Despite playing on some of the biggest stages around, the members of Old Crow Medicine Show are still street-corner buskers at heart, co-founder Ketch Secor said.
"It's sort of the ultimate stage," Secor said of busking. "If you can't make somebody stop, listen and throw you a buck, what the hell kind of performer are you?"
Old Crow lands in Wichita for the first time Thursday for a show at the Cotillion.
The six-piece band has been building a steady following among fans of alt-country and traditional string band music since not long after they formed in upstate New York in 1998. Their big break came when the daughter of folk icon Doc Watson heard them playing in front of a pharmacy in North Carolina two years later. Watson invited them to play at his musical festival, MerleFest, and they relocated to Nashville soon after.
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Since then, they've recorded a half-dozen CDs, played at the Grand Old Opry and appeared numerous times on National Public Radio's A Prairie Home Companion, whose host, Garrison Keillor, is just one of many well-placed fans.
Norah Jones says "their live show is amazing," and Gillian Welch says it's "extraordinary to hear a band where there are three good singers; their harmonies remind me of the Dead or the Band."
After a couple of personnel changes through the years, Old Crow now consists of Secor on fiddle, harmonica and banjo; Gil Landry on slide guitar and banjo; Cory Younts on mandolin; Willie Watson on guitar; Morgan Jahnig on upright bass; and Kevin Hayes on guitjo, a kind of cross between banjo and guitar. All except Jahnig sing.
Secor, who has his own radio show in Nashville, serves as the spokesman for the band. On the phone, he seems to veer between complete sincerity and the sort of dry-as-dust tall tales both Keillor and his song-writing hero, Bob Dylan, are famous for. Or maybe he was just giddy after the first all-night recording session for the band's next CD, which he said he had just come from.
"Day one went spectacular," Secor said. He said the band will mix in some new songs from it like "Carry Me Back to Virginia" with old favorites during the show here.
Secor, by the way, is one of the few people to have co-written a song with Dylan, though it happened oddly.
In the early 1970s, Dylan wrote the chorus for a song called "Wagon Wheel" but never finished it. A few years back, Secor heard a bootleg of the tune and filled in his own verses. After Old Crow recorded it, several other bands followed suit, and Secor got a co-writing credit with Dylan.
Secor has never met Dylan, though he says he "sure would like to." But he sounds just as happy that the song has become a regular "jam" song when musicians get together.
"I bet if you went downtown to an open mic somewhere, there's probably an 18-year-old kid singing it," he said. "That's probably the most validating nod or critique of the song that I could ask for."
There's yet another big name in the band's corner — Marty Stuart, one of the last of the big county music stars of a bygone era. Stuart has gotten the band many of its best gigs, Secor said.
"I think he was able to see in us that we're very much a link in a chain that goes back to the Carter family," Secor said.
Old Crow is a regular at many of the country's biggest outdoor festivals, which is what brings them to Wichita. They're playing at the Bonnaroo Music Festival in Tennessee this weekend and the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado next weekend, with stops in between in Columbia, Mo., Kansas City and Wichita.
To date, Old Crow's impressions of Kansas have been forged along I-70 and in front of audiences in Lawrence. Secor recalls endless prairies, giant combines and — oh, yeah — hippies.
"We've definitely got a sense that people in Kansas like to have a good time, from the small towns to the big city," Secor said. "I think we were surprised how many hippies you all have got."
Before begging off to return to the recording studio, Secor suddenly remembered that he had been in Wichita once before, to catch a Greyhound bus.
"I remember a good diner there. It had ham, piled high. I've got to get some of that ham."
Then Secor expressed his "most sincere excitement" about returning and invited fans to say hello.
"We'll be out back, by the Dumpster," he said.
If you go: OLD CROW MEDICINE SHOW
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Where: The Cotillion, 11120 W. Kellogg
Tickets: $23 at the door, $20 in advance. For more info, call 316-722-4201 or visit www.crowmedicine.com.