In 1998, the musicians of Old Crow Medicine Show were performing on street corners for change when their lives were changed by a blind folk icon.
The band, which performs an original mix of folk, country and Appalachian music with a punk energy, had left Ithaca, N.Y., to busk their way across the U.S. and Canada, performing on Ontario street corners and South Dakota Indian reservations.
They eventually found their way to Boone, N.C., where daughter of blind folk-bluegrass icon Doc Watson heard them and was so impressed she brought her father over to listen. Equally impressed, Watson invited the young band to perform in his annual MerleFest music festival in Wilkesboro, N.C., named after his son who had died in a 1985 farm accident.
The festival, which focused on acoustic, folk, bluegrass, blues and old-time music, drew more than 70,000 fans each year.
Old Crow Medicine Show co-founder Ketch Secor said that moment marked a turning point in the band’s fortunes.
“Doc Watson was a star and inspiration for so many people playing traditional American music,” Secor said. “He became a guiding light for the band.”
Old Crow Medicine Show will be in concert Thursday at the Stiefel Theatre for the Performing Arts, 151 S. Santa Fe. Opening for the band will be Victor & Penny, a swing-infused folk-jazz band from Kansas City that performed at this year’s Smoky Hill River Festival.
In the 20 years since that chance encounter, Old Crow Medicine Show — now based in Nashville — has won two Grammy Awards, including Best Folk Album for its 2014 album “Remedy.” Additionally, its classic single “Wagon Wheel” has sold more than a million copies.
The band has toured the world performing at festivals such as Bonnaroo, the New Orleans Jazz Fest, Telluride Bluegrass Festival and Newport Folk Festival and has made several appearances on Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion.” In 2013, the band was inducted into Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry and was awarded the Trailblazer Award from the Americana Music Association.
The band has been a big influence on younger folk-Americana bands such as Mumford & Sons and folk-rock musicians such as Jakob Dylan, whose father Bob Dylan had a profound influence on Old Crow Medicine Show — so much so, the band recorded a tribute album, “50 Years of Blonde on Blonde,” with re-imagined versions of Dylan’s classic “country” album.
“Dylan was this Jewish kid from Minnesota who assembled these crack musicians from Nashville, and we saw a good chance for Old Crow to be part of that story,” Secor said. “We’re all just drinking from the same fountain. We may be the chalice bearers or just the ones passing the jug around.”
Their own style
Old Crow Medicine Show’s inspiration for younger musicians not only is due to its eclectic musicianship — which incorporates guitar, slide guitar, fiddle, banjo, guitjo, harmonica, upright bass, mandolin, keyboards and drums — but the fact the musicians have managed to carve out a 20-year career playing the kind of music they wanted.
“There’s so much throwback now, it’s hard to tell what’s old or new,” Secor said. “Everything’s been said, it’s just saying it in new ways. From the very beginning, this band was based on our desire to play old-time fiddle music and American folk songs, particularly square dance music featuring fiddle and banjo. But we’ve also had this punk rock spirit in us from the beginning. So it’s combining the two genres into something new.”
Secor said he and his bandmates are looking forward to performing in Salina. They’ve driven by several times in the past but never stopped.
“We’ve spent a lot of time in Kansas, but at 70 mph on a tour bus,” he said. “We want to come to Salina and knock the socks off anyone who walks in the room. That’s all the validation we’re looking for.”