From the moment Old Crow Medicine Show boisterously emerged from the side of the stage at Denver’s Paramount Theatre two months ago, I knew we were in for a special night. It was a show to cover Bob Dylan’s classic—and revolutionary—1966 album Blonde on Blonde, and the Old Crow members entered like a Salvation Army marching band with two drummers, including one with a big bass drum, pounding away.
It was theatrical, quite gripping, and playfully outrageous as the band tore into Dylan’s opening cut, “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35.” It was also fitting to be in Colorado—a state that legalized marijuana—when the band shouted the “everybody must get stoned” chorus.
Led by Ketch Secor on lead vocals, guitar, harmonica, and violin, Old Crow Medicine Show plowed through every Dylan song with unbridled energy, diverse instrumental prowess and great vocals and harmonies. Secor was often frenetic, rapidly firing out the album’s many lyrics with shifty eyes straight out of a David Byrne “Psycho Killer” routine.
Band co-founder Chris “Critter” Fuqua took over lead vocals for a beautiful cover of “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)” and an all-acoustic “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” a non-Blonde on Blonde Dylan encore song. He also added splendid harmonies and sang co-lead on another Dylan encore song, “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” which had an added bonus from surprise guest Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who played banjo and sang a verse.
The night wasn’t only about Secor and Fuqua. Kevin Hayes played the guitjo, sang lead on “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” as if he was selling snake oil at a Wild West medicine show, and did a soft-shoe dance during “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” The entire band helped shape a winning performance, injecting new colors and arrangements—and some bluegrass—into Dylan’s masterpiece while often staying true to the original versions.
Fuqua—who, like most band members, is a multi-instrumentalist and plays drums, acoustic guitar, accordion, banjo, and more—tells me the idea to cover Blonde on Blonde live and on Old Crow Medicine Show’s newest record, 50 Years of Blonde on Blonde, came from the Nashville-based Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
The Hall asked the band, which is also based in Tennessee’s capital city, if they would like to honor the 50th anniversary of the recording of Blonde on Blonde in Nashville by playing the entire album live for two nights. “We jumped on that offer like a hobo on a doughnut,” remarks Fuqua, who describes Old Crow’s music as “brutal, transcendent, and uncompromising.”
Fuqua says it’s difficult to name his favorite Dylan songs, but it’s another album besides Blonde on Blonde that’s No. 1 on his list.
“There are so many songs that have moved me over the years, but a safe bet is the entire Blood on the Tracks album. It’s hands-down my favorite Dylan album. It’s great for making out to, breaking up to, drinking to — when I drank — and crying to. I'm a bit of a sucker for a good weeping album.”
Dylan’s music was instrumental in the founding and the music of Old Crow Medicine Show.
“We would not be a band without the influence of Dylan,” Fuqua says. “Dylan was the super glue between Ketch and I growing up in Virginia. Our tastes differed when it came to music, sometimes drastically, but the one common thread was Dylan.”
Fuqua doesn’t underestimate Dylan’s stature in 20th century and 21st century music.
“I think Dylan is in the league of Shakespeare and Tolstoy, Hemingway and Beowulf, perhaps even the Bible,” he says. “His work should be launched into space on a rocket, headed toward Andromeda for some form of intelligent life form to contemplate.”
The best-known track on Old Crow Medicine Show’s albums is Dylan’s “Wagon Wheel,” which the band recorded on its self-titled debut album in 2004. For the group’s 2014 Grammy-winning album, Remedy, Dylan, Secor, and Fuqua collaborated on the song “Amarillo,” but it was later determined to be a song written by Donna Weiss and sung by her on Dylan’s mid-1970s Rolling Thunder Revue tour.
“‘Wagon Wheel’ was an unfinished Dylan song from the Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid soundtrack sessions,” Fuqua explains. “It was on a bootleg that I picked up in London when I was in 8th or 9th grade. The chorus was clear, but the verses were sort of unintelligible, so Ketch just came up with the new verses, and a hit was born. ‘Sweet Amarillo' was first a Dylan/Old Crow collaboration. A snippet of the unfinished song was sent to us by Dylan's manager. But, as it turned out, a lady named Donna Weiss had written it. I guess Dylan didn't remember not writing it, which is understandable, considering the hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of words, ideas, songs that guy has sent out into the world.”
I ask Fuqua which concert was the best one he has seen. He says Guns N' Roses last summer at the Nissan Stadium in Nashville.
“Guns N' Roses was my first band—1987, 5th grade,” he says. “I was hooked. Appetite for Destruction might be my favorite album of all time from any artist. When I was a kid, I never even thought it was a possibility to see GNR. They were larger than life — legends in their own time. They came to me through cassette and MTV. It’s like they were superheroes from the comics. I never thought they'd get back together, and I was sure my time had passed to see them live. Then they came to Nashville and melted everyone’s faces, and the prophecy was fulfilled.”
In terms of biggest influence, Fuqua cites a number of concerts that made an impact when he was growing up.
“There is no single concert,” he answers. “Ones that stick out are the punk rock bands I saw growing up in Harrisonburg (Virginia) at the Little Grill—bands like Bad Guy Reaction, Ballyhoo, Corn Rocket, and local bands coming out of Richmond. That was the first time I'd been in a mosh pit and saw pretty girls smoking and drinking cheap beer. It was awesome.”
The future also looks awesome for Old Crow Medicine Show, whose music is steadily gaining in popularity. A new record of original songs “is already in the bag,” Fuqua says, and will be released in the fall or next spring.