One of the reasons people love Old Crow Medicine Show is that the guys in the band have always seemed so genuine, a quality that shines through their songs and performances.
Sure, they’re youngish guys playing old-time string music, a genre with roots more than 100 years old, but their love of the form is clear and free of gimmickry. Recently, they even hit the streets again for some busking to promote the release of “Carry Me Back,” their new album.
The band practically busked for a living when it first played Louisville, crashing the International Bluegrass Music Association Fan Fest when it was held at the Galt House. They return Thursday to the Louisville Palace.
“We used to go and drink all the booze we could find, play with all the people we could find, smoke cigarettes and just have a good time,” said banjoist and singer Critter Fuqua. “We’d just try to take it over. That was fun.”
Fuqua is back with the band he helped start after a three-year sabbatical. He left because drinking all the booze he could find wasn’t working out for him, and went to Texas to get sober, be with family and study English at Kerrville’s Schreiner University. He didn’t give up music, playing regularly with country and conjunto bands, but it became less of a priority.
“The drinking took control and was affecting every aspect of my life,” he said. “Once I got sober, I went back to school, and now I’m back in the band. So getting sober has opened up a whole new life for me.”
It may have been inevitable that Fuqua return to Old Crow. He has a history with the band that can’t be ignored.
He and Ketch Secor, Old Crow’s divining force, met in the seventh grade while growing up in Harrisonburg, Va. They bonded over Nirvana, Fuqua said, but everything changed when someone turned them on to Bob Dylan, which quickly led to exploring string and blues music. They began performing as a duo while still in high school, banjo and fiddle players in a world of grunge.
“Everybody was playing rock ’n’ roll ... but when we started playing these banjos and fiddles and guitars, and giving it that spirit of punk rock and rock ’n’ roll, it was like we had found the formula,” Fuqua said. “We found what people loved and what we loved.”
Secor fully immersed himself in the lifestyle after high school, tramping around and playing music in an homage to Woody Guthrie. He and Fuqua also started a band, Route 11 Boys, which traveled the region in a Volvo station wagon filled with boys and instruments.
When Secor landed at Ithaca College for more schooling, he met a bunch of like-minded guys and persuaded Fuqua to move to Ithaca, N.Y., where Old Crow was born. They recorded a tape in Fuqua’s bedroom and then hit the road before settling in North Carolina, where they met the legendary Merle Watson’s daughter while busking one afternoon.
That was the band’s big break. An invitation to perform at Watson’s MerleFest followed, and then a move to Nashville, where the band was more or less adopted by Marty Stuart, David Rawlings and Gillian Welch. Rawlings produced the band’s first two commercially available albums, “O.C.M.S” and “Big Iron World,” the latter of which lifted Old Crow to theater-sized venues and a steady income.
Fuqua said Old Crow had an uncertain future not long ago, revolving around changes that included the departure of singer Willie Watson. The band went on hiatus, during which Secor and Fuqua decided to turn back the clock and play some shows together. That turned into a successful duo tour, and Fuqua, feeling healthy and energized, decided the time was right to return.
“I didn’t really have a plan, per se, but I never really thought that it would never happen again,” Fuqua said. “I always knew that I’d play with the guys in some form or fashion, especially Ketch, so it wasn’t really surprising. It felt like a full-circle thing when I came back.”
Reporter Jeffrey Lee Puckett can be reached at (502) 582-4160.