Even with success, Old Crow Medicine Show still cherishes spirit of busking

Standing atop a Nashville, Tenn., high-rise for a recent photo shoot, Ketch Secor could hear his most famous song coming from a parked bus on the street.

Since writing "Wagon Wheel" as a teenager, the Old Crow Medicine Show singer-songwriter and fiddle player has heard the amiable singalong in many settings, but this fleeting moment made the 39-year-old particularly sentimental.


"That sort of felt like where I had come from. I used to play that song on the street corners myself," Secor said last week on the phone from a tour stop in Cleveland. "I liked being in a place where it was, you know, maybe a little dangerous. And there was the part about making money — I really liked making money on the street corner."

Secor still enjoys busking once in awhile, but more than 18 years into Old Crow Medicine Show's career, those days have been replaced with much larger venues (including Merriweather Post Pavilion on Saturday). But Secor said he still taps into that old feeling, no matter the stage, to stay connected with the Nashville six-piece's roots.


"It's something that you never lose," he said. "Here in Cleveland, I'm watching these cranes put this [stage] together. This is a colossal stage, but it's not going to be a whole lot different than if I was just playing right here in this parking lot with a hat [for tips]."

This modest approach — coupled with nine studio albums (the most recent being 2014's "Remedy") and a consistently busy touring schedule — has won Old Crow Medicine Show a dedicated fan base in love with the string band's energized take on American roots music. Strains of country, folk, rock and blues are heard throughout its catalog, sometimes on the same track.

But it all started with "Wagon Wheel," a song Secor technically wrote with Bob Dylan, although the two have never met. A 17-year-old Secor came across a 1973 Dylan bootleg recording called "Rock Me, Mama." Inspired by the snippet's hummable melody, Secor wrote verses around Dylan's chorus and soon performed his version as he busked.

Even on those corners, years before Old Crow, Secor knew he had a special song.

"It got people coming back," the Harrisonburg, Va., native said.

So Dylan and Secor may share songwriting credits, but "Wagon Wheel" has taken on a life of its own. It has become a standard at weddings and graduations and found new success a few years ago, when country singer Darius Rucker took his cover to No. 1 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart.

Beyond its success, the song is significant to Secor because it will forever connect him to Dylan, an artist he describes as "the most important poet, writer, singer, political activist, trendsetter and tastemaker of the 20th century."

"Part of me always felt like a bit of a proselytizer for Bob Dylan," Secor said. "I feel particularly proud to have interjected Bob Dylan into all of these people's lives, because they don't know it's Bob. They don't know it's the same man who wrote 'Masters of War,' and they don't need to know that. But I know that."


Fans can count on hearing "Wagon Wheel" on Saturday at Merriweather. The tour also features co-headliner Brandi Carlile, whom Secor describes as "one of the most powerful female voices to ever rock the [Grand Ole] Opry stage."

Secor is proud of the diverse audiences his band and Carlile, an activist who openly supports many humanitarian causes, have brought together. He recalled a recent crowd in Spartanburg, S.C., of "rednecks from the sticks and same-sex couples."

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"It's a really powerful feeling knowing you brought together these far ends of the spectrum, that music can unite in this powerful way, no matter what creed you ascribe to," Secor said.

On the road through September, the band also recently finished a new record with Nashville producer Dave Cobb that Secor expects to release early next year. He didn't share a title, but described it as "somewhere between Pure Prairie League and the Rolling Thunder Revue."

"It sounds like a real Nashville kind of record," Secor said. "There's some Linda Ronstadt kind of vibes. A lot of pedal steel. It's kind of like 'AM Gold' country."

However the next album is received, Secor sounds content with Old Crow's place in the modern folk landscape. They injected a rock 'n' roll attitude into a well-studied strings act long before it was in vogue, and created careers in the process. Secor can't ask for much more.


"I'm not looking to play arenas at all," he said. "We ride on a big tour bus and we show up town to town, but the celebrity piece of it isn't really there because we're not on TV. I play the fiddle, so there's only so much I can do. And I'm really happy with that."