Old Crow Medicine Show, famous for the hit sing-along "Wagon Wheel," is back on tour promoting a new album. Carry Me Back, their first album in four years, recaptures their original sound as well as the energy of their live shows. In addition to the new album, Critter Fuqua, co-founder of the band, has returned after a five-year hiatus.
Old Crow, known as one of the chief purveyors of roots music, has toured and released albums since 1998. They, along with other popular acts such as Mumford and Sons and the Avett Brothers, have introduced a new generation of music fans to a diverse style that is sometimes called Americana or bluegrass.
Part of their notoriety involves the story of how they were discovered. Originally the band busked for a living; they played street corners for money, in the tradition of many great acoustic acts before them. While busking in Boone, North Carolina, bluegrass and folk legend Doc Watson (with the help of his daughter) heard them and was extremely impressed.
"Guns N' Roses is my roots music," says band co-founder Critter Fuqua. "You don’t have to grow a beard and buy overalls to play roots music."
This led to them playing Watson's annual festival, MerleFest. From there they were invited to play the Grand Ole Opry, which led to collaborations and other festivals and launched them as a prominent act in the Americana and roots music genre.
We sat down with Critter Fuqua to discuss his return to the band, the new tour, his influences and the state of the hard to define yet wildly popular roots music movement.
Culture Map: How does it feel to be back on tour?
Critter Fuqua: It’s great. I’m loving touring. It’s really normal, I think. I got sober while I was away, and that’s got a lot to do with it. We got a new stage show, and the dynamics have changed, so it’s a fun show. It’s a lot different than how we used to do it; now we have risers and better feng shui.
CM: Can you tell me about Chuck Mead and His Grass Knoll Boys, who will be opening for you? You recently recorded a version of the traditional song “Wabash Cannonball” with him.
CF: Chuck is great. He’s such a spirit. The BR549 [Mead is a member of the band BR549] guys were big, and he was the helm of that when we were coming up in Nashville. They opened up for us, but it was kind of a double bill. It’s great to have them, because they are the cream of the crop when it comes to hillbilly rock.
CM: What inspired the return to Old Crow’s roots on the latest album, Carry Me Back? Is that a direction you think you will continue in for a while?
CF: I think so. We don’t really make a decision which direction it goes in; it takes on a life of its own. We’ll always be Old Crow and have the Old Crow sound. I really love playing the new album. I wasn’t involved in writing, but it’s fun to play. It’s like riding an old bike. It’s just comfortable.
CM: What’s your favorite song off the new album?
CF: "Carry Me Back." We’ve been opening the whole tour with that song. I like it because I’m from the Shenandoah and I’m a big Civil War buff and had family who fought. It’s a heavy song, and it’s important.
"I really love playing the new album," Fuqua says. "I wasn’t involved in writing, but it’s fun to play. It’s like riding an old bike. It’s just comfortable."
CM: The Lumineers are starting to receive a lot of attention. What was it like touring with them?
CF: I love playing with the Lumineers. Their energy reminds me of what we used to be like. We’re not old men, but after our shows we retire to our quarters. Their energy is infectious. It’s really fun to get to know the people you’re on tour with and have it be a family. We had a couple practical jokes going on, and they got us good in Atlanta.
CM: What was the prank?
CF: Remember when that guy ran on stage when Bob Dylan was playing the Grammys and that guy came out on stage with “Soy Bomb” written on his chest? They soy bombed us during "Wagon Wheel."
CM: What are your influences?
CF: Guns N' Roses was my first influence, in seventh grade, in 1987 when they came out with Appetite for Destruction. I knew then that I wanted to be a musician. I didn’t get a lot of what they were singing about, but I knew I wasn’t supposed to be listening to it. AC/DC, Nirvana, Bob Dylan, and then into blues and then into more obscure fiddlers. Some Conjunto from down in San Antonio.
CM: One of the most well-known songs you wrote for Old Crow was “Take 'Em Away.” It mentions a couple rivers in Texas. Where did the inspiration for that song come from?
CF: I was born in Austin. We moved to Virginia in second grade. Our roots in Texas go back to the Civil War with my family coming from South Carolina.
The song is loosely based off Mance Lipscomb, a blues singer and sharecropper from Navasota County, and the rivers I remember as a child living in East Texas. He was a big influence on me.
CM: Old Crow has covered or reinterpreted a lot of standards. Are there any you’re working on right now?
CF: [Lead singer] Ketch Secor and I just wrote one about Doc Watson, about being on the corner in Boone and him discovering us. It honors Doc and the high country blues sound. We’ve been playing "Mighty Quinn" in the encore. We like to play regional songs when we tour.
CM: Do you think the old time/bluegrass/Americana/roots music following is here to stay? Besides the Oh Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack, what do you think has contributed to its recent popularity?
CF: It’s strange. I took a break for about five years, and I saw it grow exponentially. Now it seems like every other band has a fiddle and a banjo. It might be here to stay. I think it’s great. Roots music isn’t about what instruments you’re playing but what you’re saying and the drive behind the music.
It doesn’t have to be old. Roots to me is whatever kind of music is rooted spiritually for a community. Nirvana is my roots music. Guns N' Roses is my roots music. You don’t have to grow a beard and buy overalls to play roots music.
CM: Do you feel a responsibility to carry on traditional songs and styles? Kind of in the way Bob Dylan did with Woody Guthrie?
CF: I guess I feel a responsibility for the songs we do and rearrange. I know that as long as we’re not the only ones playing them, this music will keep on going. So long as people realize it’s theirs too, not just ours. It’s a community thing. That’s the way it will survive.
Old Crow Medicine Show plays the House of Blues Dallas November 29.