When describing an overhauled Old Crow Medicine Show lineup, bandleader Ketch Secor heads for the dugout, his lineup card and a comparison many Missourians immediately understand.
"I feel a little bit like Whitey Herzog," he said, invoking the manager who oversaw the St. Louis Cardinals' success in the 1980s, including a title run in 1982. "I put together the best team — this is a pennant-winning team."
Assembling players with deep and wide skillsets, this year Secor and Old Crow Medicine Show released one of their most dynamic records yet, "Paint This Town." Roots N Blues audiences will no doubt witness another of the string band's successful road games when they play the festival next weekend.
Building a 'safe haven' of sound
Convening the first iteration of Old Crow Medicine Show in the late 1990s, Secor stepped into the "Lazy Susan of time," he said. The lineup rotates often — former mates and past collaborators include stellar musicians Critter Fuqua, Willie Watson, Gill Landry and Dave Rawlings.
"The lineup was fluid, just hitch up the best available pickers and singers around at the time, and if you had a car that was a plus," Secor wrote in an essay on the band's website. "Even today, Old Crow remains a collective, borrowing from the unique talents of an evolving cast."
Each lineup revolution seems to deliver its own success. Old Crow Medicine Show has carried home a couple Grammys, explored the endless crooks and crannies of bluegrass and — for better or worse, depending on who's talking — crafted a modern standard when Secor fulfilled Bob Dylan's unfinished tune "Wagon Wheel."
"Paint This Town" arrives, distilling and bonding the many sides of Old Crow in colorful unity. The record hits heartland-rock home runs and offers blissed-out bluegrass with apocalyptic warnings.
The current roster features Secor at the microphone with any number of instruments in hand, Morgan Jahnig (bass), Cory Younts (mandolin, keyboards, drums), Jerry Pentecost (drums, mandolin), Mike Harris (slide guitar, guitar, mandolin, banjo, dobro) and Mason Via (guitar, guitjo).
Listeners expect bands to boast of what they invested in a new record. Blood, sweat, tears. This Old Crow lineup actually knows what it means to devote one of those elemental forces. "Paint This Town" was recorded in the band's Hartland Studio, an East Nashville joint they renovated as part of the process.
"Part of the team-building exercises of the new lineup were hammering up the drywall," Secor said. "And so there’s a little bit of drywall in this album, some of that sweat equity that incentivized us to work together and make a great record."
Finishing the walls, and the sound within them, offered the band something like a home and "safe haven" in which to withstand pandemic winds, "to ride out the storm" in solidarity, Secor said.
This transfer of energy is heard in the music of "Paint This Town" and, now, reflected in the band's relationships, Secor said.
"This was just so fun. This was like making a record in a treehouse — everybody’s climbing up the ladder with a singsong expression," he said.
Still, he said Old Crow will find its true stride after carrying this record to the road: "I think that our next record will be even better because we went out and sold it."
On the road
The roads that cleave America, as a means of bringing Americans together, look a little different to Secor after a "20-year circumnavigation."
"I’ve seen a lot of things grow," he said. "There’s a lot of fields that now have gas stations in them from when I first set out. And even then I thought, ‘There’s too many gas stations to fields.'"
No matter where the road led, Secor could trust in certain cultural expectations, he said. The shifting fault lines of our politics now leave him without that certainty.
"The role of folk music is more important than ever before, to express a kind of unity that left or right might say they want, but I don’t know that they do," he said. "And I don’t really care — because I find music brings us all together, no matter what."
When folk music lives up to its promises, joining the hearts of strangers as they sing along, it raises a benevolent middle finger to politicians and the powers that be, Secor added.
"I’ll show you what populism looks like — it’s done with a fiddle," he said.
That brand of scuffed-up populism makes its presence felt throughout "Paint This Town." With its swelling early measures, easy-like-Sunday groove and back-pew harmonies, "Gloryland" is a piece of "deity-less gospel music," Secor said, the sort he loves to write.
"I sing a lot of bluegrass songs that might mention Jesus — bluegrass songs do that really well. But Old Crow songs never do that," he said. "We tend to take more of a polytheistic approach to the pulpit. ... I tend to steer it toward more of a Unitarian view."
Owing a musical debt to mid-'70s Bob Dylan, the song existed for several years before making the permanent record, Secor said.
"Sometimes you write a song, and then it takes a change in the wind to make the song relevant," he added.
So "Gloryland" is more than a modern spiritual; it's the cry of a Psalmist who's seen a million fellow Americans die from COVID-19 and asks the gods whether they can — or should — show mercy.
"Seemed like a good time to have a song that asks the question, 'If we were to really be sitting there at the pearly gates, would they let us in?'" Secor said.
For a band whose catalog praises unions, digs on Karl Rove and looks gravely upon the damage wrought by methamphetamine, "Used to Be a Mountain" seems like a logical musical step. Its breathless bluegrass will have crowds singing stanzas borrowed from a 21st-century Book of Revelation:
There used to be a mountain hereThere used to be a river so clear, we could swim to the bottomThere was heart, there was soul, but I guess that we forgot 'em
The song represents an ode to regions "perpetually" robbed of their natural resources, Secor said, which sometimes leads to expressions of despair through opioids and other silent killers.
"I don’t think I’m through singing songs about it ... and I trust my sisters and brothers in the roots-music scene will also continue to contribute new concepts, ideas just to elevate those hard-working American people who have been a kind of sacrificial lamb for" industry, he said.
From Old Crow's perspective, those down on their luck — or altogether out of time — aren't merely fodder for folk music, but fellow travelers. Part of the team.
The band's story "includes all the stars we chased, all those fans who followed in our chasing, and each of the musicians who made the chase their own," Secor wrote in his essay. "The journey that began in a Volvo station wagon at the Canadian border in the fall of 1998 continues to unfold in ways unimaginable. Our exploration of the continent’s heritage in song simply keeps on producing. Until that vein is tapped we’ll probably just keep on digging. And that’ll likely take a good long while."
Old Crow Medicine Show will play the MU Health Care Stage at 5:45 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 9. To learn more about the festival, visit https://rootsnbluesfestival.com/.
Aarik Danielsen is the features and culture editor for the Tribune. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 573-815-1731. Find him on Twitter @aarikdanielsen.
This article originally appeared on Columbia Daily Tribune: Old Crow Medicine Show brings winning lineup to Roots N Blues festival