Ryman Auditorium. The Mother Church of Country. Beyond its beginnings as a revivalist place of worship, the building has been a venue for music and culture since opening its doors nearly 130 years ago. Hosting nonreligious events was an expedient way to pay off the debt incurred during construction but turned out to be its defining characteristic—music is the mortar between its bricks, the marrow in its bones.
Decades later, known worldwide as the birthplace of the Grand Ole Opry and the host to countless iconic performances and ad hoc collaborations that couldn’t be conceived of elsewhere, it was a humbling experience for me to step into the Auditorium for the first time—not just as a photographer, but as a fervent member of the country congregation. What better way to embrace that passion than at the hands (and fingers … and strings) of the progenitors of 21st century folk? Welcome to the stage Old Crow Medicine Show.
While the roots of Old Crow stretch back to founding members Ketch Secor and Chris “Critter” Fuqua meeting in high school, the group went through several iterations, names, and creative periods before hitting their stride, getting discovered by Doc Watson and his daughter Nancy while the group was busking in Boone, NC in 1998. Doc invited them to perform at his world-renowned MerleFest, and the group steadily gained attention and interest, eventually releasing their first studio album, O.C.M.S., in 2004 and launching an old-time revolution that continues to evolve and expand today.
Taking the torch passed by Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch, Old Crow directly inspired the likes of Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers to carry the flame of roots music forward into popular culture prevalence in a way that hadn’t been seen for decades. It all started with “Wagon Wheel”—hell, even Hootie cashed in on that after the fact—but the beauty is that it didn’t end there.
Walkin’ due south out of Roanoke I caught a trucker out of Philly Had a nice long toke But he’s a-headed west from the Cumberland Gap To Johnson City, Tennessee And I gotta get a move on before the sun I hear my baby callin’ my name And I know that she’s the only one
– “Wagon Wheel” off Old Crow Medicine Show (2004)
While other bands adopt and shed affectations for marketing purposes, Secor and company see it as a way of life. When they sing about living hand-to-mouth in backroads and alleys, it’s because they did just that on the road for years. Even covers and reworkings of old standards like “Take a Whiff On Me” have the stamp of authenticity after countless substance-fueled sets stretching long into the night and early morning during their formative years.
Despite a more sober approach in recent years, this dynamism remains a defining part of the group’s live show—and nowhere is it more on display than in the Mother Church.
My first night at the Ryman was also my first time seeing OCMS in several years, and while the lineup had inevitably changed, their rebel spirit was still there. From the opening breakneck pace of “Tear It Down” to the final ephemeral notes of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” the night was a tour de force of musicianship, performance, and passion.
Highlights included a cover of (and continual references/callbacks to) Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” as well as continual banter with new bandmate (but old friend) Charlie Worsham, including a rendition of his song “I Hope I’m Stoned When Jesus Takes Me Home.”
Still, as a kid from the hollers of northeast Tennessee, my favorite moment of the night was being up in the balcony during “Wagon Wheel,” hearing the instruments drop out in the final verse, and feeling the power of 2,400 voices yelling “Johnson City, Tennessee!” at the top of their lungs before launching into the famous chorus demoed by Bob Dylan back in 1973 and fleshed out to vibrant life by Secor as a teen.