Old Crow Medicine Show didn't count on the runaway success of its 2004 song "Wagon Wheel." In fact, say members Ketch Secor and Critter Fuqua, the Nashville band was just trying to finish a job Bob Dylan had started.
"It's a song that Bob didn't finish, for a movie that was called Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid that came out in the early 1970s," Secor says. "Critter actually sent it to me. Remember that bootleg you sent me when you got back from England?"
"Yeah, I had gone on a family vacation. My dad decided to take us to Paris and London," Fuqua says. "I went to the Virgin Megastore and got this Bob Dylan bootleg, like four CDs, and took it back. It was like gold, 'cause Ketch and I were so obsessed with Bob Dylan."
The two friends grew especially enamored of one track, an unfinished sketch that had been labeled "Rock Me Mama."
"You couldn't understand the verses, but you could understand the chorus," says Fuqua. "So we stole it."
Old Crow Medicine Show eventually signed a co-writing agreemeent with Dylan. Its version, released on the album O.C.M.S. and featuring new verses alongside Dylan's original chorus, became a gold-selling single and won the band a heap of new fans.
One of those fans was Leevi Barnard, a U.S. Army lieutenant who died in the Iraq War in 2009 — and whose life became the inspiration for a brand-new song, "Levi." Click the audio link to hear that story and others about the making of Old Crow Medicine Show's new album, Carry Me Back.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The person who wrote this song says it was an accident. Actually, every song on the new album "Carry Me Back" was an accident, that according to the band Old Crow Medicine Show. The bluegrass alt country boys are back together and they're back on tour. Joining me from Nashville - where else - musicians Ketch Secor and Critter Fuqua. Guys, thanks for being here.
KETCH SECOR: Hi, David. Thanks for having us.
CRITTER FUQUA: It's great to be here.
GREENE: So, Ketch, this song that we're hearing, "Levi," why are you calling it an accident? How'd it happen?
SECOR: Well, it's all because of your great radio broadcast. I was listening to the story unfold, as you all did a program about deceased American GIs from the war in Iraq, and you told the story of Levi Barnard, who I later befriended the family of, and wrote this song as soon as I heard your radio story.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEVI")
OLD CROW MEDICINE SHOW: (Singing) Levi, Lord, Lord, Lord, they shot him down, ten thousand miles from his supper town. Oh, Levi...
GREENE: Remind us what happened to him. He was a first lieutenant, I believe.
SECOR: Yeah, and he grew up in Ararat, Virginia. And signed up for a hitch sort of at the last minute and didn't survive for very long in Iraq. Grew up in the mountainous region of just on the - around Galax, Virginia, and was a real country boy and was a big fan of Old Crow. You know, he hunted ginseng and he rode around on a four-wheeler and he listened to "Wagon Wheel." And so a song like this would be a tribute to not only Levi but a whole lot of country boys that have found their way over to Basra and to Jalalabad.
GREENE: You mentioned that Levi was a fan of you guys and he listened to "Wagon Wheel," which was your big hit from 2004. And I want to play a little of it to remind people of that song.
FUQUA: Yeah, spin it. Play it for Levi. He really liked this one.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAGON WHEEL")
SHOW: (Singing) So, rock me, mama, like a wagon wheel. Rock me, mama, any way you feel. Hey, mama, rock me...
SECOR: And I wrote that song when I was 17, and wrote this very kind of autobiographical daydream that you might have in between classes, you know, if you're flunking math. Then you might decide you want to write a song about hitchhiking away from New England and going back down South where you come from. Critter and I grew up in Virginia. We've been making music together for 20 years now, Critter and I.
GREENE: You met in the seventh grade.
SECOR: We were in Mr. Han's history class. And we were studying "The Red Badge of Courage" and we had this skit. I was a Union soldier who was shot in the hallway. And we acted it out in front of the class. Yeah, and right then we kind of figured that we'd be pals. You know, we were into acting out war scenes, and...
FUQUA: We used to meet downtown. We lived in a town where they had a farmer's market and the shoeshine stands and Mennonite farmers selling their wares and sidewalk preachers and things that were trappings of an older time. And even back then, it seemed like everything that we did together had a song to it. And that was even before we started making music together.
GREENE: You guys come together, you and Critter, and you're busking in Boone, North Carolina as I understand it. That's where you were really discovered for the first time.
SECOR: Oh, it must have been 12 or 13 years since we met Doc on the fifth of July in Boone, North Carolina.
GREENE: And Doc was...remind us about that story.
