CRITTER FUQUA WORKADAY MAGIC
It’s just after two on a Wednesday afternoon amid the low hum of a busy street, and Critter Fuqua of old Crow Medicine Show ain’t in much of a talking mood. It’s admittedly hard to hear above the din of traffic and angry horns, but it could be just that kind of day.
Fuqua and the rest of his bandmates, which include founding member and childhood friend Ketch Secor, have a lot to celebrate, even though his demeanor might suggest the opposite. Old Crow Medicine Show released its sixth studio album Volunteer April 20th in tandem with the band’s 20th anniversary, a significant marker for any artist. “I don’t think I ever thought of 20 years ahead when I was 20,” says Fuqua. “I don’t know that anybody does.”
On the day of the interview with EU Jacksonville, Volunteer has had life for just five days, though the material was written and ready to record over two years ago while the band toured in support of its live release 50 Years of Blonde on Blonde, a tribute to Bob Dylan. Playing original tunes offered a welcome respite from the Dylan catalog, even though it presented a bit of a learning curve for the band to revisit the record before taking it to the stage. Old Crow Medicine Show stops in Jacksonville May 5th at the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts.
“We haven’t been [playing it live] until really this tour. Only one or two songs. I don’t really look at reviews and iTunes and things like that, but I think the audience really loves it,” says Fuqua. “It’s been done for two years, so we’ve just been sitting on it. We kind of had to go back and relearn a lot of stuff. I got a little burnt on playing Bob Dylan songs, so I’m glad to be doing the new stuff.”
Old Crow Medicine Show started busking on street corners in 1998 in New York state and into Canada. They caught the attention of folk icon Doc Watson while playing in front of a pharmacy in Boone, North Carolina. He invited the band to play at his festival, MerleFest. The band was hired to entertain crowds between shows at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville before being inducted themselves in 2013.
The band earned two Grammy Awards for “Best Folk Album” for 2014’s Remedy and “Best Long Form Music Video” for Big Easy Express. The single, ‘Wagon Wheel’ was certified Platinum in 2013 for selling over 1,000,000 copies. The band incorporated electric guitar to the mix for the first time since 2004, when Dave Rawlings added a Tele on ‘Wagon Wheel.’ Fuqua says the new element shouldn’t discourage purists who feel that roots music must be acoustic to be considered authentic.
“It’s country music, and we wanted to give it a Johnny Horton-sound. I think people look at the electric guitar as something that’s not roots, and that’s not true. It’s definitely rooted in an Appalachian sound. The instruments are linked to that style of music. Just like an accordion or Scottish fiddle. Instruments echo the sound of the region. People forget that at the time, roots music was brand new, and that’s what they had to play on. Electricity would be harnessed later.”
Over two decades, Old Crow Medicine Show has perfected its signature Appalachian sound, an elixir of old and new. The relationship to the region is apparent in the dialect of banjos, fiddle and various instruments layered against a tapestry of storytelling. The music sounds like where it comes from.
For Fuqua, it’s a relationship that dates back to 7th grade when he and Secor first met as 7th graders bonding over music as a common denominator. “Our friendship is very much rooted in playing music. It’s definitely grown in the band and without the band. It’s grown through music,” he says. “We played punk rock together, we played metal, all kinds of stuff. I think music is inherently a partnership between everybody.”
While recording Volunteer, Old Crow Medicine Show shared the hallowed space of RCA’s famed Studio A on Music Row with the spirits of the legends that came before them. Some days, the shadows of the music born in that room created a certain kind of magic for the band while others were just another day at the office.
“To know what’s gone on in there was pretty incredible. Sort of like ghosts in there. You just do your thing, and you realize what a comfortable studio it is and what a nice space it is to work. It’s funny, after a while you just go until all that stuff just kind of fades into the background, you know?” says Fuqua.
“There’s a misconception that what we do is sort of magical every day. But some days are just work days. Some days you just don’t want to get up and go to work, but that doesn’t mean you don’t appreciate what you do and where you work. It’s kind of like if you worked at the Statue of Liberty. Some days you don’t want to go to work, and some days you’re like ‘holy shit! I work at the Statue of Liberty!’”