text and photos by Matt Dellinger
The Oxford American
The morning after the Old Crow Medicine Show made their rousing debut at the Grand Ole Opry two years ago, I drove Ketch Secor, the fiddle player, who was twenty-two, to an auto auction. It was a one-day temp job: He would drive the used cars slowly around a dirt track while people bid on them. Ketch had not showered, and his thick nest of dark hair shined. He had the unshaven beginnings of a mustache, a bottom lip full of chewing tobacco, and some unkind things to say about Nashville. "This town is shitty," he told me. This town is everything that the mountain is not. This town is full of money. This town has no kinship. This town has no brotherly love." He spit into a clear bottle part-filled with brown, and shrugged, "But this town is where we are, and we have never been in the wrong place."
It's not what most young musicians would think to say in the afterglow of a professional breakthrough. On the face of it, he had little to be bitter about. They'd lived in Nashville only four months, and Marty Stuart, the president of the Grand Ole Opry, who met them at a music festival, had helped them land some high profile gigs. They had opened for Dolly Parton at the Ryman Auditorium, and had performed at the Opry's 75th-anniversary celebration. No, they hadn't landed a record deal, despite some big label flirtations (one crafty agent showed up on their muddy doorstep with pizza and a case of beer; and yes, Ketch was working at an auto auction to make ends meet. But listening to him talk that Sunday morning, you might think he had a lot of nerve.
That's certainly true. But Old Crow's sass has served them well, as has their homesickness for the past. Their old-time repertoire-the pre-Depression banjo ballads, Appalachian Fiddle tunes, and jug-band blues that the five young men (all but one are under twenty-five) thrash out on well-worn string instruments-is matched bv a reactionary founding philosophy that has prompted boldly archaic career moves: The two years before Nashville were spent hoboing quixotically across Canada and back, then living in self-imposed squalor in the mountains oF North Carolina. They brought music nobody really played anymore to towns where no other touring performer would stop to use the bathroom, and people embraced them, fed them, sheltered them. This, in turn, fueled their sense of cosmic destiny. They had come now to Nashville not to go glitzy, but hoping that perhaps some space might remain for what once was country music-hoping, they might say, that their medicine might sell in the sickest place of all.
"At some point music went from being something people played to being something that lives in a box in the corner of the room, like a toaster. It's gone from being something from within to something that's given to you. forced on you," Ketch explained that morning. "I feel like when we play, people can feel the timelessness. They can feel that they're rooted in something. Like we're able to play for a collective feeling that's lost, that used to be a big part of everything."
Somewhere on the road in Canada in the fall of 1998, Willie Watson, Old Crow's lead singer, scribbled a memoir in pencil, describing, in sparse detail, the genesis of the group (punctuation added):
Ch 1. One day we left. We drove. We played. We drank. We smoked. We are. We slept. We woke. We drove some more. We are a band. We play music. 8 of us. We drive. We play. We eat. We smoke. We drink. We sleep. We drive all night. We are all beautiful. We love each other. We are all real proud of each other. We drive. We smoke. We dream about pretty girls. [Drawings of bass, fiddle, guitar, banjo.]
Chapter two goes on to briefly introduce several major figures ("Ben-He is tall. He likes trees. Kevin-He is 30. He is chill. He is wise...."), and then abruptly concludes, "We are all beautiful. We love you [drawing of flying crow]."
The drive was Ketch's idea. He had graduated in 1996 from prep school at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, where he was nearly expelled for smoking pot and where he learned to play the banjo. Instead of going to college, he spent a year taking short musician-hobo jaunts up to Maine and Canada from his home in Harrisonburg, Virginia, until moving to Ithaca, New York, to be with his high-school girlfriend, Lydia Peelle, who attended Cornell. She dumped him that summer.
"I was in a hard place. I was hurting," Ketch remembers. "All of us might have been in it at that time, the same kinda rut." Driving alone one night, crying, he says, he had a brainstorm, and the next day began assembling a band. He asked along Critter Fuqua, his best friend since seventh grade from Harrisonburg, Virginia, who had also just broken up with his girlfriend; and Willie, a native of upstate New York and a high-school dropout with the gorgeous voice of a pubescent Hank Williams; and Willie's friend, Ben Gould, who had just procured a stand-up acoustic bass; and an already-wandering folk singer Ketch had met while picking blueberries in Maine, Kevin Hayes, who brought his girlfriend (they were living in a van together). Ketch's painter friend, Jacob Hascup, would come along as a traveling companion and muse. They had a few hundred dollars between them. a big brown van, a rusted black Volvo with flame detailing, and a dog.
