Old Crow Medicine Show guitarist/banjoist Critter Fuqua dishes on Dylan’s influence on the band’s new release, Remedy.
Many a musician has helped their career by recording a Bob Dylan song. The Byrds turned “Mr. Tambourine Man” into a No. 1 hit in 1965, Jimi Hendrix famously covered “All Along the Watchtower” and Axl Rose growled through “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” for Guns N’ Roses.
But few artists can make the claim of co-writing a song with Dylan and turning it into a hit in their own right – let alone twice. Americana string band Old Crow Medicine Show now falls into this category.
While on a family trip to Europe in the late ‘90s, guitarist and banjoist Christopher “Critter” Fuqua came across a Dylan bootleg album containing an unfinished song snippet called “Rock Me, Mama.” Fuqua gave the album to his 17-year-old friend and fellow musician Ketch Secor who proceeded to add his own lyrics and additional music to the song.
In 2004, Old Crow Medicine Show released its first album, O.C.M.S., which featured the Secor/Dylan self-made collaboration, “Wagon Wheel.” Ten years have passed, and “Wagon Wheel” is now considered one of the biggest parking lot and wedding anthems. It’s an RIAA-certified platinum song that recently became a No. 1 country hit for Hootie himself – Darius Rucker.
Old Crow is back with its fifth studio album, Remedy, and Dylan once again casts his shadow on the July release. The lead single, “Sweet Amarillo,” is another Dylan/Secor collaboration (with Fuqua thrown into the writing mix this time) that comes from the same session as “Rock Me, Mama.” It tells the story of a cowboy in search of a runaway love who left with the rodeo.
Fuqua says Dylan has become “a spirit figure in our world” who magically pops up to lend a hand to the band despite the fact that neither he nor Secor have ever met or spoken with him (Old Crow guitarist Gill Landry is the only band member who has encountered Dylan, meeting him at a party in California).
The Dylan episodes are just a couple of the charmed moments in the career of one of the most popular contemporary old-time bands, just like meeting Doc Watson on the street while busking in Boone, NC; being asked to play at the Grand Ole Opry by Marty Stuart (Old Crow became official Opry members in September); and appearing for the 14th time on “A Prairie Home Companion” during the show’s 40th anniversary episode last month. We caught up with Fuqua at his home in Nashville as he prepared to travel to Oklahoma for the start of Old Crow’s summer tour.
Fly Magazine: What was it like performing on the 40th anniversary show of “A Prairie Home Companion”?
Critter Fuqua: It was great to see Gillian Welch and David Rawlings and one of my favorite bands, Los Texmaniacs. They’re from San Antonio and play conjunto music. Robin and Linda Williams from the Shenandoah Valley and Iris DeMent were there. It was great to be a part of a great crowd of musicians and talent. It’s one of those humbling feelings. My dad always listened to NPR when I was growing up, and I listened to “A Prairie Home Companion”. It was really cool to be asked to come back and play the 40th anniversary. Garrison Keillor sees a lot of musicians and a lot of great talent, but I guess we stuck out in his brain as one he liked. I was really honored to be a part of that.
FM: How did the recording of Remedy compare to past Old Crow recording sessions?
CF: We used Ted Hutt, who produced our last album – Carry Me Back. I met him at the end of that recording. Ted’s an excellent producer, and the engineer, Ryan Mall, was excellent, too. The whole process was really organic. I don’t look at it as easy or hard because it was so much fun. It just really came together – a lot of writing, a lot of arranging, a lot of collaboration and intense studio time. I never had a doubt that we could come out with something really good.
FM: How long did the Remedy recording sessions last?
CF: When we got down to it in the studio, 12 hours a day for a month solid.
FM: How did your songs recorded on Remedy start to take shape?
CF: Ketch and I sat down and wrote “Firewater,” and that one went through several phases as a song. There were a couple guys living outside of a church in East Nashville right across from this grocery store. It was the juxtaposition of the outside of a church – where theoretically people should be welcomed – and this desperation and need to be relieved of the pain of this world. It turned into a country song.
FM: What were the reactions of the band when you were contacted by Bob Dylan to record “Sweet Amarillo”?
CF: We were thrilled that we got another unfinished Bob song. Bob had heard “Wagon Wheel,” and his manager offered us this scrap of a song from the same sessions than “Wagon Wheel” came from – Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. It was less of a song than “Wagon Wheel” was – maybe an unfinished chorus. I helped Ketch out a little bit, and he finished up the song.
FM: You’ve said in the past that imagination has been lost in country music. What are some ways to bring imagination back into modern country?
CF: I think what happened in country music is this sense of nostalgia that traps you in a way of writing songs that’s not too relevant to what’s going on today. Country music can go beyond trucks and dogs on porches and drinking. At one time, country music or roots or Americana – whatever you want to call it – was new and people were singing about things that were relevant in their place and time. With the country music form, you can sing about what’s going on and real human emotions and stories and ballads. Country music was, is and can be a very creative art form and break the mold of itself. It’s important to be imaginative and imagine yourself in other people’s shoes and take obscure ideas and weave them into a song.
FM: Are there any stories you’d like to see being told in song that aren’t being told right now?
CF: Sometimes in country music, it feels like people are trying to “out-country” each other – like who’s got the biggest hat or the most beer in their cooler. It’s easy to get pigeonholed into that. It’s like, look inside yourself and find what’s moving you. Who’s been an inspiration in your life? Find specific things in your life – where did you grow up, not just the country or a dirt road. Get specific.
FM: Are there songwriters you feel are doing that right now?
CF: Sturgill Simpson just popped in my head. Definitely Robert Ellis. We play with him quite often, and he’s a great songwriter. That’s imaginative country music. They’re good examples of who’s putting the real stuff into country music and making it inventive and unique again.
Old Crow Medicine Show plays the Hershey Theatre this Sunday, July 27. Robert Ellis opens the show. Showtime is 8 p.m. All ages. $27.50/$42.50 adv; $32.50/$47.50 at the door. Tickets and info here.