“The reciprocity of that relationship is something so purely American; to throw a coin to a fiddler is something that’s in our DNA.”
Since its inception in 2011, FreshGrass has been a celebration of traditional American musical styles like blues, folk, country, jazz, bluegrass, and everything in-between, while signifying the conclusion of the summer festival season for many.
This year’s FreshGrass takes place at the world-famous MASS MoCA in North Adams from Sept. 23 – 25 with a wide variety of acts performing on four stages. The stacked lineup features Trampled By Turtles, Billy Keane from the Whiskey Treaty Roadshow, Gary Clark Jr., Aoife O’Donovan, Yola, Sierra Farrell, and Boston’s own Corner House, for starters. They’re also giving out awards via the FreshGrass Foundation, plus bringing FreshScores in which a silent film gets an original live soundtrack in real time.
One majorly anticipated act taking part in the fest is Old Crow Medicine Show, who will perform on the first night on the stage nestled within Joe’s Field at 9:30pm as part of their current tour in support of their seventh studio album, Paint This Town.
I spoke with vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Ketch Secor ahead of the gig about writing music for the new album in a warehouse, how fast things have returned to somewhat normal, having a full-time drummer, and always going where the work is.
Paint This Town is inspired by American mythology and the darker aspects of the country’s legacy, so how did you go about researching this theme to contribute to the subject matter of the music?
At this point, it’s been 23 years of us making live music and with that comes a whole wellspring of things to think about, sing about, and construct songs about. This latest batch of music was written a lot during the pandemic and that surely gave us all a lot to think about.
What was the experience like writing the music for the album during the pandemic? Did you exchange ideas virtually through Zoom or email? How were you able to collaborate during that time?
We had the foresight to get ourselves a warehouse that we bought around three months before the pandemic struck, so we had this fortune of having a clubhouse where we could get together at least at a distance with people. It’s funny how just a couple years have passed and it’s already hard to get myself in that frame of mind about what it was to not be touring anymore, being in quarantine, home schooling my seven-year-old, so quickly we move on and we’re back to the fender-benders of life again.
It hasn’t been that long since COVID-19 changed everything, but it’s definitely felt like we’ve had an immediate transition back and it’s kind of a weird feeling at the same time so I totally get what you mean. When it comes to the structure of the album, how you recorded it or the process in its entirety, did you guys do anything different with Paint This Town than you did with your previous albums?
Yeah, there’s been a lot of transitions over the past couple of years and the biggest difference in this album is the lineup. We got Jerry Pentecost who really set a new trend for us by having a full-time drummer. Jerry is just one of the most beloved people you get to spend your road life with, studio life and all the rest. Old Crow has always played in between folk music and rock & roll music but when you hire a drummer, and we got a great one, things get louder, they get more syncopated, they get more rhythmic, and you notice that on this record.
Old Crow’s big break came while busking outside of Boone Drug in Boone, North Carolina in the late ’90s and being discovered by folk legend Doc Watson through his granddaughter. Looking back over 20 years later, what has that experience meant to the band and do you miss busking during the early days of the band?
I miss Doc Watson, he was a really great and an amazing flamekeeper of American traditional music the likes of which I wonder if we’ll ever see anybody like that again as long as I live. A blind Appalachian guitar phenom who carried with him all the traditions and grew up in the pre-electrification South, they don’t make ‘em like that anymore. I live in Nashville and I can tell you without hyperbole there’s no Doc Watsons there, not a single one and especially not on the radio but also not in the jam session either. I miss Doc and I feel lucky to have come up and met some of the people who really make American popular music as rich as it is. I’m thinking about people who are long gone like Doc Watson, Pete Seeger, Merle Haggard ,and others who we had chance encounters with while coming up.
I think of those as my brushes with greatness, I don’t know if I’ll ever do anything in the realm of or as important as somebody like Pete Seeger, but I got to talk to him, he told me a great story, he made me smile, and I made him laugh. Moments like that, they stick with you and they keep making you want to do it.
Another thing you’re asking about is playing on the street corner, when you go out onto the curb and you’re a busker it really puts you in touch with the people and this is the people’s music. You’re basically asking people for a favor and you’re providing some entertainment they didn’t even know they needed or wanted. The reciprocity of that relationship is something so purely American; to throw a coin to a fiddler is something that’s in our DNA. Even as a stage performer in great and grand halls, it’s the same basic principle. I’m the fiddler and you’re the tipper.
That’s a great metaphor and analogy to have. It’s great that you’ve gotten to meet so many legendary figures in the folk music realm and just American music in general. You guys are no strangers to the music festival circuit and you actually played the Bentonville, Arkansas edition of FreshGrass last year, so what are your thoughts going into the one in North Adams this weekend?
When we’re playing in Western Massachusetts, it always makes me think about Arlo Guthrie and that song by James Taylor about getting off the Massachusetts Turnpike. It also makes me think about Dar Williams and most of all it makes me think about the past 20 years in which we as a band have performed so often in the Berkshire region. Whether it was making jokes about the Quabbin Reservoir or Governor Deval Patrick back in the day or playing there during the “Bloody Sock Incident,” that region is full of music. They got so many great little coffeehouses and their own kind of folk music community there but they also got some punk rock going on there too and some great rock acts.
I remember seeing the Pixies play that great song “U-Mass,” that was one our band always played back in high school. Growing up in Virginia but singing about UMass kind of was my stomping grounds for the idea of playing in the Berkshires. More specific to FreshGrass, North Adams is one of these fascinating towns that has been repropped for this new millennium. Not every town gets that privilege but North Adams had a really important purpose in the 18th and 19th centuries, so often when a town gives its heart and soul to industry it doesn’t get the ability to reinvent itself because industries can be so rough and so hard. Look at how East Kentucky tried to recover through a terrible flood back in July and August, they gave their heart and soul to industry and look where it got them.
Some particular communities have been able to reinvent themselves and North Adams, by all accounts, when I was a kid in the ’80s was probably a rough and tumble, closed-down mill town. Yet through the ingenuity and fundraising engine, instead it’s a place for culture and the arts and a place that grows in the minds of New Englanders as a destination for music. I applaud any town that can make that switch, it’s really hard so we’re just honored to be part of this turning around. This is how rivers get cleaner and this is how kids learn that they are the inheritors of music.
It’s a great perspective to have and you’re right about North Adams. What are you and the band’s plans for the rest of the year after the festival? Do you just plan on touring in support of the new album or do you have any other projects on the way?
Well, we have a few other shows coming up including one down in New London, Connecticut. It’s pretty typical for us to just go where the work is and we’re also performing on a couple of bills down in Florida with Gov’t Mule. We’re going to be playing some shows with Molly Tuttle near the end of the year and stuff keeps coming up too, COVID-19 is still out there so things can turn on a dime. Wherever you’ll find us this fall, I guarantee I’ll be bangin’ and sawin’ on that violin and probably doing it with a pretty good smile on my face and maybe a little half-cocked too.
Rob Duguay is an arts & entertainment journalist based in Providence, RI who is originally from Shelton, CT. Outside of DigBoston, he also writes for The Providence Journal, The Connecticut Examiner, The Newport Daily News, Worcester Magazine, New Noise Magazine, Northern Transmissions and numerous other publications. While covering mostly music, he has also written about film, TV, comedy, theatre, visual art, food, drink, sports and cannabis.