After working for two weeks picking grapes for gas money, they gathered in Critter's bedroom to record an album that they could sell on the road-a cassette of ten songs, called Trans:mission. It was the first time they had all played together. "Kevin had never played old-time in his life," Ketch remembers. "Critter had been playing the banjo for, like, four months. And I was a shitty fiddler." The plan was to drive across the continent and earn their keep busking on the streets, playing for gas money and food. It's the type of ten-thousand-mile joyride every desperate or idealistic band tells itself it will do. Most lack the requisite live-free-or-die instinct or zeal for North American nowheres, but these boys are touched with both. Ketch fondly remembers waking up one early November morning in a hay field near the border of Manitoba and Ontario with frost on his bedroll. They drove in to Winnipeg that day and bought then usual groceries: lunch meat, cheese, white bread, mustard, peanuts, and a jug of water. They played all day and drank free coffee and made a hundred dollars, and a television crew stumbled upon them and put them on the six o'clock news. They spent the night at some college party, where a kid with a beard sang Phil Ochs songs and Ketch kissed a girl who'd seen him on TV. Three months of this, Ketch says, and they never went to bed hungry.
This impromptu barnstorming strategy, not often employed today, worked for hundreds of years, of course, before radio and records made music a business of mechanical reproduction and marketed distribution. In fact "old-time" music is so called because it predates the recording industry that named it. To the modern ear, old-rime sounds a little like sped-up, drunken children's songs-it plunks and scurries and trips. It's a little dirty, clumsy. It falls apart just enough. If bluegrass is a sturdy, groomed horse, old-time is a mule. (New hot country would be a painted carousel pony.) It's akin to punk rock; it has the same sophisticated lack of refinement, the same defiant authenticity.
Most of the boys started out playing in punk or punk-country bands, and they play old American music as if they'd invented it in their garage, without the stale stiffness of academic preservation that so often turns people off. This century-old pre-anarchy punk energy, particularly when delivered unexpectedly on a street corner, drives people giddy. "Especially in these little farming towns," recalls Hascup, who sat on the sidelines with his sketchbook. "People just went nuts." To this day he is astonished at how they made it through Canada. "Everyone had this reaction, like they'd never seen music before."
When the boys finally made it to the Pacific, they were asked to play with the house band of a newly created Internet radio show called Testing Testing on Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound. The Old Crow boys were ideal guests. "There was just a magic vibe. They were drawing it out of me and all the musicians," says Derek Parrott, a fifty-five-year-old singer/songwriter and guitarist who started the show with his friend Gordon Coale. "They took us along for the ride, really. That's how I felt. They were just full-tilt boogie. You know, they're young, but they're old souls. They've got to be."
The boys made it home for Christmas, and in the spring they moved into an old white farmhouse on Beech Mountain right outside of Boone, North Carolina, with a chicken coop, goats, and a tobacco field out back that they could work for cash. Studying from the Foxfire guides, they grew their own food, and made their own corn liquor. Their house became a commune, of sorts, for the weird and wandering. It can be said that natural living did not translate into healthy living. They were embraced immediately by the Appalachian community, and their repertoire of old-time songs grew exponentially as they played with local musicians. One afternoon, when the band was busking in front of the drugstore in downtown Boone, a middle-aged woman stopped to listen. As she was leaving, she asked if they'd be around for a while, she wanted to bring her father over to hear them. Halt an hour later, she came back in her red Jeep Cherokee, got out, and opened the passenger door. Doc Watson, the virtuoso flatpick guitar player, who is blind, stepped out of the car, and let his wife, Rosa Lee, lead him to the drugstore's porch. Stubbled jaws must have dropped. The boys struck up "Oh My Little Darling," a well-known old-time song they thought Doc would like, and when they finished, Watson said: "Boys, that was some of the most authentic old-time music I've heard in a long while. You almost got me crying." He put some money in their hat and mentioned that he'd like for them to play at Merlefest, a four-day festival held every year at Wilkes Community College in honor of Watson's late son and collaborator Merle, who died in a tractor accident.
