We met up with string-happy Old Crow Medicine Show at the Lyric Theatre in Birmingham, Alabama, for the latest in our Biscuits & Jam series. Built in 1914 for shows on the vaudeville circuit, this historic theatre has hosted Will Rogers, Mae West, and the Marx Brothers. Now, Old Crow Medicine Show—perhaps best known for their up-tempo “Wagon Wheel”—takes the stage with songs from their latest album, Carry Me Back.
In addition to the band’s all-acoustic jam session, front man Jay “Ketch” Secor spent a little time talking with us about Doc Watson, the importance of storytelling, and the transformation of modern day Nashville. Below don’t miss Old Crow’s exclusive Southern Living performance of “Levi” off Carry Me Back.
DISHING WITH KETCH SECOR
How do you take your biscuits?
I like a sliced tomato on my biscuit, always.
Do you grow your own tomatoes?
Yeah, in fact I just picked the last of our season’s tomatoes. We have volunteer tomatoes, all cherries. I’ve always liked growing tomatoes, but volunteer tomatoes are even better because you don’t really grow them, they just arrive.
Doc Watson passed this year. How did he influence you?
He came to hear us perform on the street in Boone, North Carolina—we were busking back then. We still do. We learned to play on a street corner. Doc always played on the street corner when he was our age, and, the funny thing is, we played in his old spot. In the year 2000, his daughter heard us play outside of his favorite restaurant, the Boone Drug. Doc had something he liked on the menu at the Drug, so he was often there. His daughter Nancy brought him up to hear us perform. He gave us a gig on the spot. It was a gig that ultimately led us to move to Nashville and to play all over the world. It was a great break that Doc gave us. We are honored by his life and legacy.
You live in Nashville now. What do you love about that town?
I like where Nashville is headed. I’ve been there about 12 years now and I like to be in a town that is growing in the direction of my own likes and desires. I like parks. I like sidewalks. I like good food that wasn’t grown more than 100 miles away. Parks, sidewalks, and local food are still a bit of a distance from Nashville, but they are working on it. A whole lot of like-minded people want the same thing. I would imagine the change coming to Nashville is the change coming to a lot of southern places, and it is a welcome change.
What type of performance venues most appeal to you?
We played the Lyric today, and this is a place that should not only be preserved, but should be utilized and performed in again. In Tennessee, we tore down a lot of places like this, and all that’s left is the photographs. Even the memories are torn down. When you tear it down, it’s gone forever. It’s a wonder Birmingham has held onto this place. Built in 1914, for vaudeville acts—that’s something something that interests me as a performer. I’m happy to be in this space. I think it bodes well for the city of Birmingham to put the time and money into making this place a show room once again.
Storytelling is a big part of songwriting. Who are some of your favorite storytellers?
Well, I really like William Faulkner. I think he’s one of the great storytellers. I like a lot of Southern literature. Right now I’m reading Barry Lopez’s stories of the Arctic. So I’d like to get up to the north country, too. My wife Lydia Peele wrote a great story collection and it’s called Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing, and it captures a lot of those ghostly spectral images of the American South.
Stories and songs go hand in hand, and music is a way to tell your own tale. In the type of singing we do, which is so steeped in folk lore and the elements of folk music, we are always drawing off the old story craft and applying it to song craft. So many of the great stories have already been told. Somebody told me once there are only five kinds of stories, and that said, there’s probably only about five kinds of songs. It seems like Hank Williams probably played each one of them: the one about the girl he loves and is dancing with, the one about the girl he is pining for and longing for, the one about the girl that has left him, and two others I better not mention.
Watch OCMS perform Levi:
Save the Lyric
Currently, plans are underway to resurrect the Lyric Theatre, and bring back this world-class performance space. To donate money towards the restoration of the Lyric, click here.