Old Crow Medicine Show may have played their most important gig busking outside of a pharmacy in Boone, North Carolina. That’s where the band caught the ear of legendary musician, Doc Watson, who was so impressed with the boys’ take on old-time music that he invited them to play his festival, Merlefest, in nearby Wilkesboro. Now, 13 years after Old Crow Medicine Show released their breakout album, O.C.M.S., the Grammy award-winning acoustic sextet is making their well-loved catalog new again.
Old Crow is slated to release Best Of, a compilation of biggest hits and fan favorites, on Friday, February 10. In addition to the obvious tracks (yes, Best Of opens with “Wagon Wheel”), the album will include two previously unreleased songs: “Black-Haired Quebecoise” and “Heart Up in the Sky.” These tunes may be new to some listeners, but their inclusion is a nod to the fans who have followed Old Crow since the beginning: both were recorded more than a decade ago, and they’ve been showing up on set lists for much longer.
Garden & Gun is excited to premiere “Heart Up in the Sky” ahead of the album’s release. Below, band co-founder Ketch Secor talks about the history of the song, the enduring appeal of “Wagon Wheel,” and the way traditional music binds people together.
You recorded this song during the sessions for 2006’s Big Iron World. What’s the history behind it?
This is a song that I wrote probably 20 years ago—I think when I was 19. I was listening to a lot of Tom T. Hall in my late teens, having spent all of my teenage years just poring over Bob Dylan. I started listening to more country music after I got out of high school and started playing the fiddle. I wrote “Heart Up in the Sky” on the banjo, and I wrote it based on a neon sign that I saw that had a heart shape. Maybe it was a vision; I was seeing a lot of things back then. [Laughs] That was a dream time in my life. Six months after I showed that song to Critter [Fuqua, band co-founder], Old Crow Medicine Show began to take form.
You said you got into country music later in life, and Old Crow has a way of attracting listeners who may not already be bluegrass or Americana fans. Why do you think that is?
You know, you don’t have to look too far back in your family tree to find American traditional music. Everybody’s got a guitar up in the attic—I appreciated finding the banjo player in my family tree, and I’m more removed from it than you would think. The challenge of Old Crow is to give everybody a key to that attic door. They can, themselves, decide whether they might like to go upstairs and dust off that old instrument, maybe play it a note or two.
You mention being into Bob Dylan as a teenager. Best Of kicks off with “Wagon Wheel,” a song you wrote around an unfinished Dylan song. What has that connection meant to you?
It means a lot to me to share a Bob Dylan song with a whole lot of people. To me, Bob is the most important American songwriter ever. I think he’s gonna cast about a 500-year shadow.
And now that song has taken on a life of its own—it’s played and covered just about everywhere. Have there been any bizarre moments for you as it’s become so popular?
Recently my babysitter told me that she played “Wagon Wheel” for the first song of her new ukulele class—and this is on an island in Maine. [Laughs] “Wagon Wheel” continues to be the spice of life for me. My dad would go on these trips to Louisiana when we were children, and he would bring back this spice that was just called Cajun seasoning. It was sort of the spice of our family’s spice rack. We didn’t have marjoram or thyme. All we had was Cajun. It was probably just salt and red pepper, but to us it was a big deal. “Rock Me Mama” has been the one spice in my rack for a while now. It continues to jazz up life.