With many eyes and even more ears ready for the launch of Railbird, expectations are understandably high. Count Ketch Secor among those eagerly awaiting the arrival of the two-day music festival at Keeneland. As fiddler, harmonica ace, vocalist and co-founder of Old Crow Medicine Show, which will close out Saturday’s lineup on the Elkhorn Stage (one of four stages the event will be utilizing), he is as curious as anyone as to how Railbird will unfold. A longtime Virginian, Secor is familiar with Keeneland, with Lexington and with the musical and equine histories of Kentucky.
In other words, he is as versed as a performer can be with a Central Kentucky music summit prior to its initial take-off.
“This is one of the most exciting festivals that we’ll do all summer long,” Secor said. “It means just that much more to this band that it’s taking place in the Bluegrass State. Keeneland is a really neat spot for it, too. I’ve been there on many of the occasions that I’ve gotten to take part in the horse racing community in Lexington. I’m just excited to see it branch out into rock ‘n’ roll. I think that the horse business and the music business have a lot of commonalities.”
Railbird isn’t the only activity that has Secor psyched as the summer begins to wind down. He is serving as a consultant and featured interviewee for the Ken Burns documentary series, “Country Music.” He will be featured prominently in the opening episode, “The Rub,” which traces the beginnings of the music through 1933. It will air on PBS on Sept. 15.
Less than a week later, Old Crow Medicine Show will release “Live at the Ryman,” a high-energy concert album of the band’s vintage string sound enforced by evolutionary touches of percussion and piano. The repertoire runs from Old Crow’s best known songs (“Tell It To Me,” “Wagon Wheel”) to classic country fare (a duet of the Conway Twitty/Loretta Lynn hit “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man” done a feisty duet between Secor and country renegade Margo Price).
The Burns documentary especially thrills Secor, who has long been fascinated with filmmaker’s work.
“I watched ‘The Civil War’ (a 1990 documentary series by Burns) when I was 12 years old and it totally changed my life. I grew up in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. It was like Ken Burns was giving me a tour of my own back yard. He was showing me these amazing and oftentimes tragic narratives of what happened in my backyard. Ken Burns really brought history alive for me.
“So flash forward and here I am in this band where I’ve taken a particularly preservationist kind of route to music. I’ve learned a whole about the music of East Kentucky, about shape note singers and banjo pickers and all kinds of things time might forget, but I won’t. I’m just really excited being a fan with this wonderful opportunity to work among the preservers.”
“Live at the Ryman,” on the other hand, is more than a mere concert record chronicling the growth of Old Crowe Medicine Show over the past 21 years. It is a post card from a cherished venue long dubbed the “Mother Church” of country music. The band has played there, in various capacities, over 40 times including eight consecutive New Year’s Eve performances. A ninth awaits in December.
“It’s really a country music dream come true to feel like we finally got the keys to the Mother Church,” Secor said. “It was Hank Williams’ hall. It was (African-American country and blues artist) DeFord Bailey’s hallowed hall. It belongs to every performer who strutted their stuff across that stage.
“When you’re playing the Ryman, you’re playing the South’s most beloved concert hall. So to be in a band that has been able to make it a place where we’ve played 40 times and counting is a really special accomplishment. But it comes with a responsibility and a kind of stewardship. It takes knowing your history to be able to be given a gift like that.”
But the business at hand for Secor and the rest of Old Crow Medicine Show this weekend is Railbird and a return to Lexington. Local audiences were introduced to the band through a concert at the long-since-demolished Dame over 15 years ago with David Rawlings (who produced the band’s breakthrough “O.C.M.S.” album in 2004 as well as its 2006 follow-up “Big Iron World”) and folk empress Gillian Welch sitting in as surprise guests.
“There was the gig you’re talking about, the one at The Dame, and the time we went up to Renfro Valley. They had us lodged up there for a week and a half and let the tape roll as we recorded all this great music from ethnomusicologist John Lahr (released on “John Lair’s Renfro Valley: In the Valley Where Time Stood Still” in 2001). These opportunities were really special back in those days. There was nothing quite like them.”