Words and photos by Caroline Schwarz
The opening song, Sweet Amarillo, feels like something of a reflection of the night in that it is both familiar and surprising. A co-write with Bob Dylan and one of my favorites, I’ve heard it ample times in concert and yet never in this opening slot – sort of like how I’ve seen Old Crow no shortage of times, including right here at the Ryman, but never like this wearing a face mask with an entire row to myself!
The sweeping, cinematic feel of the song makes it a grand choice to begin this epic night. Tonight the room will ring with soaring harmonies, and while often those between leading man Ketch Secor and returning founding member Willie Watson will be in the forefront, here multi-instrumentalist Robert Price does a praise-worthy job. This song off of 2014’s Grammy winning album, Remedy, flows seamlessly into a second off the same album, Brushy Mountain Conjugal Trailer, heralded by pounding drumbeats handled masterfully by Jerry Pentecost. Ketch comes in loud on the harmonica and, backed by those drums, it’s a combination that never fails to get my blood racing. Wasting no time in showing their multi-instrumental prowess, Ketch switches from fiddle to mandolin, and Joe Andrews’ twangy slide adds a signature swing to the song.
Speaking of slinky swing, here comes Willie Watson, strumming his way onto the stage from the wings to that steamy, swampy rhythm of Down Home Girl. He looks dapper in a light blue denim jacket with white pinstripes, cuffed jeans, a tan hat with a satin band – coordinated with but a stylish step up from the others in the band. (These are some of Willie’s own handmade threads, available at his website: williewatsonmfgco.com). His voice rings with a warm familiarity on one of his signature songs. Ketch’s harmonica provides potent accents, and the rhythm section of Jerry Pentecost and stand-up bass player Morgan Jahnig hold it down until bringing it to a tight close.
Next, Ketch invites us (in-house and at-home audience, since this show is being live streamed around the world) to get out on the dance floor and we get the first of many rave-ups for the night with the duo of Down On My Knees and Tear It Down. Everyone comes stage front playing as if their lives depend on it: so many strings – banjo, guitjo, guitar, fiddle, mando – Jerry on the washboard, Morgan swinging that bass around like a dance partner and signing along, and Willie’s voice that we haven’t heard in so long with these guys, simultaneously thrillingly new and long-familiar, as he slides effortlessly in and out of lead and harmonies.
The energy remains at a peak with the crowd-pleasing Tell It To Me followed by Alabama High Test, on which Joe Andrews does a heroic job back on the slide guitar. Ketch beams with love and gratitude as he echos what’s in our hearts: “We’ve waited for so many months to come back to our most beloved place to play music on God’s green earth,” adding that our socially distanced crowd here in the Ryman pews is surely “the largest indoor music event happening anywhere on a Friday night in the United States.”
Caroline, an unabashed favorite for me, follows. They’ve tinkered with different versions of this song in recent years, slowing it down with Ketch on violin for a tour and then a more country rock guitar version when Charlie Worsham was in the band. But tonight it’s old school, with the banjo and punk harmonica and the bouncy beat. The harmonies are sweet and soaring between Ketch, Willie and Cory Younts singing at the piano. Bobby Price steps up for a kicking fiddle solo where Ketch’s harmonica would often fill the space – they are always changin’ it up, adding something new even while reaching back!
Willie chimes in next, saying how happy he is to be here: “Words just can’t describe it, so I think the music really says it all.” He surely speaks for many of us here when he says it’s the highlight of his year. He continues, “I know it’s been a hard year for everybody, so let’s sing a little song about that.” We’re All In This Together is majestic, sorrowful and sweet. At least at the beginning of this pandemic, before things splintered off into weird, unsettling, and even despicable directions, this statement became sort of a slogan for the planet. I’d smile when I’d hear it uttered on newscasts, and roll my eyes a bit when I’d hear it from big corporations. It always brought to mind this song. Here it is, in all its tenderness and scope, sung as only Willie can, with that quivering timbre that travels like an arrow shot through the air to land squarely in the heart. Ketch’s harmonica, which can have a blast akin to Bob Dylan’s that stops you in your tracks, is sweet and gentle here, down to the last sighing note.
We move from this love song for the world to a brave and soaring tribute to a man, Levi. The fiddle and the pedal steel weave together to create the soul of the song honoring the soul of the man. Hard To Tell, next, is pure fire. It starts out with a center stage face-off between Ketch and Willie for a rousing fiddle and guitar romp, and only gains steam as it goes along. I love a song that threatens to go off the rails but never does, sticking like glue from the masterful musicianship. Jerry takes up the washboard with a groove I’ve rarely heard, punctuating all the right moments. The song is jammed out, spacey, fierce and tight as hell – a “holy shit” of a performance and one of the highlights of the night. At the song’s finish Cory exclaims, “Been a while since we done that!” If we didn’t know that was the case, it would be, well, hard to tell!
