Published Sep 28, 2008Following two discs produced by fellow friend of the holler David Rawlings, Old Crow Medicine Show turned to legendary producer Don Was (Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones) for their latest. As the title cut alludes to, drugs, down and outs, and life on the fringes are the overriding themes explored on this daring disc. Using, as principal song crafter Ketch Secor says, the "language of folk music, these songs are older than the hills where some of these storied characters live. These are acoustically inclined songs for the people sung with harmony and emotion that echo the Band. Harmony that hurts because its so damn good. Nowhere is this more apparent than the co-write with David Rawlings ("Methamphetamine) that features studio session superstars Benmont Tench and Jim Keltner. This disc shows just how far these five mythic music makers, who not so long ago were street performers rolling from town to town hoping for a meal and a few coins, have come. Put the headphones on and let the boys in Old Crow take you for a ride down to this dirty South where these hustlers, hangers-on and hipsters dwell. Youll soon be humming along to these timeless tunes and happy you went on this journey to the outskirts.
How did you end up working with producer Don Was?
Secor: Don approached us about making this record. We were all really surprised when we heard his request because we didnt think that we were on his radar. He called us up last summer. His management company had asked him whom he wanted to make records with in the upcoming year and we topped his list. About six months later, we were in a studio in Hollywood making this record.
How was working with him different from your previous producer?
We made our two previous records with David Rawlings; he was so involved. He was like our sixth band member, as he had toured with us. It was very different than working with this outside producer who hadnt played on the street corner with us. Don asked us to be ready. Instead of helping us get ready, we got ready on our own. We finished these songs and then got them cooking. He came down to Nashville on a couple of trips for progress reports. We thought we would be recording a bit later but he came and said, "youre ready to go. We did some warm ups at the Grand Ole Opry and some smaller unannounced shows in Nashville where we tried out the new material and then went and recorded. The sessions took about a week-and-a-half.
Tennessee Pusher has an overriding theme of downtrodden characters, the fringe, drug dealers, pushers, etc. Was it this "other side of Nashville that inspired this batch of songs?
You can see it all in Nashville all towns have an underside. You split open the belly and see what this creature is feeding on. Not just Nashville; we feel our music draws on the greater body of American folk music and the kind of characters worth thinking about the hustlers and teaheads all these kinds of cats are fodder for your typical Greyhound bus station kind of experience: youre downtown, theres a rumble in your belly and youre looking for a fix. We look to reach out with the folk music language, to help them reach through song a path to salvation or something nourishing and warm. Folk music is the great link for those kinds of folks in that all of the songs weve written weve found a way to make them walk a little freer pick their feet up a little more.
What do you think the role of the song is today and your role as a songwriter?
Woody Guthrie always talked about "I hate a song that makes you feel like you are too stupid, too ugly, too fat, too thin, too tall; Im out to fight songs like that with every bone in my body. I think a song is an empowering thing. You listen to something like "I Shall Be Released, that song is 200 years in the making. It might have been written in 1973 but the imagery comes down from several hundred years of imprisonment and shackles. You can really be inside of a prison when you hear that song. Thats what we are trying to do with this music. We certainly learned a lot from songwriters like Gillian and David Rawlings.
What do you think of todays pop music?
If you take apart pop music you find the same rhyme and reason that goes into childrens jump rope songs. You listen to a Gwen Stefani record and you hear party game music; its all tripped-out and sped up, made to feel like something else, but at the core if you have a drum and a handclap and something said over and over again, its "Pat-a-cake. Then, you listen to 50 Cent and he could never touch the old bluesman; they were just so much more talented than that. I think a lot of the rappers suffer from the same problem: they have all of the bravado of an old bluesman but none of the technique. You can rap about how badass your town is and everything but these old players had the chops to back it up and they had a language that was bigger than themselves. Pop music today is so self-centred and narcissistic. So is all of pop culture; its self-aggrandizing. To sing a song about a universal soul acts as a whole battering ram against that edifice that has been built up by all that negative music. Some of it makes you feel all groovy inside but at the end of the day, you really havent got anything from it; it didnt set a man free. Some of these old-time songs, one old fiddle tune called "The Hangmans Reel is a story that comes back from the fifteenth century; [its about] a French incident in which a man is condemned to die and he is given the chance to play a tune. He plays this song at the gallows and they set him free because of it. This is a kind of legend that moves all through the Americas and that lore is part of what makes us Americans or what makes us Canadians or what makes us the people of this continent and the new world.
Tell me about "Methamphetamine, which you co-wrote with David Rawlings.