Merlefest is a big deal. Every year, tens of thousands of people show up in April for four days of music on a dozen stages. The boys were given one short set on the first night, but they had free food for three more days; so they stayed, and the next morning they set up by a concrete fountain in the center of campus, stood around an open banjo case, and busked. It was a hold move, crashing the already tightly packed, corporate-sponsored programs. But Old Crow poached a crowd. Ten people. Then fifty. Then a hundred. People sat on the edge of the fountain pool, or on the ground. A few removed their shoes, giving in completely.
Critter was in his boots and a cowboy hat and mini-lambchop sideburns, his mouth full of dip, the face ot his banjo stained like an oil rag. Kevin seemed intensely bored, with layers of second-hand clothes between him and his guitar-banj0, a dumpy knit winter hat on his head (covering, I later discovered, a short Mohawk). Willie and Ketch were next to each other, their hair unwashed and held in place by its own grime, skinny Willie singing in a high drawl alternately sweet and scratchy, his chin cocked and his face turning red, while the bow of Ketch's fiddle stabbed dangerously close to his face. Ketch harmonized, swaying back and forth a bit, his eves a little glazed. Tall Ben leaned over his upright bass, his shoes off and toes poking through his socks. A piece of duct tape fell mid-song from his plucking finger onto the ground, next to a nest of strings that had broken off their various instruments from the relentless abuse.
People danced. The normal folk-music separation between hippie and hick disappeared. Here was a nose-ringed, dreadlocked, barefoot guy next to a large, bearded older man in overalls. There were two thirty-something girls from Brooklyn who'd just bought cowboy hats. Everyone was smiling, or had their heads cocked with warm, bemused expressions. Charmed young women whispered to one another.
There were big-name acts at the festival. Willie Nelson and Nanci Griffith among them. But on the front page of the next day's local paper, it was the Old Crow Medicine Show in the color picture above the fold. "We were just doing it because we had to get attention, because we had to sell records, because we had to make money," Ketch says. "And it ended up being a lot bigger than it was intended to be."
Sally Williams, an event manager for the Grand Ole Opry, saw the boys at the fountain that day. "Old Crow's very engaging." she said. "They're good-looking guys. That helps. People love them because they're cool. But people love them because they're retro. And they're very unassuming. But you look at them play and you think, 'The music is alive.'" Williams soon invited Old Crow to play weekly Friday night parties at the Grand Ole Opry Plaza in Nashville-not on the stage, but in the plaza between acts. "I wanted to offer the opportunity to get up close to them and actually interact with them." So on weekends, they would drive the three hours to Nashville in an old beat-up Cadillac limousine they had bought on the mountain, and check into a hotel. The weekly access to plumbing afforded the boys much needed showers, shaves, and tooth-brushing. "It was really, really funny," Ketch says. "We all came to the capital city in a limousine out of the poorest county in all of Tennessee. We were such stars on the mountain." They were becoming stars in town, too. On Saturday afternoons they would busk in downtown Nashville for extra cash, and more than once the police had to ask them to stop because the crowd was spilling out into the street.
Old Crow's musical tastes evolved slightly that summer as they delved into Gus Cannon and Will Shade's Memphis jug-band repertoire, urban black music from the 1910s and '20s that was an early melding of Appalachian folk music, Mississippi blues, and early jazz. There is a strong, sloppy harmonica and kazoo presence, and the banjo and guitar are strummed (sometimes violently), not picked in a flurry. A clatter of homemade percussion instruments drives the tempo, which is slow
and sultry. And, in keeping with the decadent Beale Street life it came from, its lyrical themes creep further than before into sex-and-drugs territory. It was a big step closer to Elvis's rock 'n' roll. Nowadays, pop country, aimed at a Middle American mainstream, tries hard to be a family show. Part of what detractors find unsatisfying is this attempt to rock and roll while still projecting a folksy wholesomeness. But in this respect, too, the Old Crow Medicine Show is a blast from the darker past, when songs about death and drinking and murder and cocaine were prevalent. Around straighter-edged tans and older performers, the Old Crow boys have to tone down their penchant for filterless cigarettes, other smokables, and great quantities of very cheap beer. They routinely ignore seatbelts. There is the sense that living like you might die young is part of the medicine. It's all very soulful, this abuse, and paired in their minds with an empathy for the down-and-out (yes, steal a beer from the convenience store if you can. but give that homeless man outside a dollar bill) and a high regard for the artistic contributions of long-forgotten and less genteel Americans.
