When Critter Fuqua left Old Crow Medicine Show – the band he founded with childhood friend Ketch Secor – in 2007, to sober up and study English, OCMS was making headway on the roots music and festival circuit. It reached No. 2 on the bluegrass charts and was climbing Billboard’s Top 200.
When Fuqua returned to the band in 2012, the landscape for popular music had changed.
“I (went) to Austin when the guys came through on that train tour with Mumford & Sons (filmed for the Grammy-winning documentary ‘Big Easy Express’). It was huge. I thought, ‘Something’s changed. Something’s switched because there’s a ----load of people out here watching banjos and fiddles being played.’ ”
Fuqua and Secor weren’t exposed to old-time music growing up in rural Harrisonburg, Va.
“I listened to punk rock, Guns n’ Roses and Nirvana,” he says. “The biggest influence for me for old-time music was Ketch. I started playing blues and Ketch started playing banjo. And then he started playing fiddle and I started playing banjo. In the ’90s in the South in Virginia in that area, people weren’t playing old-time music and bluegrass – especially people our age. The most old-time Ketch and I were around growing up is when we moved to upstate New York, because in the ’70s the hippie types and intellectuals went to California and down South and took that music back to New York.”
They searched it out, though, attending the Augusta Heritage Festival workshops in West Virginia and eventually moving to Boone, where the band was discovered busking on a street corner by Doc Watson. He invited them to play Merlefest in North Wilkesboro. The story reads more like a Hollywood fairytale than a country song.
They pay tribute to Watson, who died in 2012, with the song “Doc’s Days” on their new album, “Remedy,” the first to feature Fuqua since his return.
“He was part of that watershed moment for the band, when he met us on the corner at Boone Drug and invited us to Merlefest,” Fuqua says.
They’d wait a few years for another such moment, when country singer Darius Rucker took the song “Wagon Wheel,” which a young Secor had built around an unfinished Bob Dylan track, and made it a monster mainstream country hit.
“We were playing South Carolina one time and afterward someone came up and said how much they liked our version of Darius’ ‘Wagon Wheel,’ ” Fuqua says with a laugh. “More people know the song than the band. It’s only been positive for the band and Darius. We love Darius. People think of Darius as the guy from Hootie, but he’s a genuine, good musician.”
The song’s success sparked another co-write with Dylan (the new single “Sweet Amarillo”). This time the folk legend, who received a co-writing credit on “Wagon Wheel,” was aware of the collaboration ahead of time.
“Bob liked ‘Wagon Wheel,’ and it had gotten big enough that it went to No. 1 with Darius. So Bob had a No. 1, technically. I think it’d been a while since Bob had a No. 1,” says Fuqua. “Bob’s manager sent our manager a scrap of a song from the same bunch of songs that were outtakes from that ‘Pat Garrett and Billy the Kidd’ (soundtrack) that ‘Wagon Wheel’ was an outtake from. I helped Ketch sketch out the narrative, and he worked out the rest. Bob had some really good advice.”
But while contemporaries Mumford and the Avett Brothers have shared the stage with Dylan at the Grammys, OCMS has still never met him.
“He’s just like this muse or spirit we hear from,” says Fuqua. “Our manager will talk to his manager, and he’ll say, ‘Push the singing up to the 16th bar instead of the 32nd.’ ”