It is testimony to both this band and this audience that such a high-octane performance can be followed by the stripped down portion of the show, executed with equal perfection and listened to with rapt attention. The boys all move stage-front to gather around one microphone and, per Ketch, “test the acoustics in the Mother Church and sing one for the Poor Man.” Jerry’s wearing a snare drum that he plays with brushes, and everyone on various strings weaves in and out, sonically and physically around the mic stand, taking turns playing their parts and leaving ample room for Willie to tell us the sad tale. We’re treated to a bright, tasteful mandolin solo from Cory that accents the song sublimely. John Prine’s Paradise follows with more exquisite harmonies, sent out first to the beloved man himself whose spirit is surely here in the moment, and then after to everyone in the fire-devastated states of Oregon, California, and Washington.
We get back to the rowdy because, as Ketch reminds us, “Such strange times we’re living in and that’s why we gotta sing louder and stronger and more together in harmony than ever before.” Let’s sing a while, and while we’re at it, let’s dance a while! Hard To Love is busting at the seams with harmonic joy and energy. Despite the roughly 8 % capacity and enforced social distancing – some 300 seats were sold in distanced groups around the appx 2360 capacity room – there is a palpable intimacy at this show that is more profound than an elbow-to-elbow show in ‘normal’ times. I know my heart feels filled enough to make up for the lack of at least about 10 other people.
We move into the guest portion of the show, first with friend of the band, Molly Tuttle, leading us in a cover of Neil Young’s Helpless. Molly’s got a new album of cover tunes out, (“recorded in my bedroom,” she lets us know) called “…but I’d rather be with you.” This song did not make it onto the album and was in fact recorded from a distance with members of Old Crow playing on it. She says it’s the first time they are all playing it together in the same room. Molly is a captivating performer, with her unique style of guitar playing and her voice that is both sweet and powerful, and the song soars. It’s followed by one of the newest Old Crow songs, Nashville Rising, a song that Molly in turn helped them out on, and that “sort of kicked off the season of our discontent,” Ketch says with a laugh. He notes how, at their 12th annual ringing in of the new year at the Ryman, no one had any idea that “some months later we’d all be sitting in our masks with about 287 people in here, and call it a sell out!” Ain’t that the truth. Then again, three weeks ago I wouldn’t have thought I’d be sitting here at all, so… life’s funny. I’ve put this song on and cranked it up in recent months when I needed some strength and encouragement, and it’s great to hear it live.
Next up we get a real treat, “Mr. Americana himself,” Jim Lauderdale, coming out for a song I never knew he co-wrote with Ketch until they say so tonight, Half Mile Down. What a great surprise! Jim and Ketch trade verses, singing about a town and lives flooded away by the building of Watauga Dam, and Molly adds a nice solo in her signature style. It’s a song I’ve ‘chased’ over my years of seeing Old Crow and, until tonight, been denied – this rockin’ version makes it worth the wait!
Back to Willie and he prefaces the next song with an apology to the ladies, saying he didn’t write it so it’s not his fault. Minglewood Blues, bemoaning the troubles heaped upon man by woman, is a total barn burner. The old blues song takes on a fierce hoedown energy in the hands of Old Crow and guests – no apologies necessary! Ketch and Jerry go side by side with frenetic bursts of percussive energy traded back and forth between harmonica and washboard; Willie runs over to Molly’s side and they face off with their axes. Finally it’s all Ketch, letting loose with wild harmonica blasts punctuated by his own whooping outbursts to finish it all off.
Wagon Wheel is introduced as a singalong from all of us here out to the live stream audience. We comply and, though the rafters perhaps don’t ring quite as loudly through our masked mouths, the singing together of this song dissolves distance and differences like it always does. Willie strikes the opening cords that are as familiar as kin, and then Cory’s piano ringing like a bell right behind, and we all swing into the song; it’s smiles all ’round (even if they can’t see ours!) and no one is smiling more than Ketch, sidestepping from player to player while bowing his fiddle, beaming with a joyful gratitude. Like I feel in my bones every single time I hear OCMS play this song live, it’s my favorite song ever.
No song other than Will The Circle Be Unbroken could conclude this night, a song that takes personal heartbreak and turns it into shared joyousness and redemptive hope, and is nowhere more befitting than when sung at the Ryman. Ketch takes the first verse and then Jim and Molly share one from across the stage, and we all sing and dance along. But it doesn’t conclude the night! While the live stream portion of the show comes to an end, the in-house audience is treated to an encore of four songs: Gospel Plow, C.C. Rider, My Bones Gonna Rise Again, and Shack #9. It’s back to just the band with no guests and these old time tunes from Old Crow’s founding days are truly a perfect way to end, showcasing their unparalleled playing, energy, and camaraderie, and reaching back to their roots even while they are a new band in this new, strange era. I’m sure they rehearsed quite a bit leading up to this night, but it’s all come together with a magic and a mojo that no amount of rehearsing on its own could achieve. I feel so privileged to have been here and am overwhelmed with gratitude for everyone who made it happen.