Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor is tidying up the cluttered kitchen of the band’s headquarters-slash-recording-studio in East Nashville so he can brew a pot of coffee. Empty beer bottles dot the counter and a table in the center of the room, whose walls are covered with Hatch Show Print posters advertising gigs by Old Crow and their heroes.
Since 2020, Secor and Old Crow, now seven members in all, have called this nondescript building far removed from Music Row their hangout. It has the feel of a place from another time — Secor imagines it could have been a union office in the Sixties — but it’s full of contemporary accolades, including the band’s two Grammy Awards, displayed in a case in the lobby. Old Crow Medicine Show won the Grammy for Best Folk Album in 2015 and they’re nominated again in the category for their latest, Jubilee. It’s a stirring collection of punky string music (“Keel Over and Die”), winking vaudeville (“Shit Kicked In”), and piercing laments (“Allegheny Lullaby”) that, like this building, feels rooted in the past. Secor, born in 1978, says he’s always been a man out of time.
“I remember when I was a kid thinking I was born too late for the party, that all the cool stuff had happened,” he says, clearing off the table and sitting down with his mug. “But now that I’m a little older, I realize that somebody needed to clean up the party.”
He’s wearing a “Hello, my name is…” sticker over his breast pocket with “Ketch” scrawled on it in marker, as if to remind himself who he is. The past year, as it were, has left Secor and his group forever changed.
On the surface, Old Crow Medicine Show went through a lineup shift, with new drummer Dante’ Pope taking over the seat for Jerry Pentecost, who left for the gig of a lifetime in Bob Dylan’s band. “Having Bob poach your drummer is one of the ultimate symbols of pride in a musician’s life as a bandleader,” Secor says. (Utility player PJ George also joined the group, which is rounded out by Morgan Jahnig, Cory Younts, Mike Harris, and Mason Via.)
But Old Crow, and especially its kinetic leader, were also altered at their very core. The March 27 Covenant school shooting in Nashville galvanized Secor. In a series of tearful online posts and TV interviews, at vigils for the six victims, and in song, he powerfully called for gun safety measures, transforming Old Crow Medicine Show into one of the loudest voices for gun control in a genre and town where firearms are a way of life. Secor himself was a gun owner, until, he says, they were stolen from his home four years ago. (Gun theft is an epidemic in Nashville, with Tennessee leading the nation in firearms stolen from vehicles.)
A few months after the Covenant shooting, an 18-year-old freshman at Belmont University named Jillian Ludwig was shot and killed while walking in a park near campus. Again, Secor banged the drum for stricter gun laws. “She was a kid who came to Nashville when she was 18. Just like me,” he wrote on Instagram. “Oh Lord, please stop the chaos.”
“The death of Miss Jillian Ludwig is another reason to give up… to say, ‘Oh, wait, I guess I was wrong. We don’t have the power.’ But I don’t believe that. It’s even more important that we stand up,” he says now. “But I tell you, it sure would be sweet if somebody with a lot more authority than me were to do it.”
He and Old Crow — torchbearers of traditional country music who will play their annual New Year’s shows at the Ryman Auditorium later this month — are also trying to heal the culture wars, which have divided not just the nation at large, but the country music community. With that in mind, Secor and the band agreed to open shows last year for Hank Williams Jr., an outspoken conservative and NRA supporter, despite criticism from some fans. Secor says he’d tour with Jason Aldean too, whose identity-politics firestorm “Try That in a Small” further fractured country music.
“Jason? I wish he’d call. I’ve been listening to him since ‘Amarillo Sky,’” Secor says. “I don’t know why nobody realizes how good we are in an arena. We are a killer warm-up, particularly for these artists that are playing in a style that is a thin definition of country music. We can put a lot more gravy on that biscuit than Aldean can. ‘Cause we got the fucking fiddles to prove it.”
Your Grammy-nominated album Jubilee celebrates working people and highlights their unique struggles in songs like “The Ballad of Jubilee Jones” and “Allegheny Lullaby.” Do you think today’s country music misrepresents them and the idea of small towns?
I think that songs like [“Try That] In a Small Town” by Jason Aldean have a pretty narrow spectrum for its listenership. Country folk love Jesus and trucks and Pensacola, sure, but they also probably would love to hear Woody Guthrie sing “This Land Is Your Land,” especially if they were sung by like a second and third grade recital. Country folks like to understand that their musical traditions don’t sound like guitar-driven pop music from the Nineties, but actually involve kinship harmony traditions, fiddle playing, banjo playing, spoons, and a whole array of kitchenware. So if you stand up there and say that Top 40 country music represents country music, I just think you’re missing out on a much wider version of the story.
Johnny Cash didn’t present this cultural offering in the hopes that it would be processed, packaged, reduced, and resold. Neither did Loretta. So I guess I’m kind of pissed about that. A whole lot of niche markets sprung up around country because country said, “This is country.” And we all said, “No, it’s not.” But I’m content with anyone’s definition of country music. I’m not going to pretend that I got the only one.
