In Conversation with Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor

Me and Ketch
Ketch Secor is cool and collected when we are introduced. This is surprising since our interview takes place shortly after he led his band Old Crow Medicine Show in a scorching 30-minute set at Farm Aid 30. He wielded the fiddle with the skill of a champion fencer.

The Grammy-winning musician and I meet backstage. Settling in next to one another on a couch, across from the Imagine Dragons’ trailer, Secor is sporting Ray Bans and is diressed in a black Farm Aid t-shirt, jean jacket, and faded jeans. The sweat is still apparent on his forehead. He is mellow. He feels humbled that Willie Nelson included his band in the day’s festivities. We chat about “the archangel Gabriel,” a.k.a. Nelson, how it felt for Secor playing his first Farm Aid, the kinship he feels with fellow musicians at the annual benefit to support family farmers, and Old Crow Medicine Show’s journey from sidewalk buskers to Grand Ole Opry members.

On the day’s set …

We had a ball. It’s really cool being at Farm Aid. I really enjoyed putting it out there. They only give you 30 minutes, so you gotta pack it in. That guy, David Amram, he’s in On the Road, he introduced Bob Dylan to Allan Ginsberg, he was the understudy to Leonard Bernstein … he’s also so old that he calls Willie Nelson junior! Really a treat to make a new friend and share some music on the stage with him. It was our first time playing Farm Aid.

How did it come about?

Willie asked us and we were pleased to comply. Heck, I’ll go anywhere Willie asks us to go! I’d go to Waterloo. [Waterloo, Ontario, Canada is the town, west of Toronto, from where I hail.]

On Steve Goodman’s influence and singing “City of New Orleans” at Farm Aid 30 …

Anytime that a musician’s life is cut short like that it makes his body of work that much more important. There is something about singing a song that evokes more than just the music. Steve [Goodman] is from Chicago. Steve is the Chicago folk scene of the late 1970s. It is a great opportunity to evoke him here, plus we had Mickey [Raphael]. Anytime you get that guy … Willie Nelson has recorded a version and I first heard Arlo Guthrie’s version – didn’t hear Steve’s until much later – to get Mickey on that is so cool. We worked it out towards the end of the Willie Nelson tour we were on last month, working on “City of New Orleans.” David Amram was not rehearsed, however; Mickey introduced us backstage.

What’s it like touring with Willie Nelson?

It’s kind of like standing on the stage next to the angel Gabriel. There is a deep spirituality that radiates out of him, out of his guitar, and out of him. Everything that is Willie Nelson has this spirit to it. I just want to bask in the light of this.

Looking back 15 years ago, is it hard to imagine how far you’ve come as a band, from playing the Grand Ole Opry to winning a Grammy for your last record and sharing the stage and touring with the legendary Nelson?

15 years ago I was standing outside of Willie Nelson’s bus, waiting for him to get off, to come say hello to the handful of fans that were there. I was probably higher than he was. I had my CD in my hand to give to him. It was our first record. He said he would listen to it. We got our picture made and we both had turquoise stones in our hats.

So it was fate then?

I had a feeling that I would see him again.

On Remedy (2014), winning a Grammy, and what’s next for Old Crow Medicine Show?

We are starting to write some new tunes and have just been thinking about Farm Aid for the last few days and here it is almost half-way over. It is such a particular thing. It’s like being invited to this family reunion and then you realize that you are related. You look around and you see your chin, and your eyes, and you know that you are kin.

So you feel a real kinship with not just the other artists, but the family farmers you’ve met today?

I feel a kinship with everybody here. I was a kid in 1985 [the year Farm Aid started] and it was something that my mom had me pay attention to. ‘They are doing something in Champagne, Illinois Ketch,’ she said. My mom voted for Walter Mondale the year before, so I knew that that made her different than anybody else. I didn’t know what was different about her, but she didn’t vote for Reagan.

Farm Aid Board Member Neil [Young] is very vocal about the family farmer issues; for him, part of the solution begins with pushing back against corporate America. What are your feelings on the Farm Aid cause and possible solutions? You said on stage, ‘Here we are Year 30, maybe we will solve this in Year 31?’ There has been progress, right?