"Everybody that played music in the '20s...they're people that had something really, really lovely and loving and powerful to say, but they're just bums," Ketch told me once, when talking about the unappreciated contributions to country music made by rural blacks. "They're just trash ready to be assembled into the category of trash. But they're people that recognized what they were doing was something bigger than just themselves."
His father was an Episcopalian headmaster, so Ketch grew up in a series of Southern and Midwestern towns as his father moved from school to school. But he acquired his musical facility at Exeter, in lessons with Ryan Thomson, a middle-aged adjunct professor who also taught mandolin and fiddle. Thomson is accustomed to overtures from students wanting to fortify their rock bands with old-time instruments, and tries to point them in the right direction. "Someone will come in and they'll say, 'Well, I heard the banjo in Old and In the Way,'" Thomson says. That 1973 record, a Jerry Garcia side project with the mandolin player David Grisman and several other bluegrass musicians, introduced many rock fans to old-time and bluegrass music. "And the first thing I usually tell them is, 'You know, David Grisman didn't invent that. He got that from Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers. And, of course, Charlie Poole got his stuff from earlier stuff.' There's this progression. I always encourage people to go backward."
Ketch recounted Poole's story to me recently, how Poole was a top country act in 1931 and got invited out to Hollywood to play in a motion picture, a real sweet deal, but then went on a big drunk and died. "They find his body at ten-thirty, the train leaves at one," Ketch said dramatically. The lives of old-time musicians are the Crows' mythology, and Ketch, who reads CD liner notes like scripture, is their priest. He tells his music parables slowly, annunciating all the names of people and towns, staring into your eyes to make sure you understand what you're hearing. They end with a moral, this one being about handling the pressures of success, about facing your thing and doing it, and who's meant to be there, and who's not.
When the band moved to Nashville in October of 2000, they occupied an inexpensive two-story house on a dead-end peninsula squeezed on three sides by highways, where the drone of passing cars was constant. A billboard towered over their back yard, promoting a Ronald McDonald Circus presented by Gaylord Entertainment, the Opry's corporate parent. They had made this their home. Inside, on the mantle of a fake fireplace, were ribbons from fiddlers' conventions, and pictures of friends and family. An old electric organ took up one corner of the living room, a Victrola 78 phonograph sat in another. The walls were decorated with taped-up photographs of the mountain bluesman Dock Boggs and Blind Willie McTell, and paintings of Jesse and Frank James, and a banjo on which Willie had painted a sunset. The place was sparse but somehow cluttered, homey but temporary-as if at any moment they might hitch it up and drive away. But they were compelled to stay. Weeks after rolling into town, the boys landed a guest spot at the Grand Ole Opry. The weekly live radio show, still the premier showcase for country, began in 1925 as the WSM Barn Dance, and its members now include both blue-chip legends like Loretta Lynn, Ralph Stanley, Charlie Louvin, and Charley Pride, and such younger stars as Garth Brooks, Travis Tritt, Patty Loveless, and Alison Krauss. Old Crow's debut would take place at the Ryman Auditorium, the "Mother Church of Country Music," where the Opry was held for decades before it moved to the newly built Opry House at Opryland 1974. The shows celebrating the move were emotional events-President Nixon sang, Minnie Pearl cried. The old brick tabernacle was restored nine years ago. and now hosts the Opry during the winter months, when tourists are more scarce.
They were tense, pacing the hallway, the living room, picking up instruments and putting them back down again. Matt Kinman, a thirty-year-old friend who had actually grown up playing old-time music, lived in an unheated room off the kitchen, and occasionally played with the band. He picked out a plaid shirt and denim overalls for the show. The rest of the boys chose coats and vests-dapper, like Elliot Ness and the Tennessee Untouchables. I hadn't brought any such attire, but Ketch insisted I dress up with them. He handed me a brown sports coat, with wrestling medals dangling from the breast pocket. He'd wrestled at Exeter, he told me, and one time got pinned in front of the writer John Irving, an alumnus who still attends many of the matches. "I wanted to cry," he said. "That's pressure, man."
