“Reciprocity in that relationship is a purely American thing; throwing a coin to a violinist is something that is in our DNA.”
Since its establishment in 2011, FreshGrass It was a celebration of traditional American musical styles such as blues, folklore, country, jazz, bluegrass, and everything in between, marking the conclusion of the summer festival season for many.
This year’s FreshGrass takes place at the world-famous MASS MoCA in North Adams from September 23-25 with a variety of acts performing over four stages. The stacked lineup includes Trampled By Turtles, Billy Keane of Whiskey Convention Roadshow and Gary Clark Jr. and Aoife O’Donovan, Yola, Sierra Farrell, and Boston’s Corner House, for starters. They’re also giving away awards via the FreshGrass Foundation, as well as bringing in FreshScores where a silent film gets an original, live soundtrack in real time.
One of the works highly anticipated for the festival is the Old Crow Medicine Show, which will perform on the first night on stage inside Joe’s Field at 9:30 p.m. as part of their current tour in support of their seventh album, Paint this city.
I spoke with vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Ketch Secor before the party about writing music for the new album in warehouse, how quickly things can get back to fairly normal, having a full-time drummer, and always going to the workplace.
Paint this city Inspired by American mythology and the darker sides of the country’s legacy, how can you research this topic to contribute to the theme of music?
At this point, it’s been 23 years since we’ve been producing live music, and with that comes a whole bunch of things to think about, sing about, and create songs about. This latest installment of music has been written a lot during the pandemic and this has definitely given us a lot to think about.
What was the experience of writing music for the album during the pandemic? Have you brainstormed virtually through Zoom or email? How did you manage to collaborate during that time?
We had the foresight to get hold of a warehouse we bought about three months before the outbreak of the pandemic, so we had the fortune of having a club where we could meet at least at a distance with people. It’s funny how it’s only been a few years, and it’s really hard to get myself into this frame of mind about what it was like not to tour anymore, being in quarantine, home learning for my seven year old, so we quickly move on and back to Life bumpers again.
It hasn’t been that long since COVID-19 changed everything, but we’ve definitely had a teleportation back in time and it kind of feels weird at the same time, so I totally get what you mean. When it comes to the album structure, how did you record it or the whole process, did you guys do anything different? Paint this city What did you do with your previous albums?
Yes, there have been a lot of transitions over the past couple of years and the biggest difference on this album is the lineup. We got Jerry Pentecost who really set a new direction for us by having a full-time drummer. Jerry is just one of the most lovable people you spend their road life with, studio life and all the rest. Old Crow has always played between folk and rock and roll but when you hire a drummer, and we get a great drummer, things get louder, they get more harmonious, they get more rhythmic, and you’ll notice that in this recording.
Old Crow’s big break came while out of Boone Drug in Boone, North Carolina in the late 1990s and was discovered by popular legend Doc Watson through his granddaughter. Looking back more than 20 years later, what did this experience mean for the band and did you miss busking during the band’s early days?
I miss Doc Watson, he was such a really cool advocate of traditional American music that I wonder if we’ll ever see anyone like this again as long as I’m alive. The phenomenon of blind Appalachian guitar carried with it all the tradition and originating in the pre-electric South, they just don’t do it anymore. I live in Nashville and I can tell you without exaggeration that there are no Doc Watsons there, and no one especially not on the radio but also not on the jam session either. I miss Doc and feel lucky to have met some of the people who have made American popular music as rich as it is. I think of the people who are long gone like Doc Watson, Pete Seeger, Merle Haggard and others we encountered by chance while out.
I think these are my bed with greatness, I don’t know if I would do anything in a world or as important as someone like Pete Seeger, but I spoke to him, he told me a great story, he made me smile and made him laugh. Moments like that, they stay with you and keep making you want to do it.
The other thing you ask about is playing on the street corner, when you go out to the sidewalk and you’re busy, it puts you in touch with people and that’s people’s music. You’re basically asking people for a favor and you’re providing some entertainment that they didn’t even know they needed or wanted. Reciprocity in that relationship is a purely American thing. Throwing a coin to the violinist is something that is in our DNA. Even as a stage performer in the Great Halls and Great Halls, it is the same basic principle. I am the violinist and you are the piano.
This is a wonderful metaphor and analogy. It is great to meet so many legendary figures in the world of popular music and American music in general. You guys are no strangers to the music festival circuit and actually played the Bentonville, Arkansas version of FreshGrass last year, so what are your thoughts on your going to North Adams this weekend?
When we play in western Massachusetts, it always makes me think of Arlo Guthrie and that song that James Taylor wrote about getting out of the Massachusetts Turnpike. It also makes me think of House Williams, and most of all, it makes me think of the past 20 years that we, as a band, have performed so much in the Berkshire area. Whether it’s making jokes about the Quabbin Reservoir, Governor Deval Patrick back in the day, or playing there during the “Bloody Sock Incident,” that area is full of music. They’ve got many great little cafes and their own kind of folk music community there, but they’ve also got some punk rock happening there as well and some great rock action.
I remember seeing the Pixies playing that great song.”u mas“That was one of the bands our band always played in high school. I grew up in Virginia but singing about UMass was kind of flattering to the idea of playing in the Berkshires. More specific to FreshGrass, North Adams is one of those cool towns that has been reimagined for these The New Millennium Not every city gets that privilege, but North Adams had a really important purpose in the 18th and 19th centuries, so often when a city gives its heart and soul to industry, it doesn’t get the ability to reinvent itself because industries can be so cruel And very hard.Look at how eastern Kentucky tried to recover from the terrible floods in July and August, they gave their heart and soul to the industry and look where it has brought them.
Certain communities have managed to reinvent themselves, and North Adams was, by all accounts, a kid in the ’80s, perhaps a tough, stumbling, closed mill town. However, through the drive of creativity and fundraising, it is a place for culture and the arts and a place that is growing in the minds of New Englanders as a music destination. I applaud any town that can make this transformation, it is really difficult so we are honored to be a part of this transformation. This is how rivers become cleaner and this is how children learn that they are the inheritors of music.
It’s a great perspective to have and you’re right on North Adams. What are your plans and the band’s plans for the rest of the year after the festival? Are you just planning to go on tour to support the new album or do you have any other projects on the way?
Well, we have a few other shows coming up including one in New London, Connecticut. It is very usual for us to go to the workplace and also file a number of bills in Florida with Gov’t Mule. We’re going to be doing some shows with Molly Tuttle towards the end of the year and things keep coming up too, COVID-19 is still around so things can turn a dime. Wherever you’ll find us this fall, I guarantee I’ll hit and watch on that violin and maybe do it with a pretty smile on my face and maybe half ready too.