I don’t know. There has been change, but is there ever really progress? Are those one in the same? Beats me. I also believe like Neil Young that a corporate hytocricy runs the show. It’s not true democracy. But, I don’t feel as a fiddle player that it’s my place to deal with those issues. I’m much more interested in making change on a community level. Talking to farmers here. I met this guy today on stage, Ben Burkett. Ben is a farmer from Hattiesburg, Mississippi. I asked him, ‘Have you read E.O. Wilson’s book, The Longleaf Pine, and he said, ‘Yes Sir and I’ve just plowed up 40 acres to do something about it.’

I come from the place that just might have the chance to save agriculture in North America. I wouldn’t ask Nebraska to lead the pack or Kansas or the Dakotas wherever the black soil is. Why shouldn’t they grow wheat for the factories? Why shouldn’t they grow wheat for the foreign markets? I live in the fertile American South and this is the place that can grow food. My state could grow food instead of California – you can grow food all year along in Tennessee, but we don’t. We grow corn like everywhere else. We grow whatever the market says is the thing to grow because of subsidies. I’m interested in helping to plow a new row in my home state.

For the rest of the day, I plan to enjoy the music, hang out, do some more press and share some fellowship with my fellow musicians. There’s Holly Williams [Secor points to the songwriter who brushes by us]. We talked about her grandfather, she’s great, she’s got a little baby. We were just talking about her grandfather’s museum in Montgomery, Alabama, where we just played. It’s a great opportunity to visit with other artists. We are all giving our time here. We are giving up our weekend to come together because we believe in Willie Nelson. Willie is the reason. We are all here because of our love and our respect for Willie Nelson. He is the great teacher. He taught us all, from Red Headed Stranger on down, what American songs can be about. You know, in all of them, they are about us.

Do you have a favorite Willie song?

“Still Is Still Moving to Me.” I would like to see that one turned into a flowchart. I would like to see the fractal version of “Still Is Still Moving to Me.”

Are you on the road again after Farm Aid?

We will play the Opry this fall, but touring is a little patchy at this time of year. We did our thing, it was great and fruitful. They call this, ‘laying by time.’ The reason that school starts so early in the south is because you had to hoe and chop because if you didn’t the cotton wouldn’t grow. We go to school August 8. It’s ridiculous. It’s 105 degrees out and kids wait for the school bus. These kids haven’t been in a field in three generations and these kids won’t go into a field and that field has a coming soon sign depicting a gas station with dozens of pumps and a grocery store with 6,000 parking spots.

And they call that progress?

Yeah, so 30 years of Farm Aid. Now, that said, I can walk a block from my house and buy goat cheese made two counties over wrapped in prosciutto that is cured in Tennessee. Then you go to the grocery store and everything is from California. The Canadian marketplace for food I find very progressive by comparison to the U.S. Because of the short growing cycle there is intensive agriculture. A grocery store in Quebec is amazing how much produce is grown there hydroponically. We eat Quebec tomatoes in Tennessee. They grow a bunch of damn tomatoes in Quebec!

Final thoughts, on No Depression.

I was glad to hear that No Depression is back on the shelves. It’s a good brand and was all through the 1990s. When we landed on the cover of it around 2003 or so, that was the only magazine that was ever going to put us on the cover and one of the very few that ever has.

A Kinship for the Land and the Music: Farm Aid 30 Kicks Ass in the Windy City

SEPTEMBER 21, 2015
First Bank Pavillion, Northerly Island, Chicago, Illinois

Some came from New York, some from Las Vegas. Others traveled from rural America, where family farmers struggle most. No matter where they followed the white line from, all came to Farm Aid 30 for the same two reasons: the music and the cause. Each did their part, to make a difference, whether it was buying from the homegrown concession stands or learning from the farmers and advocates in the Homegrown Village. For the more than 26,000 strong who attended the sold-out 30th anniversary edition of this annual music marathon, it was worth the trip alone to hear rising rock stars (Insects vs. Aliens), descendants of country legends (Holly Williams), musical icons (Mavis Staples, Neil Young), and Grammy-winners like Old Crow Medicine Show all washed down with good organic food and craft beer.

