There are many venues throughout the world, but few are held in such high esteem as the beautiful Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Best known as the home of the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 to 1974, it’s been called “The Carnegie Hall of the South” and “The Mother Church of Country Music.” But for Old Crow Medicine Show and its front man Ketch Secor, the Ryman is the embodiment of a multi-cultural spirit and a universal celebration of music.
OCMS’s latest release, Live at the Ryman, captures that celebratory spirit in all its glory, and recently, Secor chatted with AQ about the album, the Ryman’s history, and the legacy of their crossover hit, “Wagon Wheel.”
OCMS migrated to Nashville from Virginia, right?
Yeah. I mean it’s a more circuitous route than that, but, yeah, those are some bookends. There’s some [members from] New Orleans, there’s some [from] East Tennessee, and Appalachia, too, but yeah…. Me and Critter (Fuqua, multi-instrumentalist) grew up in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. We started our band up in the Finger Lakes, where we wound our way back down south to Tennessee.
Like a true traveling road show.
Yeah! You know, that circus… I grew up reading this book called Toby Tyler. It was one of those 19th Century boyhood stories where the little boy joins the circus and runs away from the parents. And that was me. I totally took that one to heart.
That’s an interesting inspiration. I didn’t know that.
Yeah, yeah. I was an avid reader and dreamer. I sort of combined all of the other things I was reading as a kid…. It was almost like I grew up reading roadmaps. I could see roadmaps everywhere. Like I could see them in Shakespeare. I could see them in a science curriculum textbook. Everywhere I looked.
Were they all sort of parallels to what was going on in your own life?
No, because my life wasn’t really all that interesting. It wasn’t about escape, if that’s what you mean. It was more about wanting to live in the adventure of the books I was reading and the music I was hearing and knowing that the adventure-scape awaited me and that I just needed to, you know, I just needed to run off.
Not so much to disappear, but to have an adventure.
Yeah. I mean, I wanted to disappear, too, but not from others. I wanted to disappear into the unknown.
Well, what that has all lead to is this wonderful new live record, Live at the Ryman, which is fantastic. Congratulations.
No problem. OCMS has a special history with the Ryman, and I was wondering if you could expand a little bit on that for our readers.
Our history with the Ryman begins roughly with our Grand Ole Opry debut in the winter 2000. That was, turns out, quite a while ago! It started with us being invited to make our debut at the Grand Ole Opry, which in the winter months, is broadcast from the Ryman Auditorium. As soon as we walked in there, it was like we were coming back to a familiar place. I think that it has to do with the kind of shared collective memory that is such a part of the country music story. You know, we are purveyors in nostalgia in this line of work, so we’re all about the old home and mother—not your current girlfriend, but your ex. It’s all about the past. The Ryman was like, you know… all roads lead to Grand Central Station, right? So, it was like coming to the hub, the axis of country music. That’s how it felt at 23, and now, at 41, every time I walk in through the back alley of those winding stone stairs, I know I have returned to the place where all roads lead.
Rock ‘n’ roll bands and artists from other genres are now invited to play the Ryman on a regular basis, but as a group that plays true American roots music with its own spin, is there any extra pressure when the band plays the Ryman, just because of the lingering spectrum of country and bluegrass legends that have played there before?
Well, that’s a great question, but thankfully there isn’t. There isn’t any pressure at all. You could ask… let’s see… who made their debut there? Maybe it was the Wu-Tang Clan?
Yeah, they did actually. It was sold out.
Yeah. So I think that maybe it’s possible that they felt some pressure. For bands like ours…. Here’s the thing, the Ryman Auditorium, even though for a really long period of time—I mean it actually wasn’t even that long, just from like 1940 to 1974—but for about 30 years it housed the Grand Ole Opry. Before that, you were more likely to see Teddy Roosevelt than you were an opera singer and you were a ballad singer. So, the space is just as comfortable as a space for the Wu-Tang Clan as it is for Old Crow. Because even though we might play the folk music of this part of the state of Tennessee, or this part of the South, and maybe the Wu-Tang Clan doesn’t… the Ryman wasn’t made for folk music. In fact, it was really made for the eclectic sounds of elsewhere to come to Nashville and enrich our community culturally. And not just even music, but dance and theater and oration and politics and plays. It’s a tabernacle. It’s also a spiritual space, if that answers it.
