By Brian Wise.
The Road to Damascus musical experiences come along only every so often. You can probably count them on one hand. So, it is that seeing the Old Crow Medicine Show and Valerie June for the first time are memories that will live with me forever, as special experiences. The former was at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, the latter on a street in Clarksdale, Mississippi, during the Juke Joint Festival.
Now, both acts are ambassadors for their state of Tennessee and are bringing their musical talents to Australia on the tour tagged as ‘A Taste of Americana.’
Walking across the infield of Jazz Fest years ago I was literally stopped dead in my tracks by the sound of a band on the small Fais Do Do stage playing Bob Dylan’s ‘Wagon Wheel’ – and playing it like I had never heard it before. I recall my immediate reaction was to utter ‘Holy shit!’ (or similar words to that effect). It drew me to the stage like a powerful magnet and I stood transfixed. Afterwards, I discovered that Ketch Secor of Old Crow had added some verses of his own to the song which had originally appeared on The Basement Tapes. They had played the song in the same spirit that The Band attacked it, with a sort of joyful abandon matched by virtuoso musicianship.
Years later, at Byron’s Bluesfest, Old Crow performed almost as mesmerising version of ‘Jim Jones,’ a song Dylan had recorded during his seven-year songwriting hiatus after Oh Mercy. (It is undoubtedly one of Dylan’s greatest interpretations. How could you not love this band that breathed new life into Dylan’s work? You can also see Ketch and some of the other members of the group perform the song on the film Big Easy Express, where they travelled by train across the USA playing at stations along the way.
Last year, fittingly, Old Crow again approached Dylan’s oeuvre, this time with a live performance – captured on disc and film – of the classic and ground-breaking Blonde on Blonde, some of which was recorded in Nashville back in 1966. Following on from Highway 61 Revisited, the album was rock’s first double album set and not only continued Dylan’s penchant for obscurantist lyrics but contained some even more personal songs. (It is still amazing that he had so many great songs that he did not include ‘Positively Fourth Street’ but instead released it as a single.
The film of the Old Crow performance will be premiered in Nashville next Monday evening at the Belcourt Theater during the Americana Music Festival but the group will be bringing the live show to Australia at the end of the month for a series of special concerts.
All of which is not to suggest that the Old Crow Medicine Show’s entire history is merely steeped in explorations of Dylan’s work. far from it, over the past 20 years they have become prime exponents of what has come to be known as Americana (whatever that means!).
After nearly 20 years with ten albums and numerous EPs as well as membership of the Grand Ole Opry, Old Crow have certainly established their own reputation. The six-piece outfit (who once counted Willie Watson as a member) have a substantial catalogue of fine songs to ply; it’s just that the Blonde On Blonde recording seems to have captured everyone’s attention for the time being.
When I talk to Secor by phone he is in Nashville preparing for a two-night stand at the Grand Ole Opry (with Carlene Carter on the bill) and the premiere of the movie. It is not long after the death of Glen Campbell.
“It is one of my favourite places to be on God’s green earth,” he says of the Opry. “We’ve been visiting the Opry, we’ve been playing on the Opry now for quite a while. We became members of the Grand Ole Opry in 2012. That’s just been the most exciting thing that you ever could’ve dreamed up. This is a band that plays some pretty rockin’ old time music. Our presence on the Opry really makes a full circle because of course the Opry was founded in the early 1920s with old time string band music. You don’t hear it much on the Opry anymore, but when we take the stage that’s what you hear.
“Every time you play the Opry it’s a variety show. This is America’s longest running radio broadcast – 92 years now the Grand Ole Opry has been on the air. It’s a really beloved show in our country. It’s a real pacemaker for new country artists. Additionally, there are so many legendary performers who are either members of the Opry or occasionally come out.
“I do know that we’ll be paying tribute along with many others to the great Glen Campbell.”
Campbell was not only lauded for his country hits, helping to establish Jimmy Webb as a songwriter and his TV show but for the many sessions he played on in the ‘60s as a member of the Wrecking Crew. For a short time also, Campbell toured as a member of the Beach Boys.
“Just a hugely influential session guitar player, and then probably the signature country singer of the 1970s,” says Secor. “The voice of country music in the 70s was Glen Campbell. He brought so many people to country music across America in places outside of the South and outside of the rural West where country music always had its demographic. Glen Campbell brought New Jersey and Boston and New York. He brought so many people to love a lifetime’s worth of country songs.”
While Secor says that they were definitely performing Webb’s ‘’Wichita Lineman’ he adds that “the songwriter that I think of when I think of Glen Campbell is John Hartford.”
“Because ‘Gentle on my Mind’ is one of those really stand-alone country songs,” he explains. ‘There’s nothing like it both musically and lyrically. It’s a highly original record. It achieved a level of acclaim that very few songs ever get to. ‘Gentle on my Mind’ is just a … it’s one of the greatest country songs ever written.