Willie Nelson, or “the archangel Gabriel” as Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor called him during our interview, is the reason artists give up their time and money to play this annual benefit. Everyone believes in the Tao of Willie and the deep spirituality that radiates from his soul. By the time country music’s elder statesman — and original outlaw — closed the day’s festivities with his treasured songbook, many had already drank their fill and were filing to the exits. Still, Nelson and his family band kept playing on by the light of the crescent moon, to their unique rhythms. There’s no doubt, it’s Willie’s day. The perma-smile on his weathered face — not only there because of the Willie’s Reserve he was most likely smoking on his bus throughout the day — says it all.

The artists respect Nelson, and for good reason. Jack Johnson even premiered a satirical song, written about the Farm Aid founder, about getting stoned with the legendary musician and “Willie taking all [my] money.” The octogenerarian still is filled with passion for playing and for the plight of the family farmer. Wearing a black Farm Aid T-shirt, Nelson summed up the cause at the morning press conference with these well-chosen words:

When we started Farm Aid, a crisis was gripping farm country. Farm Aid called on America to stand up for family farmers. They showed up then, and they’re still showing up. All different types of people are coming together for family farmers, and we’re making a difference.

While Mother Nature sent a deluge of rain to the Chicago area the previous couple of days, thankfully the sun shone this past Saturday for the 30th anniversary of Farm Aid. At the presser before noon, Neil Young spewed his usual vitriol against corporate America, specifically calling out the government and large multinationals such as Monsanto.

We are up against a gigantic force that keeps coming at us from everywhere and it’s centred in our government and it’s backed up by multi-national corporations that are taking over the farm land of the United States, who produce 90 percent of the corn.

Some of Young’s faithful followers were spotted wandering the lawn later in the day wearing t-shirts that read: “F*#@ Monsanto.” Not surprisingly, Young’s late evening set featured several tunes from his latest record, critiquing these same companies and their practies. Old Black — Neil’s longtime companion (Black Gibson SJ) — was the conductor that had his latest garage rock band of followers, the Promise of the Real, led by Nelsons’ eldest son Lucas. The young band was trying to keep pace with this old man, who still rocks out with the best of them.

Holly Williams, granddaughter of the legendary Hank Williams, is carving out a fine career; she made the most of her early set. An ode to the white line, the title track “Highway” from her most recent release, was one of the highs. So was “Waiting on June,” a touching tribute to her grandparents’ love.

Old Crow Medicine Show paid their own tribute a wee bit later with a nod to Chicagoan and late, great songwriter Steve Goodman, with a spirited take on his classic “City of New Orleans.” The band was joined by Willie’s longtime harp player Mickey Raphael. OCMS lead singer/fiddler Secor, told me it just felt right to play this song. Hitting the stage shortly before 3 p.m., these members of the Grand Ole Opry brought a hoedown to Chicago’s lakefront with their seven-part harmony and foot-stompin’ music. Other highlights included “Wagon Wheel” and “I Hear Them All,” the latter which Dave Rawlings Machine recorded for their 2009 debut. Asked how OCMS ended up at Farm Aid, Secor told me, “Willie asked us and we were pleased to comply. I’d go anywhere Willie asked me to go!”

Later, Imagine Dragons brought the rock to this homegrown hoedown. The Las Vegas band — and Farm Aid first-timer — opened with “It’s Time.” Lead singer Dan Reynolds jumped next to me in the photo pit and then hopped the barrier and sang a verse or two while running down the aisles, before returning to the stage.

Other highlights included Kacey Musgraves sporting a powder blue, sequined dress, and backed by an all-male band who were dressed in pink nudie suits. They delivered a kick-ass cover of Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’.” Another highlight was Mavis Staples’ gospel/blues revue set. Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds gave an acoustic guitar clinic, while fellow Farm Aid Board Member John Mellencamp rolled out many of his hits, including the apropos “Rain on the Scarecrow.”

Many of the artists also made themselves available to the fans. Jamey Johnson signed autographs and posed for selfies in the FarmYard Stage tent while Lucas Nelson peformed on the main stage. The ex-Marine even signed a female fans’ bicep with a sharpie.

As the sun set over Lake Michigan on this September night, Farm Aid proved yet again — 30 years on — that the cause is still strong. Farmers still struggle, and there is always need for more change at a grassroots and government level. Willie and his followers remain friends to the family farmer. That alone is cause for celebration.

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