It does. And I’m glad that you brought up those aspects that you mentioned, things like the spirituality of it and the idea of it being a tabernacle—Bill Monroe’s memorial service, when he passed, was held there. So there’s a big, huge aura, if I hear you right, circling around that building that is just a vibe that applies to everyone. It’s universal.
I think it is universal, because we all need a place to gather in fellowship. But mostly, what it is, is the spiritual epicenter of Nashville, Tennessee. I mean, it’s certainly an American place and it belongs to us all, but if you think it has a halo around it, I’d say that halo is about as wide as the Cumberland River. And it’s worth coming out here to see it. I also encourage, you know, your readers to go to the places in your town, because there are places like this all around the country. And here’s the thing about the Ryman: it probably should have—instead of being a music venue—it probably should be a two by two foot iron sign with raised letters from a historical society that says, “One block from this spot, stood the Ryman Auditorium.” Because if you go around any other city, chances are that their version of the Ryman is a plaque. These kinds spaces didn’t survive the era of urban renewal, urban decay, white flight…. You know, there’s so many forces at work and that are here to uproot civic places of civic unity. It’s the “you get in the car” culture, or like Levittown. There are just so many forces that would say, ‘Hey, Downtown—we’re heading out to the burbs, man! We have got to keep up with the Joneses and that’s where they moved.’ And that spirit is all around the country. The Ryman stands as testimony to a very opposing view that ‘This is the heart of your town. It’s right downtown. It’s right by the river,’ or whatever nature or natural landscape feature that is the reason that you’re in this town. At the heart of every arc in this country is a river, or it’s a rail, or it’s a road, right? It’s a river and the river is the road.
And the Ryman almost serves as a beacon of contrast to what you spoke about going on throughout the rest of the country where these structures, where these memories were housed, don’t last. And it’s an unfortunate thing.
And it’s made more ironic that the [Ryman] stands in opposition to suburban sprawl and eating up warm lands for, you know, big box stores, [because] now, the Ryman stands in contrast to…. I’m looking for, the word here…. I want to say, the Vegas thing of Nashville.
Yeah…. The hipster rising of Nashville.
We live in a town that is rapidly becoming Las Vegas in the South. The shining monoliths are being erected as we speak right now on this phone call, you know, eight blocks from here there are eight cranes with boom shafts carrying up the materials that will make all kinds of new buildings that add to the allure of Nashville and deepen than the contrast between the Ryman and the rest of where the city is headed.
That makes me really sad, because that’s happened where I live here in Brooklyn, where you had all of these beautiful structures of architecture where people lived, you know, 50 years ago, or even one hundred years ago, in this very borough, and they’ve been stripped down and in their place, very gaudy, modernized, homogenized structures have been built, that do not represent the history of what came before it. They don’t properly pay tribute. So, I can totally empathize with that frustration of what you just described as happening in Nashville, because I’ve seen it here in my own city.
That’s the battle for Brooklyn. Ours is a similar fight.
Well, fortunately there are a few of those places that still stand, and people still care enough to make sure that they still stand, and hopefully those people that are there to do it are successful in their plight. I want to ask you about the record a little bit, because this is the band’s first proper live album, correct?
Yeah, yeah. Proper is a good word there.
When putting a live album together, what’s the first consideration?
We’re a live band, and we are maybe slightly more of a live band than others…. We’ve got, you know… on any given night there might be as many as 25 or 30 stringed instruments that are played on and off the stage of the Old Crow Medicine Show. And that’s, you know, a lot of strings. That’s a lot of things to keep in tune and it’s a lot of live music to be confronted with. To make a live album, at the heart of that, lies the desire to make a recording that reflects the spirit of a live show. We sat down and realized that it really all had to do with the set list. How can we communicate our live-ness through this recorded medium? And it was all real easy to do. It got a little painstaking when it came to the mixing and such, but at the heart of it, it’s as easy as trying to capture the attention of a perceived audience.
The album includes some cool covers of traditional songs such as “CC Rider” and “Will The Circle Be Unbroken?” Was it important to you and to the band to include some live renditions of traditional tunes on the album? I mean, they’ve been part of your set list here and there, but was it important that they were put on this record, as a sort of a reflection of what the group is and where the group comes from?