Matt's truck was full of instruments, so the hoys piled into my rented car to go downtown. Birds were singing. The sky was turning all sorts of colors. Nashville was starting to look almost pretty. I asked if there was a good radio station I should turn on. "Do you like hot country?" Critter asked.
"You're in hell, then."
We arrive at the Ryman and schlep the instruments up the stairs to the dressing room, only to find it packed with RCA Records artist Andy Griggs's backup band and their equipment. Everyone crams inside and exchanges pleasantries. The guitarist for Griggs, who wears a black leatherette coat over a shiny red rayon shirt, admires Matt's overalls. "I wish I could wear those," he says. "This plastic jacket sucks. And when it gets real hot my guitar sticks to it. Well, it's show business."
The Griggs band goes off to play their set. The boys discuss what they should play. They'll have only eight minutes, if lucky, so there will be no patter between songs. Kinman wants to play an old fiddle tune, but Willie disagrees, preferring instead a singing jug-band tune.
"It was an old-time band that started the Grand Ole Opry, and they were playing fiddle tunes then," says Kinman.
"Stop talking about the beginnings," Willie snaps.
All the while, a speaker in the ceiling plays what is coming from the stage, a slow, twangy pop ballad by Vince Gill. Things are a bit tense. Ketch realizes his fiddle is missing, left in the truck. He goes to get it. Critter spills coffee on his pants. "Does it look like I peed myself?" he asks repeatedly. Ketch comes hack with his fiddle, complains about the heat of the room, and strips down to a tank-top undershirt. Willie and Kevin realize they have only one guitar pick between them, so they scrounge one up down the hall. The Griggs band comes back. The boys ask them how it went. "I don't even know." the guitarist says, taking off his plastic jacket. "It just goes like that."
It's getting close to stage time, so the boys head downstairs. The hallway to the stage is crowded with people. Slick hair and sequined suits abound. A fleet of tap dancers in green-and-white checkered tablecloth-like outfits pace back and forth. At the far end of the hallway is Rosa's cantina, a folding table where an old black lady offers fruit punch and coffee for tips. Behind her is an emergency exit. The band heads out to the alleyway for a last smoke. They've just been told that they'll have only four minutes onstage.
One song. They settle on "Tear It Down," a singing jug-band romp about punishing infidelity. They file back inside, through the hallway, past a gauntlet of "Good lucks." Kevin puts on a pair of glittery sunglasses. The announcer is introducing them. Willie assumes a Normandy stance. "See you on the beach," he says, and they walk onstage.
Something strange happens backstage, in their wake. The entire hallway's worth of people, heretofore inattentive to the show, flood into the wings. One musician squeezes up to the front of the crowd: "I gotta see this." The song begins. It's dirty. It's fast. The boys are swaying in sloppy time to the music, convulsing almost. They're rolling like a freight train. People backstage start clapping, laughing, shouting joyous profanities. Before the song is even over, some people in the audience are already on their feet. When the song ends, the whole house jumps up, erupting in applause.
After leaving the stage, Kevin asks if there's an applause sign. There is, an admirer says, but it wasn't lit. "That was full-on, deserved applause." It is also the only standing ovation of the night—until their second set, just before Marty Stuart comes on and asks them to stay for an encore, which is a pretty big deal at the Grand Ole Opry.
Everyone wanted to know where the boys were going to go to celebrate afterwards, which bar, but they just wanted to go and drink together at home. "It would be great if we came in and played that show we played tonight," Ketch said in the car home, "and then went back to our hotel room, and then left." As we drove back past the warehouses and low-income housing along Dickerson Pike, Critter introduced me to a game they play whenever they travel that stretch. It's called "Bleak Seek," and to play you keep your eyes peeled for depressing Nashville sights. All-time winners include a burning baby carriage, and a woman crying as a man pulled her by the hair, lighting a cigarette and laughing. "Nashville is a place you come to to leave. Shania Twain did it right," he said, referring to the vivacious singer's move to Switzerland with her husband. "She came to town, made a bunch of money, and disappeared."
