Old Crow Medicine Show, known for a rampant live show and their authentic modern take on Americana has been pushing the boundaries of the country music world for album 20 years. So it seems the perfect time for their fans to finally get a retrospective record. And we’re in luck as the band is releasing Best Of, a record filled with some of the band’s most highly regarded tracks and a couple of new, but previously archived songs to boot.
The band started its career out on the streets, pounding their guitars into submission and singing as loud as they could so all could hear. Now they are members of the Grand Ole Opry’s treasure trove of incredible artists.
ARTISTdirect’s Christopher Friedmann caught up with Critter Fuqua to discuss the upcoming Best Of, the current country music scene, and to find out just what moments have seared themselves into the memories of the band.
Christopher Friedmann: We’re talking today because you’re about to release a “Best Of” album… so first things first - how’s the mood in the camp?
Critter Fuqua: Band-wise it’s great. We’ve got three albums coming out this year and they are all in the band and, you know, things are… we are the best we’ve ever been.
CF: A “Best of” collection is a considerable landmark in the career of a band. Can you talk a little on the thought process, and the conversations that led the band to realize that ‘now’ is a good time for a retrospective release.
CF: I don’t know that we ever talked about it. I think it was the record company’s idea. Which is great. Now is a great time to do it. We’ve been a band for almost 20 years. I think they thought it made sense, it’s actually the best of the Nettwerk years, so those albums that were on Nettwerk. I guess technically it’s not best of our whole career, but O.C.M.S., Big Iron World, and Tennessee Pusher I believe.
CF: Can you talk us through the sequencing of the tracks - not just how you selected the tunes, but also expand on why you settled on the running order that we hear on the album?
CF: I’m not sure. I know we do discuss sequencing. I never really think about sequencing a lot. I know Ketch and Morgan - the bass player - are really good at sequencing. I think we had some sequence options thrown out. I don’t often think about sequencing, but yeah, it’s definitely sequenced. [Laughs]
CF: There are a couple of previously unreleased tracks on the album - “Black-Haired Québécoise” and “Heart Up in the Sky” - what about those two songs made them fit into this retrospective?
CF: Ketch wrote “Heart Up in the Sky” and Ketch and I both wrote “Black-Haired Québécoise” probably when we were 20 years old, right before we started Old Crow Medicine Show, and they are just great songs. We had recorded them with Dave Rawlings for the Big Iron World Sessions and so we’ve had them down on tape forever and they have just been sitting around. I don’t know, those two stuck out: I think with typical ‘best of’ albums you get some typical ‘extra stuff’, so yeah we just put them on because they’re… I don’t know, we like’em. [Laughs]
CF: This album is the first time some of these songs have been made available on vinyl. Is that wax pressing an important format for you?
CF: Yeah, I love vinyl. I don’t actually have a very good record player, it’s kind of a piece of crap. I’m not much of an audiophile, but I think records… you know rock ‘n’ roll and pop music and country, actually whatever, it’s… I know there’s a tactile thing with records. You see the big album cover art and you get to see the pictures.
When I was a kid, the first records I heard were, you know, The White Album, I heard Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger, and just looking at that album cover and the sort of comic book tale of the of the preacher on the back, and listening to the music and looking at the albums, you can’t do that with iTunes. It’s just this little square.
So it’s cool, I love vinyl for a lot of reasons. Not just audio, but it’s a cool thing. There’s a lot involved in music other than music, you know. It’s artwork. When you turn Sergent Peppers into a less than one inch by one inch little square, it doesn’t mean anything anymore.
CF: I’m wondering if there is a parallel between the vinyl format and the style of music that you make - there’s tradition, there’s authenticity, and there’s a kind of revivalism going on. Why do you think these old school vibes have sustained so well, and have survived the coming and going of so many faster ‘cooler’ trends.
CF: We draw from a lot of influences, and I think we keep it really fresh. We’re creative with it and I think that people forget that country music is a creative art form. There is some great creativity, I mean Hank Williams Sr., I think there is a loss of creativity in the country music world; Tom T. Hall and Jerry Reid and some of Johnny Cash’s stuff and the guy who did the Robin Hood Soundtrack - the cartoon back in the day.
