Old Crow Medicine Show
Joshua Black Wilkins

Old Crow Medicine Show Welcome Back Willie Watson, Reflect on 25 Years With 'Jubilee'

"The through line is tradition,” Ketch Secor says of 25 years of Old Crow Medicine Show.

Over the years Old Crow Medicine Show has become known for its high energy, improvisation and ability to roll with the punches. So when plans to make its new record Jubilee a double album with 2022's Paint This Town failed to materialize, the group didn't fret, but instead embraced the change in circumstances.

Out Aug. 25, its latest collection of songs instead reflect back on and celebrate a quarter century of Old Crow while continuing to push ahead with its evolving lineup, now comprised of Ketch Secor, Morgan Jahnig, Cory Younts, Mason Via, Mike Harris and Jerry Pentecost. Together the collective hunkered down at its own Hartland Studios in East Nashville to record, crafting everything from jug band tunes to Irish folk songs, gospel numbers, blistering bluegrass ballads and more to create one of its most vibrant albums to date.

Secor says the wide array of sounds heard throughout Jubilee stem from wanting to keep listeners on their toes similar to how the band is known for doing during its live shows. 

"We're trying to create variety and keep our listener's appeal for the whole breadth of the album just like we do at a concert," Secor tells Wide Open Country. "We play a lot more shows than we make records, so our live sound plays a big part in the studio and how we record."

Just as central to the story and sound of Jubilee is Via, who joined the band in 2021 after a stint on American Idol. Together he and Secor co-wrote over half the album's songs together spanning from the jubilant "Ballad of Jubilee Jones" to the heartfelt "Daughter Of The Highlands" that he sings lead on. However, his biggest highlight on the project arguably comes on "I Want It Now", which sees him trade vocals blow for blow with Secor alongside some of the group's best wordplay to date ("Freight-train-hopping, purple-pill-popping, bluegrass-bopping / You know what I need, I want it now").

According to Secor, Via brought the song into the group, leading to the duo workshopping and transforming it into a full-fledged, high-octane Old Crow number.

"He had a vestigial version of the song that he shared with me that I told him we needed to turn into an Old Crow song," says Secor. "He asked how we do that and I said 'Well, it needs a bonfire, a bunch of girls, some cops, and we need to steal drugs from your brother.'"

Another high point comes for Via on the rambunctious "Belle Meade Cockfight," a rebellious ditty he co-wrote about an underground cockfighting ring that features rising roots artist Sierra Ferrell. The West Virginia born artist first met the Old Crow crew during an appearance on "Hartland Hootenanny," a variety show the band live streamed for 30 weeks during the pandemic from its studio, in May 2020 and immediately captivated them, leading to both parties reuniting to record the song.

"We just love her style and swagger," says Secor. "There's nobody who sounds more like Kitty Wells out there, someone who we think the world of. We're excited for her on her journey and for breathing such life and character into this song as only she could."

Also bringing her own style and swagger to Jubilee is gospel matriarch Mavis Staples, who joins the band on the album's closing track, "One Drop." The song's joyful tone shares a message of solidarity and positivity by illustrating how small actions can build from one drop to a rolling wave of change. It's a process that Secor likened to a Rube Goldberg machine, a contraption designed to complete a simple task in an impractical and complicated way, due to the long and drawn out path that change often takes.

"You blow the whistle and the steam makes the curtains move, which lets the light in and allows the plant to grow fruit. The plant then drops the fruit, the child receives the fruit and is nourished," says Secor of the Pete Seeger-inspired song. "We needed someone to help us kick this song through the goal post in the end, and what better person than a gospel legend like Mavis to help us really let the light shine in."

But Jubilee's grandest of guests comes during the reunion with Willie Watson on "Miles Away." A founding member of Old Crow, Watson left the group in 2011 to focus on his own music. "Miles Away" marks the first time he's teamed up with the band since, something that will continue this fall when he opens several shows for them.

Despite Watson being one of many members of Old Crow that have come and gone in the past 25 years, Jahnig — who's played bass in the group since 2000 — says that a part of each of them will always remain with the group, both in spirit and sound. With "Miles Away," he says Watson was a natural fit to join in singing about seeing old friends again. A mix of love and regret radiate through the song, culminating in Secor and Watson coming together to exclaim "I never got the chance to say I love you / Now it all feels just a little too late / Ever since just down the road turned / Miles away."

"Everything we do has a little bit of those guys from the early days in it," says Jahnig. "Even though they've gone on to do other things, they're all still with us. Every now and then you pull back the corner of something and there's Kevin [Hayes, guitjo 1998-2020] or someone else peeking out. When it came time to do 'Miles Away' it was so clear with the content of the song that it made sense to incorporate Willie again."

Even with all of its special guests and varying soundscapes, Old Crow Medicine Show are as committed as ever to holding the tradition of bluegrass and folk music in the highest regard on Jubilee through its rich and profound stories of southern and Appalachian life that are a stark contrast from the Nashville music machine. This mindset is a testament to the work the band has done the last quarter century, and is still doing, to bring people together through music — one "drop" at a time.

"With 25 years of music under our belts, we're able to draw from a much deeper pool than we could when we first got started, but the through line is tradition," says Secor. "We still make traditional music. We just might have dreamed it up this week, but it's still rooted in the American folk music tradition."

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