“That it was written by a guy like John Hartford, who though he spent a lot of his life in Nashville was always a fringe member of the country music scene here, a rabble-rouser, a poet, a steamboat captain. Just one of those people that defies the categorization that country music often likes to put on people and say, “You wear this hat and these boots.” John marched to his own drum.”
While Old Crow will be bringing Blonde on Blonde to Australia their dates in the USA after the Grand Ole Opry featured some of the new songs they have recently recorded with producer Dave Cobb for a new album to drop early next year.
“It’ll be fun to get to play some songs off of that and then play some of the tunes that have brought us almost 20 years of merriment around the world, making music,” says Secor.
Dave Cobb just happens to be the hottest producer in Nashville at the moment having worked with numerous up-and-coming artists including Chris Stapleton. I ask Secor if it is frustrating waiting so long to release a new recording.
“Yeah, you know, we had it in the can so long,” he agrees. “I don’t know if frustrating is the word but it’s like what they call coitus interruptus’
While they are working with the hottest producer in Nashville, the town itself is just about the ‘hottest’ town in America. Put it down to the Nashville or the fact that it was more affordable than big cities like New York but whatever the reason, Nashville is growing almost as fast as…..Melbourne! If you look at the back cover of Nashville Skyline it resembles nothing like Nashville at the moment. A lot that has changed both physically and musically over the years but there’s still an incredible amount of great music to be found in the home of country music.
“This time in Nashville is like no other ever,” says Secor. “Of course, time is that way. No time is the same. It keeps moving onward. The thing about Nashville is that it is booming. It is raging right now, unbelievably so, not always in the right ways. Unbridled growth can be really dangerous.
“When I look at the back of Nashville Skyline and I look at that city that looks like Little Rock or Birmingham or another tertiary American city in the South, and then I look at the city skyline today, I kinda pine for that older way of looking. It reminds me of the time when I first came to Nashville. Even though the skyline had changed 30 year’s worth from the time that that record came out, it was really easy to find the old way of doing things in Nashville, Tennessee. Now it’s a tourist town and an exciting place to live – but it certainly has changed quite a bit.
“As we look at 50 years of Nashville history through the lens of Blonde on Blonde, what I love about this and what really called to me about this project was the opportunity to widen the scope of Nashville. You can look at the skyline today and think, ‘This is an entertainment town. This is a town for you to have a great weekend in.’ That is very much the case and that’s a wonderful thing but in 1966 it was a town that, in addition to a lot of other things, produced pop music’s very first double record. This record that Bob made here, and he made it overwhelmingly in Nashville. Two of the tracks were older sessions from New York, but the vast majority were made here in Nashville with the Nashville Cats, this A-list of studio session players.
“The kind of world that Bob created for this pop music’s first double record invokes some really deep thinking poetry that you just never would’ve thought was gonna come out of Nashville. The tendency with country music is three chords and the truth. Keep it simple. Bob kept it chordally very simple but lyrically this stuff is so expansive. Fifteen verse songs without a chorus; songs that sound more like Beat poetry, like Allen Ginsberg, than they do like any of the contemporary songwriters at that time.
“Artists like John Hartford or Jimmy Webb and songwriters like myself even 50 years later, we all owe this great debt of gratitude to Bob for really expanding the form of song to be something as monumental as ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’, which takes up a whole record, or ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again’, which is eleven verses long and has a refrain, but that’s it. This is something that Bob did, and he did it in Nashville. That’s something that’s really exciting to me to get to share and sort of widen Nashville’s image in the mirror. We made this record right here. This is part of the skyline.”
“I love Bob Dylan like many others do. I just love him so much,” continues Secor, now on a roll. “More than a fan, I’ve really watched him. I’ve been to more Bob Dylan concerts than anybody else. I’ve probably seen him in concert 30 or 40 times, own every album, have really spent a lot of time with all the records. It was really fun to get to visit these songs with this knowledge of all of these other recordings outside of Blonde on Blonde. Our versions really vary. We might take a Bob cut from a later record on the same song and focus on that arrangement to make ours, or in some cases we just made arrangements completely out of the ether drawing off of what Old Crow does best. With each song on the record we really treated it like it was a folk song. The thing about folk music, and really we learned this from Bob, is there’s a really healthy amount of theft in good music-making.”
“The thing about folk music, and really we learned this from Bob, is there’s a really healthy amount of theft in good music-making.”
“You just gotta make it your own. You just gotta steal it. You gotta go up to Pete Seeger’s house and hear him sing Penny’s Farm, and steal it and turn it into Maggie’s Farm. You gotta hear the Clancy Brothers sing Farewell to Tarwaithie and steal it, and start singing Farewell Angelina. Bob has really done a beautiful thing by borrowing, reinterpreting, and recasting older songs. That’s what we did with this entire record.”
