The Nashville string band known for its rootsy hit ‘Wagon Wheel’ plays Pier 33 in downtown Wilmington on July 28.
Old Crow Medicine Show started out busking two decades ago, hustling tunes on street corners and sidewalks, playing their fiddles and guitars loud enough to draw a crowd. Even when opening dates for Del McCoury, Robert Earl Keen and Marty Stuart generated a steady paycheck, the boys from Old Crow spent pre-show afternoons playing impromptu sets as an open guitar case lay on the ground in front of them. Shaking a few dollars loose from the patrons meant more money for drinking or, perhaps, better sleeping quarters for the evening.
It’s a long way from the town square to the Grand Ole Opry, yet that’s where OCMS turned up, earning membership in country music’s hallowed hall and collecting two Grammys along the way.
The band plays Pier 33 on the Wilmington riverfront July 28, with Asleep at the Wheel in support.
Although this summer alone they’ve played Bonnaroo, supported Willie Nelson and Sturgill Simpson and sold out shows in four cities, those memories of the hardscrabble start are strong and sweet, said upright bassist Morgan Jahnig, who joined OCMS 18 years ago.
“At the time, looking back where we came from and where we are at the moment, it seems so unlikely,” Jahnig said. “Knowing that and feeling that we have a healthy respect for our success. There are people that are way better than us and worked way harder than us who never quit their day jobs. There are a thousand ways to explain it. Getting here was just about never giving up and being willing to go out and play in any setting. Looking back, every time I go out (on stage) I tell myself this is as good as it will get.”
The band shared a house together in Nashville in the years before their self-titled release in 2004, which included the iconic song “Wagon Wheel,” a self-propelling force of nature written by lead singer and fiddler Ketch Secor when he was in high school.
In those busking days, store owners often chased OCMS away or local musicians harassed them, convinced the band had infringed on their piece of artistic real estate. The walk-up fans generally followed as the band packed up quickly and reset their gear in a more accommodating site. In their adopted hometown, OCMS became friendly with the local police, who reluctantly broke up those joyful sidewalk shows when spectators spilled into the streets downtown. OCMS even thanked the law enforcement in the liner notes of the first album.
Jahnig and his peers knew plenty about how to draw a crowd but nothing about how to record an album when they first entered the studio. The process has evolved as the band has matured. They’ve worked with legendary producers like Don Was and roots music staple Dave Rawlings.
They turned to one of Nashville’s hottest, Dave Cobb (Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell) for their latest release, “Volunteer.” Released in April, it was recorded in RCA’s iconic Studio A.
The band sent Cobb a demo featuring 40 songs, knowing they’d only record 10 or 11. Prior to their arrival at the studio, Cobb didn’t share which songs he wanted to record and wouldn’t let the band rehearse.
“He wanted everything off the cuff,” Jahnig said. “We are typically very prepared before we record an album. It was so enjoyable just to go in and play some music for someone and let him do the little turns and tweaks.”
The end result is a fiery, fun collection featuring intricate and mature songwriting. Jahnig feels each song can find a home in the band’s raucous live set, depending on the mood of the audience and the size of the venue.
“As long as we’re having fun, the audience is going to have fun.”
Contact StarNews arts and entertainment at 910-343-2343.