Old Crow Medicine Show's album, 'Carry Me Back,' came out in July.
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NASHVILLE -- The way Ketch Secor sees it, time doesn't pass in a linear fashion when it comes to Old Crow Medicine Show.
It's a series of beginnings and endings, starts and stops, and the release of the souped-up string band's fourth album "Carry Me Back" marks all these things. Back with the group is Critter Fuqua, a founding member who left five years ago after trouble with addiction. Out is key member Willie Watson, who decided to start a solo career after creative differences within the band.
"We've been making circles all along in this band and after a certain point, a certain number of years of performance, you find you come back around again," Secor said. "And that's happened more than a few times. For example, in this incarnation of our band, Critter and I are making a 20-year circle. Maybe Old Crow on this record made a 10-year circle or something. But everybody who's an artist is making this orbit, around the muse, around inspiration."
After making a foray into electric instruments and "really knocking up the rock 'n' roll tree" on their 2008 release "Tennessee Pusher," Secor said the band has circled back to the original sound that so excited him and Fuqua as kids. "Carry Me Back" is full of old-timey string sounds updated for the 21st century -- sing-a-longs that lift the soul, ballads that rend the heart and a few moments of pure exhilaration.
The title song opens the album with a ready-made metaphor in the chorus of "Carry me back to Virginia," the place where Secor and Fuqua grew up together and fell in love with roots music.
"The record to me is as close as that original inspiration to be in a band as when we first got started," Secor said. "It's very much the root of our sound. This record sounds like we would've if we were any good 14 years ago."
Back then they were slightly eccentric wanderers, hearing a sound in their heads few others their age could pick up -- or cared to. When "Carry Me Back" hit stores last month, they found they're now running at the front of an ever-expanding pack of acoustic enthusiasts who are turned on by the same ideas.
They've always considered themselves wandering ambassadors for old time ideas and music, but usually spread that message to the small pockets of acoustic enthusiasts that existed until recently.
Enter Mumford & Sons, the British folk quartet who carried Old Crow along on its wave of popularity after a performance at last year's Grammy Awards. Marcus Mumford and pals invited Old Crow to join them on a vintage train tour that landed them in Emmett Malloy's moving documentary Big Easy Express. Mumford acknowledged in the film that the band inspired them to pick up the banjo and start their now famous country nights in London. They also took OCMS to Europe.
"Those boys took the message and ran with it," Secor said.
And the support seems to have paid off. "Carry Me Back" came out July 17 and earned the band its biggest debut, landing at No. 1 on Billboard's folk and bluegrass charts, No. 4 on the country chart, and No. 22 on the all-genre Billboard Top 200.
A fantastic payoff for a band that came up the hard way. As Secor notes jokingly, "We were sleeping in potato fields before it was cool to sleep in potato fields." But after more than a decade and a half traveling lonesome roads, they just weren't sure the band would survive 2011.
Exhaustion from three years on the road, infighting and differences of opinion seemed to add up to the final days of Old Crow Medicine Show. Watson, one of four original members from the band's first full incarnation, left the group to pursue a solo career in Los Angeles.
"We didn't know if there was going to be a future of Old Crow about a year ago," said Norm Parenteau, the band's manager of 10 years. "It was just hard. But Critter just revived it."
Friends with Secor since childhood, Fuqua was never completely away. He would return from time to time, but often it was too soon as Fuqua tried to sober up. He aimed his creative energy at college in Texas and put away thoughts of rejoining the band on a permanent basis.
"For me personally, I mean, I had to get sober," Fuqua said. "I was just a mess in 2007. I missed Ketch a lot. I missed the music. But at the same time I never really doubted that I would play with Ketch again."
They formed a little Tejano duo and visited as often as they could. But Fuqua wasn't ready to return until recently. He made the decision after spending two days with the group as they put the finishing touches on the new album late last year.
Fuqua added his harmony vocals and picking skills to the mix upon his return. But for Secor and Parenteau, it goes much further than that. Parenteau saw it immediately when they gathered together for rehearsals with Watson's replacement, Chance McCoy.
"They seemed renewed," Parenteau said. "They seemed like friends again. There's a different energy. They're hanging around together even when they're not on tour and you walk in the dressing room and they're laughing. Somehow we survived it and it does feel like it's gone to another level."