Yeah, I think we’re always a band that’s got that standing forward and looking back over our shoulders [approach]. It seems like we have a special position for our listeners out there that really hearkens to some of the New York City folk singers who were particularly good at this. The late great John Cohen is one that I think of right now, just ‘cause you’re in New York and he was such an important book of modeling for me… what it is to be a cultural preservationist, because what it isn’t, is about collecting and then storing and keeping. That’s what museums do. Performers, though, we collect, and we store away and then we reveal constantly that which we have accumulated. The revelation has to come out in new ways so that our bodies and minds are actually cranking out new versions of old, that torch marrying that folk singers contend with. It’s something that you just do naturally. I do it at the grocery store, or I do it with the news. Like, I’ll talk about the news when I ride the city bus. You know, like right now I’m actively seeking out Kurdish people, so I can talk to them, because the news is indicating to me a need to go create community.
That’s really very interesting….You know, the version of “Methamphetamine” on Live at the Ryman is smokin’. That’s a great version, and I was wondering, in compiling the album, did you ever find yourself with multiple versions of a single song, each from a different show that each deserved consideration for inclusion? Or did you focus on a single show and pull from that? How did that play out?
Yeah, with “Meth,” for example, we had, you know, eight versions of it from eight different nights over the course of, you know, 14 years or whatever. There was a lot of “Meth” to choose from. I wrote that song well before the opioid crisis was uttered. It was just ‘What’s up with all these hillbillies dying of overdoses?’ at that point in 2007. It certainly hadn’t reached epidemic proportions. We listened to all those different versions of it and then with that particular song, we realized that we wanted another crack at it and then we wanted it to feel really updated, really current and civil. That’s one that we’ve recorded as recently as June of 2019. But most of the songs we didn’t have the opportunity to go to the Ryman and re-record in front of an audience. And, in those cases, we tended to also have multiple options. It’s hard to edit between those takes, and so that’s that. I don’t think that has ever happened on this album, but mostly we would just pick the ones that add the most spunk, because that is sort of what we sell: spirit. Definitely much more than we sell virtuosity. There’s plenty of bands in New York City that can help you with that. That was a subtle dig.
I know… I’m so used to it, Ketch, that I don’t even notice it. It does sort of make me laugh on the inside a little bit, so I don’t want you to think I took any offense.
Yeah, I know. I mean, I intended it, but not necessarily to you.
Well, let me ask you something else: obviously “Wagon Wheel,” is—if you want to call it a hit—the band’s biggest hit and the most well-known song included on the album. The question for you about that song is, are you surprised at how much the song resonates with people of all different musical tastes?
I’m waiting for the Wu-Tang cover.
Darrius Rucker did his, now the Wu-Tang is going to do theirs?
I would really like to hear that! [But], I’m so glad and honored as a songwriter to have that song be part of our [history] and part of my life and get to share that with other people…. That’s been an old swan song for Old Crow, and I don’t know that we’d be able to do what we have done without it. So I’m really grateful, mostly, that we had something to kind of align our perch with that could keep us strong and bolstered…. You know, [we] don’t really belong in country music, but neither does Bob Dylan, neither does Big Bill Broonzy, neither does Darrius Rucker, neither does Wu-Tang Clan, neither does Brooklyn! Yet, the fiddle belongs to all of us. So does the banjo. The banjo is from Africa, but even if you’re not of African descent, the banjo is yours. [The fiddle] is equally played by American Indians as it is played by Latinos, as well as all across the Southwest and then big cities like Cleveland…. Again, they are symbols of our collective identity and they’re very powerful. I think they’re magical and they are at the heart of “Rock me, mama, like a wagon wheel,” and I think that’s the magic of the song. It’s the fact that the song stands as testament to the multi-cultural reality of American folk music. That’s the buy in. It’s yours. It’s yours, Brooklyn and Cleveland and El Paso. It’s yours, Democrat and Republican. That song belongs to Donald Trump and Ivanka, too. It belongs to the guy that sells the Chicklets down at the bodega you live across the street from.
Be sure to catch Old Crow Medicine Show at Town Hall in NYC on November 14.