“The reciprocity of this relationship is something so uniquely American; throwing a coin to a fiddler is something that is in our DNA.
Since its creation in 2011, fresh grass was a celebration of traditional American musical styles like blues, folk, country, jazz, bluegrass and everything in between, while also signifying the conclusion of the summer festival season for many.
This year’s FreshGrass takes place at the world-renowned MASS MoCA in North Adams from September 23-25 with a wide variety of acts performing on four stages. The stacked lineup includes Trampled By Turtles, Billy Keane of the Whiskey Treaty Roadshow, Gary Clark Jr., Aoife O’Donovan, Yola, Sierra Farrell, and Boston’s Corner House, to start. They also give out awards through the FreshGrass Foundation, in addition to bringing FreshScores in which a silent movie gets a live soundtrack in real time.
A highly anticipated act attending the festival is Old Crow Medicine Show, who will perform on the first night on the stage nestled in Joe’s Field at 9:30 p.m. as part of their current tour in support of their seventh studio album, paint this town.
Before the gig, I spoke with vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Ketch Secor about writing music for the new album in a warehouse, how quickly things got back to normal, having a full-time drummer and always go where the work is.
paint this town is inspired by American mythology and the darker aspects of the country’s heritage, so how did you research that theme to contribute to the subject of the music?
At this point, we’ve been doing live music for 23 years and with that comes a whole source of stuff to think about, sing along to and build songs about. This latest batch of music has been written a lot during the pandemic and it surely gave us all a lot to think about.
What was the experience of writing the music for the album like during the pandemic? Did you exchange ideas virtually via Zoom or email? How were you able to collaborate during this period?
We had the foresight to get a warehouse that we bought about three months before the pandemic hit, so we were lucky to have a clubhouse where we could at least meet with people remotely. It’s funny how only a few years have passed and it’s already hard to get myself into that mindset about what it was like not touring anymore, being in quarantine, home schooling to my seven year old son, so quickly we move on and are back to the bumpers of life.
It’s not that long ago that COVID-19 changed everything, but it really feels like we had an immediate transition and it’s kind of a weird feeling at the same time, so I totally understand that what do you mean. In terms of the structure of the album, the way you recorded it, or the process as a whole, did you do anything different with paint this town than you did with your previous albums?
Yes, there have been a lot of transitions over the past two years and the biggest difference in this album is the composition. We had Jerry Pentecost who really set a new trend for us by having a full time drummer. Jerry is one of the most beloved people you can spend your life on the road, your life in the studio, and everything in between. Old Crow has always played between folk music and rock & roll music, but when you hire a drummer, and we have a great one, things get louder, they get more syncopated, they get more rhythmic, and you get it. notice on this record.
Old Crow’s big breakthrough came while he was walking outside Boone Drug in Boone, North Carolina in the late 90s and was discovered by folk legend Doc Watson by through his granddaughter. Looking back 20 years later, what did that experience mean to the band and do you miss playing the streets during the band’s early days?
I miss Doc Watson, he was truly awesome and an amazing guardian of American traditional music that I wonder if we’ll ever see someone like that again as long as I live. A blind guitar phenom from Appalachia who took all the traditions with him and grew up in the pre-electrified South, they don’t make ’em like that anymore. I live in Nashville and I can tell you without hyperbole that there is no Doc Watson there, not one and especially not on the radio but not in the jam session either. I miss Doc and feel lucky to have met some of the people who really make American popular music rich. I think of people who are long gone like Doc Watson, Pete Seeger, Merle Haggard and others we bumped into on the way.
I think of these as my encounters with greatness I don’t know if I’ll ever do anything in the realm or as big as someone like Pete Seeger but I need to talk to him he told me a great story, he made me smile and I made him laugh. Moments like that, they stay with you and they keep making you want to.
Another thing you ask for is playing on the corner, when you go out on the sidewalk and you’re a busker, it really connects you with people and it’s people’s music. You’re basically asking people for a favor and providing entertainment they didn’t even know they needed or wanted. The reciprocity of this relationship is something so uniquely American; tossing a coin to a fiddler is something that is in our DNA. Even as a stage performer in big, big venues, it’s the same basic principle. I am the fiddler and you are the tip.
It’s a great metaphor and analogy to have. It’s great that you have been able to meet so many legendary figures in the field of folk music and American music in general. You’re no stranger to the music festival circuit and you actually played the FreshGrass edition in Bentonville, Arkansas last year, so what do you think of the one in North Adams this weekend?
When we play in Western Massachusetts, it always reminds me of Arlo Guthrie and that James Taylor song about the Massachusetts turnpike exit. It also reminds me of Dar Williams and especially it reminds me of the last 20 years that we as a band have played so often in the Berkshire area. From making jokes about Quabbin Reservoir or Gov. Deval Patrick back in the day to playing there during the “Bloody Sock Incident”, this area abounds with music. They have so many great little cafes and their own folk music community there, but they also have punk rock and great rock bands.
I remember seeing the Pixies play this great song”Mass U“, it was the one our band always played in high school. Growing up in Virginia, but singing on UMass was kind of my stomping ground for the idea of playing in the Berkshires. More specific to FreshGrass, North Adams is the one of those fascinating towns that has been revamped for this new millennium Not all towns get this privilege but North Adams had a very important purpose in the 18th and 19th centuries so often when a town gives its heart and soul to industry it doesn’t have the ability to reinvent itself because industries can be so tough and very tough Look at how Eastern Kentucky tried to recover from a terrible flood in July and August they have given their heart and soul to the industry and look where it has taken them.
Some particular communities have been able to reinvent themselves and North Adams, obviously, when I was a kid in the 80s, was probably a derelict, derelict industrial town. Yet, thanks to ingenuity and the fundraising engine, it’s more of a place for culture and the arts and a place that’s growing in the minds of New Englanders as a destination for music. . I applaud any city that can make this change, it’s really tough so we’re just honored to be part of this turnaround. This is how rivers become cleaner and this is how children learn that they are the heirs of music.
It’s a great prospect to have and you’re right about North Adams. What are your and the band’s plans for the rest of the year after the festival? Are you just planning to tour in support of the new album or do you have any other projects going on?
Well, we have a few more shows coming up, including one in New London, Connecticut. It’s pretty typical for us to go where the work is and we also play on a few projects in Florida with Gov’t Mule. We’re going to be playing shows with Molly Tuttle towards the end of the year and things keep happening too, COVID-19 is still around so things can turn around in a heartbeat. Wherever you find us this fall, I guarantee I’ll play and saw on this fiddle and probably do it with a pretty smile on my face and maybe a little half cocked too.
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