We wrote that about a year ago. Its a drug song. We enjoy singing topical songs. We really enjoy singing old drug songs. There are a lot of them from back in the 20s. They sure sang a lot about dope back then. I think people were a lot more into dope than you gave them credit for in the roaring 20s. If youre playing old jug band music, blues music, hillbilly music, youre bound to hear numerous references to drugs. I think in trying to make a latter day hillbilly sound that takes in the greater picture what would you be singing about up in the holler today? You probably couldnt afford blow, youd be singing about crank. I think its a good song for that same kind of bus station politics of it all. "Mama aint hungry no more/shes waiting for a knock on the trailer door. I took personal experience to be able to write that kind of thing. Being a fiddler and a banjo player, those instruments unlocked a lot of doors, among them several of these very thin trailer doors up on the mountain where we used to live. You would get inside of someones house and they just wouldnt have anything; they would have an old television set and a pile of dirty dishes, but not much else. Its the kind of thing you read about and happened a long time ago but there are a lot of people leaving that way. A lot of people are thin. They talk a lot about obesity. Well, there are a lot of thin people. The way Methamphetamine treats your body too, boy, it just makes you wither away.
So, is it an anti-drug song or more just a commentary on these down and out people?
Its not pro or con. Im just talking about what I saw walking home from a gig one night. Im just talking in the folk music language, what the folks have been up to, whats going on these days up in Kentucky, West Virginia and Ohio.
Do you see this as your role as a folk musician: to tell these stories in this universal language so people can find solace?
I hope to inspire other people to take up instruments, like taking up arms. There are a lot of fights and which one are you going to choose? I think that music has been the choice. Music is not necessarily so specific as John McCain or Barrack Obama. I know where I stand but music isnt necessarily the tool for the candidacy of one man but its for all men. Its to make all men free. Its to make all men feel joy and the power of praise and worship or to feel the hard edge of the blues.
What do you see as the connection between politics and music?
Certainly there are many politics involved in music but its not as A or B as the purveyors of A or B would have you think. Pop music is very rigidly placed in a box. The irony is that everyone is always trying to pigeonhole folk music are you an Americana band? I dont want you to call me a folk musician because then my band suffers an association with all those lousy folk acts out there. I dont know what you want to call it; I agree its more important that music reach the ears of a young person, someone 12 or 15, someone for whom the picture is not complete. All the folks that are on their TV are so excited about this vice-presidential candidate, these people have already had their world painted, its framed, its on the wall, its shrink-wrapped, they bought it for $6.99. Theyve already had it mass-duplicated and everything, but their children are still just a little bit free. Its so important those kids hear a good Dylan record. They hear Neil Young and they think, "wow, music is transcendent. Or, they dont even know what they think, but they feel good all over and they know that theyve been informed by something much more powerful than their parents or the television or the radio. Thats the power of a good song. It can save you; it can save you from the sterilization that is running so rampant out there. It can save you from being a victim of the culture wars and empower you to fight a more worthy fight that is about uniting mankind and living truthfully and living like the old sages say to. Sit down by the fire with the old bards and listen to a good song and a good story.
Tell me about your connection to Canada?
There is always a little bit of Canadian nationalism that slips into all my music and all of the music of the Old Crow Medicine Show. We started playing in Canada at something that was an important event. I often encourage other people to go across the border and play. Im not sure how many people have heeded those words but Im glad somebody told me because its made all the difference. I always feel there is a little bit of the northland in our music, especially when you are singing about that fringe. Like when I think about the character whos in the song "Crazy Eyes, hes so out of Vancouver. Hes walking up Hastings in a soggy pair of shoes. His arms are so disfigured by all of the heroin hes shot and hes got the face of a native of that landscape for 10,000 years. Thats a really powerful image, so regionally specific. Its such a section of that coastline; its Canadian yet its North American yet its universal. When this band were first starting out, we played places in Canada where the only thing that was turned on was the sawmill. The only place that was rockin was a paper mill. Everything else was quiet, asleep, maybe dead. While it seems like a lot of the new record is based on Dixie, with a lot of Southern references, I think we will always feel inexplicably linked to Canada. Yesterday, I saw the Labrador coastline from 30,000 feet. Its a very amazing vista and its really the beginning of this great island that we live on that is the New World the Western Hemisphere all of it the North and the South. We saw Greenland and the shield of ice; it looks like a great rapid frozen. The water is milk white; it looks frozen in time. Ive been reading the Nunavut chat boards recently. Its something I recommend your readership do. Exciting things are happening in the Canadian north and more progressive things could be happening in the Canadian north than whats happening the same old. The process of extraction has been happening on our North American soil forever. The taking is on and the stakes are higher than ever. The Canadian north is a gold field for the taking but at the same time, youve got this opportunity in Nunavut to do it in a different way and I dont think that different way is happening, but it could. There is a much more likely chance of it if the music could reach the kids out there in Iqaluit and Resolut Bay. If those kids could hear that Stevie Wonder record I heard when I was 12, oh, man, there would be a real strong generation that could rise up. But if all they ever hear is angry, drunken, slurred shouts and gunshots, arguments between their parents and the RCMP, choppers overheard and big semis going out to the oil fields? Thats why its so important that the people who know share the wealth. Thats the natural resource of this land; its not the old dinosaur blood, its the blood of the people. (Nettwerk)