Old Crow Medicine Show played their first concert of a nationwide tour Thursday at Ting Pavillion on the Downtown Mall. The tour comes after Old Crow released their seventh album, “Paint This Town,” on April 22.
The country string band is known for their song “Wagon Wheel,” one of the top 5 best-selling country songs of all time — most famously covered by Darius Rucker. They were inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in 2012 and won a Grammy Award in 2015 for their album “Remedy.”
The band’s frontman, Ketch Secor, grew up in Harrisonburg and says Charlottesville and the University have always been a special place for him. In fact, Secor attended his first live concert in Charlottesville.
“In Charlottesville in 1990, when I was 12, I went to see Bob Dylan play — the first time I’d ever seen a concert,” Secor said. “The tickets were $18.50 to see Bob Dylan at the old stadium where … the Cavs played basketball.”
The concert sparked Secor’s lifelong love of Bob Dylan music.
“There were a few words that really rang true,” Secor said. “And they were ‘Hey, Mr. Tambourine,’ and man, those four words, that’s all I needed. That’s all I needed to understand. I think I was 12 years old, and I knew four words, and I wanted to go learn a whole lexicon of them after that.”
Years later, while studying at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, Secor discovered a scrap of an old Bob Dylan recording where he mumbled over the tune of an acoustic guitar, “rock me mama like a wagon wheel.” Secor added verses about missing his home state of Virginia to create the song “Wagon Wheel” that would eventually launch Old Crow to stardom.
Old Crow’s new album, “Paint this Town,” explores the history of enslavement in the U.S. and honors the legacy of Black country musicians.
“I think that there’s a kind of racial reckoning that’s happening in the music industry,” Secor said. “So I challenge my label to engage in anti-racism work. And I challenge the Grand Ole Opry to do that, but I also challenge our band to do that.”
Secor served as an advisor to Ken Burns on his 2019 documentary “Country Music,” which chronicles the origins of country music in America. Secor is interviewed throughout the documentary and argues that country music is fundamentally shaped by Black influences. The essence of country music, according to Secor, lies in the interplay of the fiddle and the banjo. The fiddle came to America through the first Irish and English immigrants, while enslaved Africans imported the banjo. Slave music is the earliest form of country music, according to Secor.
“Country music happened in the South because that’s where slavery happened,” Secor said in the documentary.
One of the songs on the new album, “Deford Rides Again,” honors the 1920s Black country singer Deford Bailey.
“He was the first Black performer to have his recordings marketed to both white and Black audiences,” Secor said. “That’s a real shot heard around the world. I mean, that was a major move in the 1920s — super progressive stuff.”
Secor returned to Charlottesville on Thursday for the first time since the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally.
On Aug. 11, several white supremacists marched through Grounds, ultimately ending up at the north side of the Rotunda where they were met with a group of counterprotestors, many of them students. The next day, James Fields, a white supremacist, drove into a crowd of counterprotestors off of the Dowtown Mall, killing Heather Heyer, a counterprotestor and Charlotesville resident. Given the proximity of Ting Pavillion to the location of the violence, Secor felt it was important to address this recent history.
“Charlottesville is a really important place to show unity,” Secor said. “Because of this violence, this discord that we’ve all had to see through the lens of Charlottesville as a nation.”
The white supremacy on display in Charlottesville in 2017 felt personal to Secor.
“I lived there as a kid… So it was a real shocker to me because that’s my town,” Secor said. “Like f— that, you’re gonna f— parade that s— through my town?”
However, Secor also viewed the rally as emblematic of larger problems in America.
“ And but then again, it seems sort of like the perfect spot for us to all take a long look in the mirror and see what kind of country we are,” Secor said.
Secor honored Heyer with a moment of silence before the band began. He said he walked up and down the Downtown Mall for the first time since the rally before the show.
“I sat down in the alley off the mall and I cried,” Secor said to the crowd. “We watched this nation come apart and come back together again.”
Secor drew a long ovation from the crowd before the band launched into a cover of “This Land is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie. Fans sang along to the famous lyrics — “this land is your land / this land is my land.” Secor deftly switched the tune on his fiddle halfway through the song to Old Crow’s song “I Hear Them All.” The song had more of the spirituality typical of Old Crow and seemed more appropriate for the contemplative atmosphere.
“I hear the sounds of tearing pages and the roar of burning paper / All the crimes in acquisitions turn to air and ash and vapor,” the crowd sang along. “And the rattle of the shackle far beyond emancipators / And the loneliest who gather in their stalls / I hear them all, I hear them all. I hear them all.”