SECOR: Yeah, Doc Watson lived nearby. You know, he lived up in Deep Gap. And, of course, we knew him and listened to his records and were moved so by his sound. And we were busking on a street corner on the fifth of July, and I know it was the fifth because on the fourth was when we got that distiller. We had that steam keg from the Linville Hospital. They were closing it down, right, and Bennie bought the old steamer.
FUQUA: Steam keg?
SECOR: Well, we had made liquor on the stovetop before but we had never made it, you know, on the fire. And this was, like, a thump keg and there were fireworks. And remember I drank that white gas.
FUQUA: Oh yeah. You had a Mohawk.
SECOR: Yeah, right, yeah.
GREENE: Wow. This is moonshine made in a steamer?
SECOR: Yeah, yeah, like a steamed distiller apparatus. Well, the next morning rolled around and we were feeling pretty rough. And so we went downtown to make a little bit of rent money, 'cause it was like that. And we got there late. And we were pretty much busking to nobody. It was pretty empty, and we were real hungover. And, anyway, a woman came up in a red Jeep Cherokee. And she pulled over and she rolled down the window. And she said you boys sound so good. I love this kind of music. My dad loves this kind of music. And she came back about 25 minutes later and walked her father, Doc Watson. It was Nancy Watson. And Doc listened to us play and gave us a gig right there on the spot at the festival he had to honor his son Merle, who he has now joins.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COUNTRY GAL")
SHOW: (Singing) The farming life is a hell of a life. You scratch all day, you barely sleep at night. But when the work's all done, you know where I'll be found, high up in the hay loft rolling around.
SECOR: We also still busk with a lot of passion for it. 'Cause the music that we make, it really sounds good on a street corner. And one of the things that the street corner taught us was how to capture a crowd's attention. If you can't entertain on a street corner, what kind of country music maker are you? Dude.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COUNTRY GAL")
SHOW: (Singing) Hey, pretty mama, let the good times roll, 'cause this old bird dog's raring to go. Now, when it comes to farming or fooling around, let's strike a match and burn the barn down. Park in the woodshed Saturday night, Grand Ol' Opry by the dash of the lights. Baby's on the bed sheet ready to go. So, if you wanna have fun, honey, it's time to roll, in the hay, good looking, country gal. Oh lord. Hey, good looking country gal. Let's have a roll in the, hey, good looking, country gal...
GREENE: Critter, you left the band for a few years. What happened?
FUQUA: Actually, I got sober and then went to school. And was in Shriner University for three, four years. I got three years under my belt for an English degree.
GREENE: How much was alcohol a problem for you?
FUQUA: It was a pretty big problem.
GREENE: And was that starting to affect the music?
FUQUA: Yeah. Mostly, it was affecting me and whether I was going to continue on this Earth or not.
GREENE: How do you feel different, if you do, kind of coming back from that?
FUQUA: I feel a new freedom on stage. It's wonderful playing.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
SHOW: (Singing) We can do what we want to, we can burn at both ends. We can go half-crazy, like we got no sense. And it's a desperate feeling, just to hold it all in...
GREENE: And, Critter, I think you're in here playing accordion. Is that right?
FUQUA: Yeah, I was - I'm really not on this album too much. I was in the studio the last two days they were recording and I laid down an accordion track for this particular number.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
SHOW: (Singing) Well, we thirst and we hunger, and we love and we comfort now and then. But we fight over money and power like water and bread...
GREENE: And, Ketch, let me ask you how does it feel to have Critter back as you're listening to this and, you know, his accordions in this song?
SECOR: Oh, it's great. It's a real homecoming. You know, when I was young I thought that Critter and I had a real chemistry. And we just really wanted to come to Nashville. Even when we were, you know, barely teenagers we talked about it.
GREENE: Before I let you go, Critter, I know you're back on a couple of songs on this new album. Is this official return after the fight to stop drinking and go to school? I mean, you back with the band for good now?
FUQUA: Yeah. For as long as it continues.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
SHOW: (Singing) Just trying to make sense of this life any way that we can...
GREENE: Ketch Secor and Critter Fuqua from the band Old Crow Medicine Show. Their new album, "Carry Me Back," is out July 17th, and that's when the band will be out on the open road on tour. Thank you guys for joining us.
FUQUA: Thank you.
SECOR: Thanks, David.
FUQUA: Thanks, everybody. Peace on Earth. See ya.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
SHOW: (Singing) We can burn at both ends. We can go half-crazy, like we got no sense...
GREENE: And you can hear more from Old Crow's album "Carry Me Back" at nprmusic.org, where you can also listen to NPR's story about First Lieutenant Levi Barnard, the inspiration for the band's song. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.