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How and Why Old Crow Medicine Show Remade Bob Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde”

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In a recent interview for Rolling Stone, Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor revealed that he and his bandmates needed to memorize over 40 pages of lyrics for the tribute concert for Bob Dylan to be held at Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame. That’s because the band was committed to playing Blonde on Blonde, one of rock’s first-ever double albums, in its entirety, and not just a medley of its beloved and iconic tracks such as “I Want You,” “Just Like A Woman,” and “Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again.” No. They were going whole hog.

Old Crow released an album of that night with their fantastic live album 50 Years of Blonde on Blonde and are funneling all the money they’d normally make right back to Dylan himself. All that hard work, all those hours spent practicing and perfecting 14 labyrinthine tracks, and what do they get for their labors? And why would a band put themselves through so much for someone else’s profit? The answer lies in both Old Crow Medicine Show’s and Dylan’s respective histories.

Back in 1965 at Columbia Studio in New York City, Dylan was having trouble. For his follow-up to Highway 61, he’d brought in The Hawks (later to be known as The Band) to back him up, but the songs just weren’t coming together. Try as he might, “Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat” and “Temporary Like Achilles” just weren’t shaping up to his liking. Then producer Bob Johnston convinced Dylan to take the project down to Nashville after Dylan was floored by a pop-in performance from Nashville session musician Charlie McCoy (who ended up laying down a second guitar part on “Desolation Row” that day).

With only two members of The Hawks (keyboardist Al Kooper and guitarist Robbie Robertson) in tow, Dylan relocated to Columbia’s big open A Studio on Nashville’s Music Row in February 1966 where he successfully recorded “Visions of Johanna,” a song that he’d spent months in New York failing to get right. The rest is history. Or at least a part of it. Flash forward to the year 2000. Outside an old pharmacy on King Street in Boone, North Carolina, a young folk-and-country-music-loving band of buskers named Old Crow Medicine Show stand on a street corner with banjos and fiddles plucking and picking away classic tunes. They sound so raw and authentic, they catch the ear of the daughter of music legend Doc Watson who immediately drags her father over to listen to these guys. He’s so impressed with their sound, he invites them to play at MerleFest: America’s top roots festival. This is their big break. At that very festival, they are invited down to play at the Grand Ole Opry.

And here’s where Dylan comes in. According to an interview in the New Yorker, Secor and his band mate Critter Fuqua discovered a shared love for rock’s poet laureate when they were in middle school. Secor was listening to folk mainstays like Pete Seeger; Fuqua preferred the hard rock of AC/DC and Guns N’ Roses. Dylan was the common ground. The first Dylan song they played together was “My Back Pages” when they were only 15 years old. On a trip to London, Fuqua picked up a bootleg of outtakes from Dylan’s soundtrack to Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid that had the fragment of a song called “Rock Me Mamma.” Secor finished the lyrics, renamed it “Wagon Wheel,” and from that the band made its name. It also earned Darius Rucker a Grammy for his cover of it in 2014.

Old Crow took their version of Blonde on Blonde on the road for 26 dates across the country. Throughout their live performance, they talk about the album’s rich history, and about how Dylan’s creative relocation brought many others to Nashville that weren’t standard country fare. (Think Joan Baez and Paul McCartney). It also led to other great works by Dylan such as Nashville Skyline. If you were an artist whose career was totally inspired by this, why wouldn’t you want to pay the muse back?

Now the big question: What does the man himself think about all of this? There’s no direct word, outside of a general endorsement from the Dylan camp. However, in an interview for The New Yorker, Secor states that, “the one direct interaction we’ve had is at the Grammys, when Mumford and Sons was on, and the Avett Brothers, our bandmate Gill Landry was in town for that. So they’re all sitting backstage, and we had just done a one-off thing with T-Bone Burnett for this project that never came out, and Gill Landry walks up to T-Bone and says, ‘Hey, I’m Gill, from Old Crow.’ And then they sit down and they talk a little bit. And then, from the shadows, on the other side of the couch, Bob comes over and leans into Gill, and he says, in his gravelly voice, ‘You from Old Crow?’ And Gill says, ‘Yes.’ And he says, ‘You guys are killing it.’”

Holden McNeely

Photo credit: Rick Diamond/Staff (courtesy Getty Images)

 

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