“It’s one of the happiest parts about Old Crow has been the proximity that we’ve spent to Bob. Still never met the guy,” admits Secor, much to my surprise. “It’s really cool.”
“No, not directly,” he replies when I ask if they have ever heard from Dylan. “Not a word was spoke between us. There was a little risk involved. He’s somewhat of a Cheshire Cat to a lot of people. That’s cool.”
“I remember that Fais Do-Do performance really well, playing the jazz fest” he adds when I remind him of that show many years ago. “I think that Nashville has a good amount in common with New Orleans. We really are a town that has made a kind of music that is become ubiquitous in the world, but that really bubbled up from one ZIP code, from one river watershed, from one stretch of North America. Like jazz in New Orleans, country music really comes from Nashville, Tennessee. The story of that just remains so inspiring to me. I continue to draw from that well spring, and I probably will all my life wherever I go.”
I remind Secor of the Old Crow performance of ‘Jim Jones’ at Bluesfest some five years ago and tell him I am also surprised that they have never recorded it, apart from the excerpt that appears in Big Easy Express.
“No, just what you see on the movie is the only time we ever got that one recorded,” he responds. “I love that song. That story is really amazing about the convict setting over to Botany Bay. I was always looking for another version of it to find out where Bob learned it from, but I still haven’t found a source older than Bob’s 1993 record on which that was recorded. Do you know of an origin? I sure spent some time looking for the origin. I never did find it. I wondered if he had just pulled the sheet music and not actually heard the song.”
In fact, after we talk and I air the interview on Off The Record, a listener rings to tell me about A.L.Loyd who recorded a version of the song back in 1957 with Ewan McColl on an EP titled Convicts & Currency Lads, which also featured Peggy Seeger on guitar and banjo. The Seeger connection is quite possibly how Dylan came across the song.
This prompts Secor to talk about some Australian songs he has been considering lately, including a song from an Aboriginal group he cannot recall the name of and Lee Kernaghan’s ‘Boys From the Bush.’
“’Boys From the Bush’ is the kind of song that could’ve been so popular in the Dakotas, so popular,” he says. “It’s such a Nashville sound, some of the country music that comes out of Australia.”
“The record that I’ve been listening to a lot lately,” he continues, “and I can’t remember, and if I could I couldn’t pronounce the name of the band, but it’s a band from Alice Springs, it’s an Aboriginal group. [Probably the Utju Band]. They’ve got a song called ‘Wama Wanti’. It means ‘I don’t want to drink.’
“Anyway, I’ve been learning that one. It’s been really great. It’s such country music, just this idea. To think about it in the Aboriginal sense what “I don’t want to drink” means, and the devastation that grog can have in Aboriginal communities, but if you just listen to it like a country song it’s like Loretta Lynn, ‘Don’t Come Home A Drinkin’ With Lovin’ on Your Mind’.”
When I mention the country music, especially of people like Slim Dusty who toured the outback, was huge amongst the Aboriginal communities Secor suggest a similar popularity in indigenous populations here among American-Indians and Canadian First Nations groups.
“That’s one of the things that I love about country music,” he says. “The myopic view is what’s on the radio today. They need to listen to some Glen Campbell. If they could get some songs like that and put them on the radio, if we could hear a ‘Rhinestone Cowboy.’ Nowadays the profit margins are so high that songs like that can’t even find their way through. When I think about country music impacting the lives of Aboriginal people or American-Indian people, it’s just really exciting to me to know that this is really folk music. This is really a kind of people’s musical format. It really belongs to us. It’s a really shared vision too.”
“When I first came to Nashville in the late 90s to play on the street corners here it was not a musical genre or format,” replies Secor when I suggest that the Americana movement is doing exactly what he has been hoping. “The kind of catchall term for anything outside of mainstream country back then was called Alt.Country. They just found a catchier name for it. Americana really is the folk revival.
“You can call it whatever you want to. I really prefer folk music because one, it’s not Americana, it’s Canadiana, it’s Mexicana, it’s Australiana. The music that makes up the body of what is called Americana comes from around the world. It’s drawing culturally from so many, many places. It’s not just fiddle music, it’s Tejano music. It’s Flaco Jimenez playing the accordion. That’s in the genre now. It’s everything from Johnny Cash to Kasey Chambers.”
OLD CROW MEDICINE SHOW DATES
Thursday September 28 – The Tivoli
Tickets from ticketmaster.com.au or 136 100
Saturday September 30 – Caloundra Music Festival
Sunday October 1 – Forum Theatre
Ticket from ticketmaster.com.au or 136 100
Tuesday October 3 – Enmore Theatre
Tickets from ticketek.com.au or 132 849