After years of touring the country with his band Old Crow Medicine Show, you'd think Ketch Secor might be a little bit jaded about life on the road. But while he admits he'd trade in the tour bus and concrete coliseums in an instant, he still revels in mapping out routes and exploring the country — especially in his native South.
"I always like the part about booking it and building it and driving," Secor says. "Figuring out: Where are you going to stay? Where are you going to next? Are you going to have time to go out and see this battlefield or go to that church bean supper, or are you going to get a chance to do the things that make it special where you are?"
Secor is currently on tour with Old Crow bandmate and boyhood pal Critter Fuqua, making a stop in Charleston for a Spoleto Festival eve show. It's a small, impromptu tour while the band's on hiatus, and they'll be playing a blend of Old Crow classics like the recently Gold-certified "Wagon Wheel" along with songs that have been "sitting around for a while." Secor says they're taking their time on this tour. "I'll be taking a back road to Charleston, you bet I am," he says. "I'll be coming down from Edisto, the long way."
It's a rare treat for the duo, who've spent years touring with the increasingly popular band (although Fuqua only recently rejoined the lineup after some time off for solo projects). With a new Old Crow album set for release in July, they'll be hitting the road full-force again in no time. Until then, they're savoring the slower pace.
"Everywhere you go, you see a song, you hear a song, you see a story that begs to be told with music," Secor says. "And you can see that on the Interstate, too — a lot of those songs are bleak, though. You can get a good blues song there with a strip-mall sound, and that's certainly the American story ... I prefer to take B-roads because I don't really play a streamlined kind of sound. I don't want to play the kind of music that everybody else is playing, and I don't really want to travel the way everybody else is traveling, and I don't want to put the same thing on the end of my fork that everybody's putting on theirs."
Regionalism, he says, is hugely significant for him. "I love to play music in the places where the music comes from, because I feel like there's an honor to it, to bless the land with a joyful song," Secor adds. "And when you bring it back after it's been gone for a long time, a song's got a little bit of dust on it, a little more wear and tear. It's a homecoming when you sing a song in the place where it was intended, when you bring it back that way."
A passion for American roots music is what drew Secor and Fuqua together all the way back in the seventh grade in a small town in Virginia. That's when they discovered a shared love for the old-time string bands that were ubiquitous in the surrounding hills. While other kids were taking guitar lessons and wailing on drum sets, Secor and Fuqua were experimenting with banjos, fiddles, and harmonicas and digging up long-forgotten mountain songs. They played on street corners and at homeless shelters — wherever they could get some practice. And when Fuqua moved away, they stayed in touch via stacks and stacks of letters.
"They were the kind of letters that just egged you on," Secor remembers. "We were just wide-eyed and dreaming about a great possibility out there in the big world and being career musicians. We really couldn't have done it without one another. It's that kind of friendship."
Though years ago they bonded over their uncommon taste in music, lately it's not nearly so rare. "Nowadays you go back to our hometown and it's full of wayward youths playing mandolins and blowing harmonicas and singing cocaine blues that are 100 years old now," Secor says. "To me it's fascinating that our coming-of-age coincided with a rebirth of this music." And bands like Old Crow undoubtedly played a major role in that revival.
"We've educated a lot of people," Secor says. "Not like we sat them down and taught them or read some of the history — nothing like that — rather by making the music exciting again and making it significant again, making it matter, by making jugs and harps and harmony-singing and songs about hard work and fiddle tunes and square dance songs ... by making those songs present again, we've managed to assist in a whole generation of people rediscovering the music."