part of Americana songs since they first brought the banjo off the slave ship and looked to transcend the bondage with a sip of hootch. People have been getting drunk in America since the 1620s and it’s no different now. We just have some nastier ways to get there.

I think music itself is a very hallucinogenic experience and I urge people to, like in the song, to drink corn liquor and leave the cocaine be. But the music life is inexplicitly linked to that. In the last record, a lot of that information was close to home and it just found its way to my pen.

I think songs like ‘Methamphetamine’ might as well been written for Ashland, Marietta, Portsmouth and Huntington, W.Va. It’s a song that takes you down along the towns on the Big Sandy River because it’s a song that has a little bit of coal dust and a little bit of meth dust in it as well.

Songs like that you really just try to paint a picture of the reality that some people are living in; not trying to say it’s good or bad, just that it’s going on, that it’s here. I always like a song that’s topical in nature.

Back 600 years ago before they were corking their first grog in the world, broadside was basically the news. So you’d have a song like NASCAR driver arrested for crystal meth possession or police officer arrest for child molestation through the DARE program in southwest West Virginia or corruption in Kentucky on a governmental level. But 600 years ago it was a song about the price of corn going up and an incestuous affair between a duke and duchess.

Graffiti: Do you feel a little bittersweet sometimes then that you’re music seems more successful than ever, but that it’s coming on the heels of a bad economy and a war and all this bad news?

Ketch: I think country music and sounds of rural America as captured by fiddle and banjo has always been a place to lay down your woe for the people in the Rust Belt and the Appalachian communities.

This is a music that belongs to the people who invented it, the Scotch-Irish settlers brought the fiddle with them all those many miles and with it they brought their ox carts and big-legged daughters, and they brought with them a sense of musicality that has lasted all these years.

And it’s had an influence all around the world in terms of its ultimate end in rock and roll and country music. The pairing of the music of the British Isles and the slaves from Africa, once those two forces met in America nothing was ever the same.

Country folks have long looked to music as a kind of rest area and sort of a way station between hardships. That’s what good music is here for; it’s here to help you lift your load. It’s like in our song, always lift them up and never knock them down. That’s a song about a church sweeping across West Virginia called the Holiness Church.

They printed out songs books but people couldn’t read them, so they were shaped in the shape note formation. That was a way people could pass on music.

Before the radio, if you wanted to sing it you had to hear it first. But the shape note sort of reminds me of the talking leaves and the Cherokee who formed the alphabet. But anyway this is a form of notation that’s user friendly. They can write (notes) in shapes.

This guy from Pipestem, W.Va., Blind Alfred Reed, crossed the country singing songs about morality. One of his songs, in the mid ‘20s, was, ‘Why do you bob your hair, girls?’ and it was a song about hairdressing and … in this wonderful song it says when the world turns its back against him, always lift him up and never knock him down.

That’s the kind of country music Old Crow wants to deliver. The kind that won’t knock you down or look too pretty … or that you got to buy on credit and pay it off on time. Rather it’s free and it’s for everyone. In fact, you already own it, it’s in your heart.

… They’re the songs about way down in the dark dungeon of the minds and they’re songs about the mountaintop removal and the coal dust that’s still raining down on your back door.

These things haven’t changed and country music needs to be there for all time.

Graffiti: What’s the reception like when you play here?

Ketch: I love playing in West Virginia. The reception is a lot of young people with cocaine in their back pocket and pretty girls, country girls. Parkersburg girls, especially.

Graffiti: So, what’s up next for Old Crow?

Ketch: We’ll probably be due to record after our West Virginia show. We have a little time off for the end of summer and then we go on the west coast opening for Willie Nelson for a couple of dates.

… We were recently in Australia and New Zealand and we all hope to be returning there by years end.

Graffiti: Well, Ketch, thanks for taking the time to talk with us. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Ketch: We’re excited about bringing some fiddles and banjos to West Virginia on a Friday night and Montani Semper Liberi, Mountaineers are Always Free.

Contact Justin at jmcintosh@graffitiwv.com