Ketch Secor takes much of his musical inspiration from the mountains of Appalachia, but he got a huge dose of early-career confidence while playing in Portland.
Secor was just a year out of high school when he and his band, the Route 11 Boys, decided to head to Portland from Virginia in the winter of 1997. They played on frigid street corners and got a weekly gig at The Basement, a small venue on Fore Street.
IF YOU GO
OLD CROW MEDICINE SHOW
WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday, doors open at 7 p.m.
WHERE: State Theatre, 609 Congress St., Portland
HOW MUCH: $42 in advance, $50 day of the show, all ages.
“One of my first crowning achievements in the press as a young performer was getting my story told in the Press Herald,” said Secor, 43. “It was one of the first times I ever thought ‘Oh my God, I’m gonna make it. I’m in the newspaper.’ ”
Since that 10-paragraph item appeared in the Press Herald’s music column, Secor has indeed made it. He’s the frontman for the Grammy-winning roots/country band Old Crow Medicine Show. He has appeared on Ken Burns’ epic PBS series “Country Music” and wrote the No. 1 country hit “Wagon Wheel.” He’s a multi-instrumentalist and singer who writes or co-writes most of his band’s songs.
On Saturday, he and Old Crow Medicine Show will play Portland’s State Theatre as part of a tour promoting their new album, “Paint This Town.” Molly Tuttle will open.
Though Secor sings with a twang and grew up mostly in Virginia, he’s spent much of his life coming to Maine and learning from its people and places. He’s had a house on Chebeague Island in Casco Bay for 14 years, but he hasn’t been able to spend much time there the last couple years because of work and other commitments. When he is there, Secor likes to dig for clams, go swimming, sail and write songs. He wrote one of the songs on the new album – “John Brown’s Dream” about the radical abolitionist – while on Chebeague.
Secor started coming to Maine around age 3, to a family home on Vinalhaven, and went to Camp Kieve, a boys’ summer camp on Damariscotta Lake. While he was in high school at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire, he would come to Portland to see shows at the State Theatre. He saw Bob Dylan there and remembers yelling for him to play “Rock Me Mama.” That’s the tune Secor used as the basis for “Wagon Wheel,” which is his band’s best-known song and gets covered by bands and festivals around the country.
So Secor was well aware of Portland’s music scene when he and the Route 11 Boys, a bluegrass band, came here in 1997 to play for money on the streets and see if they could get gigs. In the Press Herald story, band members were quoted explaining their music and its old-fashioned roots, played on guitar and banjo. Secor said in the story that their music was “music that everybody relates to. People feel at home with this music. It’s the stuff you heard on your mama’s knee.”
“We came to Maine because there is a big folk tradition here, although yours has a deeper Irish influence. Ours is more African influenced. I play the banjo with a lot drumming on it – the way it was originally played,” Secor said in the story.
After a couple years of “rambling around” the country playing music, Secor formed Old Crow Medicine Show in 1998 with childhood friend Chris “Critter” Fuqua and several other musicians interested in old-timey country and folk styles. From the beginning, Secor says, the lineup was fluid, with different musicians being recruited for tours or recording sessions. The band played Doc Watson’s celebrated folk festival, MerleFest in North Carolina, in the late 1990s, and shortly after they were working in Nashville – the epicenter of the country music business.
In 2004, the band released its first studio album, “O.C.M.S.,” which included “Wagon Wheel.” It became the band’s signature song and helped catapult Old Crow Medicine Show to national fame. Part of the song comes from a bootlegged Dylan demo, known to audiences as “Rock Me Mama,” so he is credited with co-writing the song. Secor wrote verses for the song around the original chorus. The song describes a hitchhiking journey from New England through Virginia to North Carolina, a journey meant to reunite sweethearts. In 2013, former Hootie & The Blowfish singer Darius Rucker released a version of “Wagon Wheel” that went to No. 1 on the Billboard country chart and No. 15 on the pop chart. Rucker won a Grammy for the recording.
Secor said he moved around a lot as child, mostly in Virginia and the South, and most of the music he heard was pop and rock on the radio. But when he started coming to summer camp in Maine, he said the kids were listening to folk rock artists like the Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan, and he became interested in folk and its origins. While at Phillips Exeter Academy – on scholarship – he began playing banjo. After the Route 11 Boys broke up, Secor attended Ithaca College in New York for a while and became immersed in the folk scene there.
His love of musical traditions, including Appalachian folk and old-time country, are connected to his interest in history, in how people in different parts of the country lived and worked. He said spending time in Maine over the years gave him an appreciation for passed-down traditions, especially those on Maine’s islands.
“The music I play got so rich because it spent time in rugged isolation, that’s how it endured. As a kid, I was always intrigued with Maine islands, where I knew people who tied their nets in the same way as 300 years ago,” said Secor. “There are a lot of comparisons between the music world I inhabit and the traditions of Maine, from lumber camps to lobstermen.”
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