Shortly after their Opry debut, Old Crow signed with the powerful booking agent Bobby Cudd at Monterey Peninsula Artists, whose roster also includes Robert Earl Keen, the Dave Matthews Band, Chris Isaak, Aerosmith, and Fiona Apple. Old Crow's first real tour was that May of 2001, opening five shows for the Del McCoury band, the preeminent bluegrass act. The Medicine Show was getting much more professional. Morgan Jahnig, a bass player they met at the Opry Plaza, had joined the band after Ben moved upstate with his girlfriend, who was pregnant. Morgan is computer-proficient, so he built a Web site for the band, and on the road he charts the fastest routes between cities with the global positioning software on his laptop, a job previously handled by Ketch, a geography whiz since high school, who would trace routes in an atlas with his finger, naming quaint stop-offs that weren't on the map.
Ketch told the crowd in Houston that the band had recently had the pleasure of playing on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium. "And I don't know if you've been there to Nashville lately, but they don't play so much of that-what do they call it?-country music anymore." This got laughs. The crowd in Austin loved them too, as did Little Rock, but the reception in Memphis was colder, which the boys found particularly depressing: They played Memphis jug-band music, and Memphis, it seemed, didn't recognize it.
In the car home to Nashville, Ketch and Critter railed against pop culture ("the most boring sex you can have, but at least you're getting laid"): "Everybody in America wants to look at something for five minutes, understand what it is, and go home, take a dump, and have sex" and be done with it, and go to sleep."
"They need to put it where they put all their other stuff," Critter said. "They want a box set. Everybody and their mother says. 'Have you seen 0 Brother, Where Art Thou? George Clooney sings the Ralph Stanley song!,' all that crap. The record industry has latched on to that. And they're gonna water it down, just make it worthless, just like hot country is now. But you don't have to become a cliché and have everybody talk about you like a cliché, like overalls and banjos and hound dogs and crap."
I asked how they felt about this tour compared with their first one across Canada. For one thing, he said, in a week's time they'd made a good four hundred dollars each, after taxes. "And now we have this weird booking agency out of Nashville that we talk to on cell phones," Critter said. "We have a set place where we're going every night and a set pay, which feels really good in my head, because we've always talked about something like this."
"But the Canada tour, we were so young then. Everything was fresh to us," Ketch said. "Now all of a sudden there is an Old-Crow-Medicine-Show c-with-a-circle-around-it, when before there was a bunch of kids. Now we're an entity."
In Memphis earlier that afternoon, the boys had been strolling down Beale Street, the main drag of what had been the black business district where jug-band heroes like Gus Cannon and Will Shade made their mark. It has become essentially an open-air mall for tourists, full of souvenir shops, theme bars, and chain clubs like Hard Rock Cafe and B.B. King's Blues Club. I scoffed at a historical marker honoring Cannon. "No," Ketch said. "Those poor guys are laughing their butts off. They would have sold out in a minute if they'd had the chance."
Later, in the car, Ketch elaborated. "Gus Cannon knew how to play two shows," he said. "He knew how to play to people that really wanted to get happy and have a good time and party and snort cocaine and be happy in Memphis before the Depression. But he also knew that it was important to play to the white people that owned all of those buildings on Beale. When he played black dances, he got fed and played for free. When he played white dances, he got paid."
A year ago the band was flown to Los Angeles to play at the post-Grammy party at the Biltmore Hotel. They opened up for the country star Ricky Skaggs, whose History of the Future had been nominated for best bluegrass album. Skaggs first heard the band when they were booked on tour together the summer before, and was insistent that they accompany him to California. The gala took up the entire first floor and the basement of the hotel, and featured nine rooms of live entertainment. A rock 'n' roll jam band played in the biggest ballroom, where a steak dinner was served.
The bluegrass room, a small conference room off a secondary hallway near the restrooms, offered a folding table of finger cakes. The nearby bathrooms and the relatively short line at the open bar attracted people the music might not have. They would walk in, get drinks, and stand for a respectful few minutes before exiting with a condescending "Yee-haw!" In the back of the room was Norm Parenteau, a Nashville agent who has worked with Gillian Welch and Alison Krauss, and who had recently become Old Crow's manager. "I don't suppose there would be any way to stop people from doing that," he said.
