Old Crow Medicine Show Revives Traveling Tradition The five-member string band Old Crow Medicine Show got its start eight years ago when it busked and played in bars in Canada. The group attempts to recapture and honor the tradition of traveling variety shows that fanned across the United States more than a century ago.
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Old Crow Medicine Show Revives Traveling Tradition

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Old Crow Medicine Show Revives Traveling Tradition

Old Crow Medicine Show Revives Traveling Tradition

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This is all things considered from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

Eight years ago a brand new American string band took its act to Canada. They spent the fall busking on street corners and playing in bars along the road. They called themselves Old Crow Medicine Show to honor the traveling variety shows or medicines shows that used to roam the U.S. more than a century ago. Old Crow Medicine Show has a new CD called Big Iron World. Ketch Secor sings and plays fiddle and harmonica with the band. He says this song, Don't Ride That Horse, tells the story of their Canadian adventure.

(soundbite of Don't Ride that Horse)

Mr. KETCH SECOR (Old Crow Medicine Show): (Singing) Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Utah, wah wah empty room.

BLOCK: Now why'd you decide to do Canada?

Mr. SECOR: Well, I think that we really wanted the outer reaches. We wanted that wild land. And also we didn't want any competition.

(soundbite of Don't Ride that Horse)

Mr. SECOR: (Singing) Blood pressure's dropping down, we ditched the pot and we marked the ground. Any of them watch and ride, check that dude he almost died.

BLOCK: Well tell me about that journey, what it was like.

Mr. SECOR: We faced an early difficulty with the journey, which was that they wouldn't let us into Canada. We kept trying. We had been turned away from three border crossings in the state of New York to get into Ontario. I mean sometimes half of us would get across. At one point, we all got across, except for one guy whose arrest record came back up to haunt him.

But we got in and we went to Cornwall, Ontario. We played on the streets and we got a bar and it just started from there. The first kind of - Ottawa did us right. You know, we were rocking out there on the streets of the Farmer's Market.

(soundbite of Don't Ride that Horse)

Mr. SECOR: (Singing) Don't ride that horse. Don't ride that horse, honey. Don't ride that horse back home. Just let him roam.

BLOCK: So you would just drive from place to place, set up on a street corner and start to play?

Mr. SECOR: Yeah. It was a medicine show. That's how they did it. We wanted the authorities to approve. You know, the musical authorities from way back. We wanted to do it the right way.

BLOCK: Well, when you were bouncing around through Canada in these small towns, what sort of response were you getting from people when you would show up and start busking on the street corner?

Mr. SECOR: A really strong response. One in which people would go get their children or their parents or their friends and bring them out - drag them out. You gotta see this. There was kind of like a collective memory for when this happened in real time. When entertainment moved in packs across the country and came to your town from afar - just from somewhere else, from over the horizon line. They could tell that there was a spectacle to it that was something really special. It's like this music was really a part of the land itself that we were traversing.

(soundbite of My Good Gal)

Mr. SECOR: (Singing) Well, she drug me down, tossed me round, slammed my name all over town. My good gal ain't no good to me. She makes true love more like misery. Now I'm walking hunch. I get drunk a bunch so would you sucker her up and take a punch. My good gal ain't no good to me. And to think I've acted reasonably. But I miss her.

BLOCK: What did you learn about hanging onto people's attention, do you think, from busking and playing on the street like that?

Mr. SECOR: Well it's a really important thing with learning how to put on a show and how to be an entertainer. Because that's sort of the ultimate test right there. It's good because you're able to - all of your competition is all laid out in front of you.

You have to be better than the billboards and better than anybody's rumbling stomach or their want to get to some bar or wherever they think they want to go. You have to be where they want to go and you have to create that, you know, vestige and do it instantaneously so that the people will stop and they'll listen. And then it's like a glue that rolls out into the street and everybody is trapped.

BLOCK: You do a traditional song on the new album, Let it Alone, which I love.

(Soundbite of Let it Alone)

Mr. KEVIN HAYES (Old Crow Medicine Show): (Singing) While traveling through this big-eyed world it'll sometimes ask of you to give advice at certain times and tell folks what to do.

BLOCK: Now, this is you on fiddle.

Mr. SECOR: Yeah. There I'm coming in. Now Kevin's getting started here. Kevin is from Haverill, Massachusetts.

BLOCK: Kevin Hayes.

Mr. SECOR: Yeah. He's belting it out. This is his vocal debut.

BLOCK: I like it when Kevin goes, hmmm.

Mr. SECOR: Yeah. So this song comes to us from Chris Bouchillon, who was a vaudeville and medicine show type singer from Yemassee, South Carolina, who made about fifteen sides or twenty sides on the Brunswick label. That's a pretty decent number of sides. Probably went up to New York to record them. It's a kind of blues. It's a kind of talking blues really.

And some musicologists have said the Chris Bouchillon was a kind of founder of the talking blues. But I think probably it just comes from the tradition of minstrelsy, really. It's like you have these songs with moral conviction that are spoken. These are kind of songs for the ladies. These are songs for everybody to think about. You know there's a moral play at question.

Mr. HAYES: (Singing) Let it alone, let it alone, he's not your pal so let it alone

BLOCK: This is a mind your own business song.

Mr. SECOR: Yeah, you kind of got to, because they'll bust on in and break your chin.

Mr. HAYES: (Singing) So shut your eyes and ease some sighs, turn around and beat it and leave it alone.

BLOCK: How does it work, Ketch, when one of you finds a song like this and you're trying to get the rest of the guys as interested as you are? What do you do?

Mr. SECOR: Well, seems like with our song selection a lot of our guys just really own a song from the start. You know, these songs are very available to be - it's like the driver's seat is available to hop into and once you get in and you get it running, I mean, you can go as fast as you want to go if you know how to drive.

BLOCK: You wrote a sort of anthem, a lovely anthem on this new album called I Hear Them All. Tell me about that song.

Mr. SECOR: Well, I Hear Them All is a sort of a song about listening. It's a song about listening with a kind of collective ear to all of the sounds that humanity is making I guess. And being able to hear them all at once and to know that the sounds you're making are the sounds that everyone's making.

(soundbite of I Hear Them All)

Mr. SECOR: (Singing) So while you sit and whistle Dixie with your money and your power, I can hear the flowers a-growing in the rubble of the towers. I hear leaders quit their lying. I hear babies quit their crying. I hear soldiers quit their dying one and all. I hear them all. I hear them all. I hear them all.

BLOCK: Well, Ketch Secor, thanks very much.

Mr. SECOR: Oh, thank you very much, Melissa. It's been a real pleasure.

BLOCK: Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show. Their new CD is Big Iron World. More music from the CD and a video of the band playing on the street in New York City are at NPR.org

(soundbite of I Hear Them All)

Mr. SECOR: (Singing) I hear the tender words from Zion. I hear Noah's water fall. Hear the gentle lamb of Judah sleeping at the feet of Buddha and the prophets from Elijah to the old Piute Wovaca take their places at the table when they're called. I hear them all. I hear them all. I hear them all. I hear them all. I hear them all. I hear them all. I hear them all. I hear them all. I hear them all.

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