Anyway, long story short: I think we inject creativity back into the art and I think a lot of artists now are doing that because it just got lost in country music there. You can draw on a lot of different genres and talk about what’s going now, and write poetic lyrics.
CF: I know that the band started life as buskers - and that busking has remained important to you… I heard an interview when you were discussing busking the streets before live shows... can you speak a little on why being at street level is so important to you.
CF: I don’t know that we’ve done that in quite a while, but I think that the reason why we click so well as a band and play so tight together is because we spent so much time playing together on the streets and projecting our voices and playing these instruments hard to get them heard and I don’t know, what’s that 10,000 hour rule [10,000 hours practice makes a master] or whatever.
We just played and played and played and played on the street corner where you become a performer, not just a musician, and you really gel as a group. The street is really why we are here today. No one was really doing that when we were coming up. It has kind of fallen away a little bit. There are great people in like New Orleans, but when we came to Nashville it was like we had lobsters coming out of ears, it’s like, “What’s this?” You know. [Laughs]
CF: Further to that - what does it feel when you’re up on an elevated stage - what does that do to a performance?
CF: Usually we are not too elevated and our concerts by in large are old theaters, which have a real intimate feeling. I don’t feel disconnected at all from the audience. We’ve play big coliseums opening up for other bands that can fill stadiums and it feels weird because you really are way up and disconnected.
CF: So sometimes it really does make a difference for you if you are up on that stage and you don’t feel like you can really involve yourself with the audience…
CF: Yeah, if the audience is not involved, it’s not a good show because - not to be cliche - but they’re as much a part of the show as we are.
CF: Speaking of elevated stages you’ll be playing the Grand Ole Opry at the start of March - talk to me about what happens to an artist when they’re in the spotlight of that iconic venue.
CF: It gives me a real sense of pride in the band and what we’ve accomplished and we’ve worked really hard. I think we’ve really earned our spades there and it feels real good to be in the country music community. It feels good to be grounded in that.
I feel like with members of the Opry, it’s like we could really play music for as long as we wanted. And I have no desire to be megastars or to get any bigger than we are, but it’s great to know we can go drive over to the Opry and I can be playing there until the day I die. [Laughs] It’s pretty cool.
CF: … and you’ve made a number of appearances on a Prairie Home Companion for awhile…
CF: Yeah, we played that a lot for quite awhile.
CF: Did that give you a similar feeling as the Grand Ol Opry?
CF: Yeah, I grew up listening to NPR with my dad and mom and family and heard Prairie Home all the time, so I grew up with that show. It’s pretty cool to have played that many times.
CF: This album promises to be a nostalgic experience for many of your fans - so let’s ask you… looking back to the busking days, to being in a band that treads the boards at the Opry - what is the most humbling experience - the most human-level moment of magic that you’ve had… an experience that you could have only had through music?
CF: Maybe eating soup out of a grocery bag that Ketch hooked to a doorknob and then getting to the point where we can all own our own house and go to the grocery store and shop. There are lots of humbling things. It’s great. I think there are too many of them.
CF: Do you have any moments with fans that stick out in your mind?
CF: I think the biggest ones with fans… we tend to talk to a lot of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan and other places overseas and I think we had a couple Army Rangers I believe who got some leave time and they came to Vermont to see our show, that’s what they chose to do with their leave time and we talked to them on the bus.
We’ve written songs about war and veterans and things like that. I think we have a real connections with, and I think - not tooting our own horn - but we have a connection with them and I think, in America, there is a divide between us and our troops. There’s not a connection there, it’s like we’re not all behind the troops just because we put a bumper sticker on our car.
There’s still a divide between what they do and what we do because the volunteer army and it’s tough. It’s really good talking to them. They’ve got the hardest job on earth. It’s pretty tough. So I think that’s one of the things that is humbling about the music for me.
IMAGE CREDITS: STEVE LOWRY & ERIKA GOLDRING