Old Crow Medicine Show began in late September of 1998 when a monkey wrench gang of old-time string band musicians, most of us still in our teens, left Ithaca, New York to cross the Canadian border and play our way to the Pacific. We brought our pawnshop fiddles, banjos, guitars and washboards to downtown street corners across Ontario, to paper mill towns above Lake Superior, farmers markets in Manitoba, Indian reservations in South Dakota, and out to the streets of Vancouver, Victoria, Seattle and Portland. Along the way we discovered a unique country sound both old and new, foreign and familiar. We knew we had captured something special.
The lineup was fluid, just hitch up the best available pickers and singers around at the time, and if you had a car that was a plus. Even today, Old Crow remains a collective, borrowing from the unique talents of an evolving cast. But right from the start it was me in the driver’s seat of that black ’82 Volvo station wagon with the flames painted on the side, Critter Fuqua riding shotgun, and in the rear view there was Willie Watson riding in Kevin Hayes’ Ford Econoline van (we called it the White Whale). Standing behind the big doghouse bass was founding member Benny Gould and, when he wasn’t birdwatching, wily Kevin Ahearn played the banjo. We had painter/poet Jake Hascup along the for the ride and Shani Abel, a sassy Lubbock Texan who sold found objects during our street corner sets.
After crossing and recrossing the continent we settled in the mountains of North Carolina to further explore our newfound musical farrago. We lived off the land, worked in tobacco fields, made corn whiskey, and learned from the old-timers the affairs of plain living. Willie and Benny built banjos. Critter trimmed Frazier firs. Kevin and I shared a cabin deep in a holler with no electricity or plumbing (we did have a sheep, Daisy, and a potbelly pig named Jazz). We were a collective, immersed deeply in the richness of Appalachia, but more than that, we were a pack of friends becoming a band.
After a chance encounter on a downtown curb in Boone, NC with flat pick legend Doc Watson, we were invited to Merlefest where we caught the attention of Nashville. We made the big move as the new century dawned, bringing along buck dancing multi-instrumentalist Matt Kinman. Like in Boone, busking continued to bear more than just tips. One night on Lower Broadway, Morgan Jahnig threw a dollar in the case and 20 years later he’s still our bassist. It was with Morgan that we first moved from the streets of Lower Broad to the stage of Ryman Auditorium – the Mother Church of Country Music – to make our Grand Ole Opry debut. In 2004 Critter, Morgan, Kevin Hayes, Willie and I released the album O.C.M.S., including fan favorite “Wagon Wheel” (which, thanks in large part to our friend Darius Rucker, has gone on to be one of the top five best selling country songs of all time). Soon thereafter Gill Landry joined the band in a similar fashion to Morgan. During the mid 2000s while Critter took a hiatus, Old Crow brought in banjo players from Richie Stearns to Dave Rawlings to help plug the gap; even Bucky Baxter played a few shows in the lineup.
Together we pounded the pavement relentlessly; sharing our songs, spreading our string band revival sound and bringing audiences to their feet night after night. In the early days it was home-grown clubs and lots of opening slots for artists ranging from Dave Matthews Band to Ricky Skaggs. At some point we graduated out of the ’82 Volvo and the Ford Econoline van and began traveling in tourbuses, occasionally planes and once even on a train (anyone remember the Train Tour we did with Mumford & Sons and Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros?). Those years brought experiences with fellow travelers and troubadours who offered early inspiration and encouragement like Gillian Welch and Marty Stuart and John Prine. And it was during those years when the support of voices like Garrison Keillor and Conan O’Brian helped fan the flames we’d been lighting across the country. Out on the road we met thousands of fans who were hungry for roots music. And every night we gave them what they wanted plus some. If ever there was a question about whether or not a string band could burn down the house, we put it to rest.
When mandolinist/keyboardist/drummer Cory Younts, joined OCMS in 2009, we began fusing more rock and roll elements into our sound. We didn’t abandon what we learned back in the mountains of North Carolina, we just added to it. With Cory came even more intensity on stage and an even more expansive range in the recording studio.
In 2011 Willie left the band, Critter returned, and we were joined by West Virginia’s Chance McCoy. In 2012, just a dozen years after first busking outside the front door, Old Crow Medicine Show was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry. It was a huge honor to stand together on that stage and be welcomed into a family to which so many of our heroes belong. To this day, spreading the Opry love is a priority (we even got the honor of taking the Grand Ole Opry to Bonnaroo as hosts of the show in 2017 and 2018). In the years following our Opry induction, Critter, Kevin, Morgan, Cory, Gill, Chance and I had more to celebrate including not one but two Grammy Awards – 2013’s Best Long Form Music Video with the Big Easy Express and 2015’s best folk album with Remedy.
The late twenty-teens saw Old Crow’s lineup continue to evolve with the departures of Critter, Chance, and guitjo master Kevin Hayes and the appearances of new players including Charlie Worsham, Joe Andrews, and Robert Price. In 2019 Morgan, Cory and I welcomed percussionist Jerry Pentecost who paved the way for Old Crow’s current dream-team which also features slide guitarist Mike Harris and ruby-throated tenor Mason Via. Together we’re crossing and recrossing the country, bringing audiences to their feet night after night. And when we’re not on the road, we’re at home in Nashville recording new music and filming episodes of Hartland Hootenanny at our very own clubhouse, Hartland Studio.
This year, as we celebrate 23 years of making live music together, Old Crow Medicine Show keeps turning new pages in our collective story. It’s a story that includes all the stars we chased, all those fans who followed in our chasing, and each of the musicians who made the chase their own. The journey that began in a Volvo station wagon at the Canadian border in the fall of 1998 continues to unfold in ways unimaginable. Our exploration of the continent’s heritage in song simply keeps on producing. Until that vein is tapped we’ll probably just keep on digging. And that’ll likely take a good long while.