A decade and a half ago, Old Crow Medicine Show got its first big break from one of the band's biggest musical heroes, Doc Watson.
Watson's daughter happened upon the group playing on a street corner in Boone, North Carolina, one day in 2000. She thought her father would like Old Crow's rollicking brand of old-time string band music and returned with him an hour later.
Right then and there, Watson offered Old Crow Medicine Show a performance slot at Merlefest, the popular North Carolina music festival named for his son, Merle, an acclaimed guitarist and folk artist in his own right, who died in 1985 in an accident on the family farm.
"When we were discovered by Doc Watson on the street corner, we were playing in the same spot where Doc Watson played when he was 23 – 50 years before that, the same spot, same side of the street, same corner," says Ketch Secor, a founding member of Old Crow.
Old Crow played Merlefest that year, and the appearance helped give the group (which last July released a new album, Remedy) a foundation. And Watson, who died in 2012, would surely be proud of what Old Crow has accomplished since then. The group has steadily grown its career and helped fans everywhere learn about the roots of string band music and its influence on country, folk and bluegrass.
The next key break for Old Crow came in 2004, with the release of O.C.M.S. on established label Nettwerk Records.
The album contained "Wagon Wheel," a song Bob Dylan started but didn't finish for the soundtrack of the 1973 film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Secor heard the partial song on a Dylan bootleg, and at age 17, wrote verses to complete the song.
Despite getting next to no radio play, the Old Crow version of "Wagon Wheel" caught on and became a signature song for the group. It gradually amassed sales and downloads that topped the 1 million mark in 2013. By that time, Darius Rucker (Hootie & the Blowfish) had covered "Wagon Wheel" and taken the song to the top of the country singles chart in May 2013. Secor is still amazed at the journey the song has taken.
"It's pretty rare to have something like that happen, particularly now with the business, it's so hard to break into the business," says Secor (who plays fiddle, harmonica and banjo in Old Crow). "And then a big star like Darius picks it up and it gets another 4 million sales, that's unbelievable."
There have been a few bumps for Old Crow along the way – the biggest being a near breakup in 2011. But the group took a hiatus and returned with renewed vigor – releasing two albums, Carry Me Back (2012) and Remedy (2014), which are widely seen as the band's finest efforts and the best representations of its high-octane, old-time string band style.
Remedy is a rich musical and lyrical ride, ranging from fun (and sometimes funny) romps like "Brushy Mountain Conjugal Trailer," "S**t Creek" and "8 Dogs 8 Banjos" to weightier tunes like "Dearly Departed Friend" (which touches on the emotional damage done during a soldier's time in the service) and "Firewater" (a co-write with OCMS guitarist Critter Fuqua that looks into the depths of alcoholism).
Perhaps most notably, there's a second Dylan/Secor co-write, "Sweet Amarillo." This time, though, Dylan specifically sent a fragment of the song (which also came from the Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid sessions) to Secor to finish.
Secor turned the song into a classic country waltz, sent a demo of what Old Crow did with the song to Dylan and waited anxiously to hear back from the legendary songwriter.
Dylan responded that he liked the song, but suggested replacing a harmonica with fiddle and moving the chorus – two changes that Secor felt greatly improved the song.
"It was really amazing to get his [feedback]," Secor says. "That he would come back with his quill and make a few marks in the margins, I really felt the stewardship there. I really felt like the apprentice."
Now Old Crow Medicine Show is on tour, sharing their sound and songs with audiences and hoping to spur fans to explore other string bands.
"We're really playing the new material and we're really playing our original songs," Secor says. "That's the primary focus of the set. It's things off of Remedy and also, at this point we have five studio albums out, so there's quite a catalog to draw from. It's been really fun to go back and dust off songs from 10 or 12 years ago and give them a little bit of new life."