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Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show discusses new record, depiction of small-town America

 Old Crow Medicine Show
Kit Wood
Old Crow Medicine Show is playing at the North Carolina Museum of Art on Friday night in support of their new record, “Paint This Town.”

If you don't think you've heard the music of Old Crow Medicine Show, you've probably heard the song “Wagon Wheel,” which took on a life of its own after being released almost 20 years ago and has become much loved and much covered.

Since then, the band has kept pushing and their audience just keeps on growing.

Old Crow Medicine Show is playing at the North Carolina Museum of Art on Friday night in support of their new record, “Paint This Town.” The Associated Press proclaims it Clash-worthy with other critics mentioning Bob Dylan, John Mellencamp and Bruce Springsteen in its depiction of the state of small-town and rural America.

The leader of the band, Ketch Secor, joined WUNC earlier this week to talk about the new songs and getting back on the road.

This is an excerpt of an edited transcript of that conversation. You can hear the full interview by clicking the LISTEN button at the top of this post.

Paint This Town opens the record with the story of a left behind small town where you sing, “farm kids go to make out or die.” There are a lot of places like that in America. Can music help bring attention to areas of the country where people are struggling and maybe encourage some empathy?

 Ketch Secor is the leader of the band, Old Crow Medicine Show.
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Ketch Secor is the leader of the band, Old Crow Medicine Show.

“Well, absolutely. I think it’s a responsibility that, if you're from that background, it puts us more in touch with those kind of rural places that have suffered a lot of change and you know, unemployment and lack of industry that once built it. You know, I think a lot about the eastern part of North Carolina, because a lot of what you hear on our new album depicts towns like Tarboro or Southern Pines or Hamlet. These folks in these communities really offered a lot to the success of North Carolina, and yet they haven't really been invited to the table to prosper like the rest of the state."

On first listen, "Painkiller" sounds like fun, but I think there could be a darker subject here. Is it about the opioid crisis?

"Yes, it is. The song's about the way rural American has been hurt by drugs. I first noticed this when I moved to North Carolina... By about 1999, I was living up in Avery County... There was a real difference there because crystal meth had not yet arrived. But there was a palpable sense of of an addiction culture in the form of over-the-counter prescription drugs. And there was a black market for it. And you know, I was 18, so I was sort of privy to these things... And so I was able to see how the climate was so right for something like crank to arrive... And it really does break my heart to know that North Carolinians have to suffer through this crisis. I like to call out the responsibility that Big Pharma has to take care of the people who use their pills."

“Used To Be A Mountain” takes on the environmental crisis with a focus on coal mining. It's like a cross between “The Clash” and “The Devil Went Down To Georgia.” Is it a challenge to include these serious topics in songs that you can't help but tap your toe to?

"Well, it's fun music and I play the fiddle. And God, when you drag a bow across four strings of a violin, it's a joyous act. It makes you feel joy. You know, it's like a bodily smile that opens up your chest. It's like a hug. You know, you're ready to embrace the people. But you know, music is supposed to tell the truth. And the truth is that environmental degradation from coal ash spills (is) poisoning groundwater... Just a few hours up the road from me in East Kentucky. And yeah, I love playing good music and it makes you tap your toes, but me — as a violin player — what can I really do to affect positive change in the world? Well, I can tell a hard-hitting tale in a song and I can get you thinking about it. I think I learned it best from John Prine and his song, "Paradise."

Ketch Secor sings, plays fiddle and generally carries on with Old Crow Medicine Show. The new record is called "Paint This Town." The band plays at The North Carolina Museum of Art on Friday night.

Eric Hodge hosts WUNC’s broadcast of Morning Edition, and files reports for the North Carolina news segments of the broadcast. He started at the station in 2004 doing fill-in work on weekends and All Things Considered.
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