Someone proudly mentioned to the band that the 0 Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack had won five awards, including album ot the year. "For the first time since 1927," Ketch mused. "it's cool to be in a string band." Of course, it was nothing to get too excited about. The niche's sudden spike in popularity was sure not to last. And becoming famous as a bluegrasser probably means, at best, making as much as a major-label publicist. The boys certainly weren't treated as stars that night. The five of them shared one small room at the Biltmore. with one bed and a fold-out couch.
Old Crow was set to begin work on their new album that spring, with David Rawlings, the partner of songwriter Gillian Welch, as their producer. There was pressure to record more originals, since the ones they'd been playing live had become crowd favorites. It's also a better way to make a name. But the old heroes loom large, and Ketch in particular remains romantically insistent that folk music belongs to the cultural collective. He tells the parable of the harmonica player DeFord Bailey, who was a premier star of the Grand Ole Opry until 1941.
"So some whippersnapper meets with DeFord Bailey," says Ketch, "and they say, 'We want you to play some new material, because we're gonna he able to make more money if you're able to play stuff we can copyright.' And DeFord's like, 'Man, to hell with that. They want to hear 'Fox Chase.' They want to hear 'Pan American Blues." And they did want to hear that. But the Opry wanted to hear the change jingling in their pockets." Bailey, who was physically deformed by infantile paralysis, was eventually fired, and opened a shoeshine parlor in the back of his house. He died in 1982.
"And why should DeFord change?" says Ketch. "Those guys were so shocked to have a market for doing what they'd been doing just on their intuition. So even though they all died broke, they still had a hell of a great time being rich for just a little while. And it was probably worth it." He paused to consider this. "But longevity and career are the words now. That's what I want. I want longevity and a career."
A few months before the Grammy gig, Ketch married Lydia, his girlfriend from Exeter, who arguably instigated the whole Medicine Show endeavor by dumping Ketch in 1998. It was a big change for the boys, not least because they would no longer be living together. Their domestic situation became a little more real-world (a little less Real World). They no longer share one pot of money. Instead, after tours end. Ketch figures out the booking agency's take, their manager's take, and taxes, puts expenses into a ledger, and writes a bunch of checks. He often does this in the car with a cold beer in his hand, but it is nevertheless a very mature scene. The boys have even joined the musician's union. Tax write-offs are discussed.
"This is more of a grown-up challenge, how to be a business man, how to keep track of your stuff, balancing all the pieces of your life." Ketch told me recently, sounding slightly melancholy. "Whereas before it was, You have to understand how to fix the alternator right now, or else you freeze. You have to go into this bar, act like you're really friggin' pathetic and get some work. Right now. Or else it's peanut-butter crackers for dinner!"
When Old Crow drove to New York several months ago to play a showcase for some intrigued record executives, the cozy 9C bar on Manhattan's Lower East Side filled to capacity during the first set, and the bouncer had to keep a line waiting at the door. Parenteau said soon after that they were discussing a number of potential deals from record companies big and small. But nothing was put on paper. And months have passed. "I think one of the best things that's happened to us," Ketch says optimistically, "is that nothing has happened to us that can't be undone."
Around Christmastime, Ketch went out with his banjo to sing for tips at a shopping mall. The street's better, he says-you don't get kicked out as fast. But it was cold, and Ketch was wearing just a Santa suit. One wonders where, exactly, these minstrel instincts come from, and what rewards they bring. Ketch once explained how he liked to surprise telemarketers: "She says, 'Hi, my name is Trisha. I'm calling with AT&T. We have some beautiful rates for you.' And I say, 'Well, Trisha, tell me what hospital you were born in, and at what time? And what do you think about the President? And do you have a boyfriend? Are you in love?' Just to bend it a little bit. People are so used to hearing a copy-right hashed-out version of the way things are. They need to have the very basic of human interaction in order to see that it's bigger than just, 'Here's what I've called a country song. It's on the interstate on the radio right now and this is what country is, so deal with that and there you go.' I think people would prefer a more personal relationship with art, if they knew they could get it."
If the Old Crow boys didn't understand this when they fled into Canada from the humdrum of Ithaca, they understood it by the time they got home. One day, they left. They drove. And for three months in the middles of nowhere, the simplest of pleasures were exchanged for the simplest of necessities. That's a lesson in the rudimentary economics of music that they don't teach in Nashville anymore. *