You described “Allegheny Lullaby,” which looks at Appalachian poverty and lack of opportunity, as being about “the pervasiveness of hopelessness.” That shook me. What does give you hope?
[Nonpartisan gun safety group] Safer Voices for Tennessee. The fact that a whole bunch of people can demand change in the wake of a tragedy like Covenant. What gives me hope is a new generation coming up strong and connected. I think that with every new generation comes an inextinguishable fire that we have to see how long the flames go. Unfortunately, for mine, I’ve seen a lot of flickering. And I’ve seen some extinguishing, particularly among people who served in the Afghan war, particularly among those who became addicted to opioid prescriptions. It’s a hard knock life here in 2020-something, and the people for whom it’s the hardest are the people for whom it was always the hardest. And that’s really problematic.
When I think about the story of country music, one of the things that’s so enriching is that the generations for whom life was the hardest, life was also the richest. Johnny Cash grows up picking cotton. Loretta Lynn, daughter of a coal miner. And yet wealth abounds in spirit, in art, and in a voice that just rises up from the darkness. A voice of hope, and longing, and a voice that calls to others to rise up. And I just don’t see that being duplicated in the new crop.
The new crop of what?
Singers, purpose of music. I just don’t see the continuum continuing. It tends to be these sort of little niches outside of country music. And maybe that’s just how it’s supposed to go. It’d be cool though, if they opened the gates just a little wider, so that we could all get in there with gospel music, with dulcimers and autoharps, and jubilant choirs of people that remember the traditions.
How did Covenant change the message of Old Crow Medicine Show?
Covenant just upped the stakes. We are always going to sing about tragedy and oppression and grief. And these types of acts of rampage violence have been happening for long since before Covenant, but Covenant brought it to Nashville. Once it’s up the street from you, it just changes everything.
You posted a moving tribute to Jillian Ludwig, the Belmont freshman who was shot and killed near campus. Did that tragedy up the stakes even more?
The Covenant shooting should be enough for Nashville to stand up. But if it’s not, how about a kid who comes to Nashville with a guitar and a dream, whose dream is shattered by gun violence? I don’t get it. Nobody’s saying you got to go take [all the guns] down to the forge and melt them into plowshares. Now, Isaiah says that, and so if you’re a Christian, it’s pretty easy to look for a scripture or reason to seek peace. But let’s say you’re a Christian who just loves your guns? You can go on keep loving them. But can we have some meaningful legislation to keep them out of the hands of mentally ill people?
Jubilee ends with an inspiring gospel duet with Mavis Staples, “One Drop,” to send the listener out with a dash of optimism. How intentional was that?
I think it’s good to close on a gospel tune. And we do the same thing in the live show. We’ve been doing a lot of shows with Hank Jr. this year and that’s just another perfect example of how Old Crow has this unique position. There are members of our band who grew up in evangelical Christian households, and there are members of our band who own pistols, and there are members of our band who care a lot about the Second Amendment. But at the end of the day, I’m pretty sure we all voted blue. So, we can get up there in front of NRA types in Idaho and Arizona and we will rock them. The thing about music is that good songs have no allegiance. I look out at the crowd and I see the tribes gathering in front of me, the ones that represent the two sides of the culture wars, and I hear them singing along to, “Rock me mama like a wagon wheel.”
Did you have any trepidation about going out with Hank Jr.?
Well, I thought it might piss off our audience. And it did. But because we’re a 25-year-old band, we just never really got that good about social media. And the ways in which you learn that you have offended people, it ain’t at the autograph line. It’s anonymously. It’s all just dumb shit that comes up on your phone.
Hank Jr. is doing shows with Kid Rock and Jason Aldean next year. So is Miranda Lambert, which upset some fans. I think we hold our artists up to our own personal standards and when they don’t meet that, we feel let down.
I think country music has a lot harder time with presenting a package that can really have meaningful appeal to the left. And I think that’s a choice. Country music in the past, since the Trump years, has found improvement of margins by preaching to the choir and stoking them flames. There’s a lot of money in stoking them flames. But Hank ain’t on the radio, and neither is Old Crow. So we don’t have the same rules. OK, what happens for Miranda and Kid Rock is a totally different ball of wax. But I am so untethered and free, I can go tour with anybody I want. I got a lot less to lose maybe? Because my tent is set up outside of the big tent.
So it’s about bringing the tribes together?
I don’t watch a lot of Fox News or Newsmax but I watch enough to know strategically what’s going on. And I just say anybody who picks their tribe and silo, come see Old Crow open up for Hank, because we are a wrecking ball to that silo.
I say this [onstage] every night: “You might think this about that or that about this, but music forges a circle that can never be broken and inside that circle, we are all the same.” And then we play “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” I love that song because it’s a question. I think that how we choose to answer that question says a lot about who we are as a nation.