By Matt Wickstrom
Kicking off their spring 2016 tour in the Bluegrass, the Nashville-based Old Crow Medicine Show returns to Lexington Wednesday, March 30 and Thursday, March 31 for a two-night run of American roots music at UK’s Singletary Center for the Arts.
Old Crow started in 1998 busking in upstate New York, and got their big break the next year when legendary singer-songwriter Doc Watson discovered them outside of a drug store in Boone, North Carolina.
When the summer of 2000 rolled around, the group made their debut appearance at Watson’s MerleFest in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, helping launching the band’s career.
“I think if we started in the middle it would’ve been a harder slog to get to the top,” said Old Crow fiddle, harmonica and banjo player Ketch Secor. “We’ve always loved playing, even when we played bars for $200 a night.”
While at MerleFest, they were seen by Sally Williams of the “Grand Ole Opry,” who proceeded to bring the band down to Nashville. Old Crow now plays the “Opry,” the world’s longest-running radio program, ten times a year, and are official members.
The group has also appeared on “Renfro Valley Gatherin’,” the world’s third longest-running radio program, located in Renfro Valley, Kentucky, and often dubbed the country music capital of the state.
“The ‘Opry’ brought us to Nashville, then 15 years later decided to bring us into their family,” Secor said. “It’s been a long courtship, and there’s no higher achievement, no number of tickets sold or gold records, that measure up in my heart to the ‘Opry.’”
If MerleFest jump-started Old Crow’s success, then 2004’s hit “Wagon Wheel” sent it to the moon and back. The song received platinum status in 2013 by the Recording Industry Association of America for surpassing one million copies sold.
“There’s no question that ‘Wagon Wheel’ is bigger than Old Crow”, Secor said. “It’s like a kid holding a weather balloon by a string. That balloon can see all of creation, from Paducah to Pikeville.”
According to Secor, some of Old Crow’s favorite topics to explore in songwriting are those that are rough around the edges; coal mines, trailer parks, meth labs and county lock-downs, to name a few.
“I’m also very interested in history, but at the same time I’m a pacifist,” Secor said. “I have a great deal of respect for our U.S. service members.”
In 2011, Old Crow departed on a train from California to New Orleans with fellow bands Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and Mumford and Sons, stopping along the way to play shows for adoring fans.
The journey is documented in the film “Big Easy Express.” The cross-country expedition left Secor reflecting on the musicians who have come and gone before him.
“I felt very connected to the lives of musicians from a hundred years ago,” Secor said. “In the 1910s and 20s, everybody travelled by train, so it was an exciting opportunity to let the travelling part of touring be just as important as the live performances.”
Tickets for next Thursday night’s show at the Singletary Center, featuring special guest and opening act Parker Millsap, have already sold out. A limited number of tickets remain for Wednesday’s March 30 show, also with Millsap. Tickets are $39.50, with doors opening at 7 p.m. and music starting at 8 p.m.
Secor said the band plans to get into the studio this summer to begin recording for a new album. He went on to hint that some new songs are sure to be heard during next week’s shows.
Old Crow has a number of Kentucky shows on the horizon, including dates April 14 and 28 in Louisville and Prestonsburg, respectively. They will also headline the 13th annual ROMP Festival in Owensboro on June 25.
Other acts at the festival include the Del McCoury Band, Sam Bush Band, Jerry Douglas, Infamous Stringdusters, Town Mountain and many more.
“The first time we played in Lexington was at The Dame, which held about 75 people,” Secor said. “People were dancing so hard they broke the gumball machine. Everyone in the band dropped their instruments and ran down into the front row and started grabbing as many gumballs as we could. I think I got about 14 in my mouth while playing the fiddle, and blew the biggest bubble that Central Kentucky had ever seen. When we return later this month, I plan on breaking my record.”