A decade and a half ago, Old Crow Medicine Show got its first big break from one of the band's biggest musical heroes, Doc Watson.
Watson's daughter happened upon the group playing on a street corner in Boone, N.C., one day in 2000, thought her father would like Old Crow's rollicking brand of old-time string band music and returned with him an hour later.
Right then and there, Watson offered Old Crow Medicine Show a performance slot at Merlefest, the popular Wilkesboro, N.C., music festival named for his son, Merle, an acclaimed guitarist and folk artist who died in 1985 in an accident on the family farm.
"When we were discovered by Doc Watson on the street corner, we were playing in the same spot where Doc Watson played when he was 23 — 50 years before that, the same spot, same side of the street, same corner," Ketch Secor, a founding member of Old Crow says in a telephone call.
Old Crow played Merlefest that year, and the appearance helped give the group a foundation from which to work. And Watson, who died in 2012, would surely be proud of what Old Crow has accomplished since then, as the group has steadily grown its career and helped fans everywhere learn about the roots of string band music and its influence on country, folk and bluegrass.
The next key break for Old Crow came in 2004, with the arrival of "O.C.M.S.," the group's first release on an established label, Nettwerk Records.
The album contained "Wagon Wheel," a song Bob Dylan started, but didn't finish, for the soundtrack of the 1973 film "Pat Garrett and Bill the Kid." Secor heard the partial song on a Dylan bootleg, and at age 17, wrote verses to complete the song.
Despite getting next to no radio play, the Old Crow version of "Wagon Wheel" caught on and became a signature song for the group. It gradually amassed sales and downloads that topped the one million mark in 2013.
By that time, Darius Rucker had covered "Wagon Wheel" and taken the song to the top of the country singles chart.
Secor, 36, is still amazed at the journey the song has taken.
"It's pretty rare to have something like that happen, particularly now with the business, it's so hard to break into the business," says Secor, who plays fiddle, harmonica and banjo in Old Crow. "And you're talking about you're going to get a song and sell a million copies of it, and it's never going to be heard on the radio. And then a big star like Darius picks it up and it gets another four million sales, that's unbelievable."
There have been a few bumps for Old Crow along the way — the biggest being a near breakup in 2011. But the group took a hiatus and returned with renewed vigor. It released two albums — "Carry Me Back" (2012) and the new "Remedy" that are widely said to be the band's finest efforts and the best representations of its high-octane style of old-time string band music.
"Remedy" is a rich musical and lyrical ride, ranging from fun (and sometimes funny) romps such as "Brushy Mountain Conjugal Trailer," "S**t Creek" and "8 Dogs 8 Banjos" to weightier tunes such as "Dearly Departed Friend," which touches on the emotional damage done during a soldier's time in the service, and "Firewater," a Fuqua co-write that looks into the depths of alcoholism.
Perhaps most notably, there's a second Dylan/Secor co-write, "Sweet Amarillo." This time, though, Dylan actually sent the fragment of the song, which also came from the "Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid" sessions, specifically to Secor to finish.
Secor turned the song into a classic country waltz, sent a demo of what Old Crow did with the song to Dylan and waited anxiously to hear back from the legendary songwriter.
Dylan responded that he liked the song, but suggested replacing a harmonica with fiddle and moving the chorus — two changes that Secor felt greatly improved the song.
"It was really amazing to get his (feedback)," Secor says. "That he would come back with his quill and make a few marks in the margins, I really felt the stewardship there. I really felt like we were, I felt like the apprentice."
Now Old Crow Medicine Show is on tour, stopping at the Philadelphia Folk Festival Friday, hoping to spur fans to explore the string band music and its roots in country, folk, blues and bluegrass.
Alan Sculley is a freelance writer.
Jodi Duckett, editor
610-820-6704Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun