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Savannah Music Festival: Old Crow Medicine Show
Friday, March 22 @Johnny Mercer

Virginia-born Chris "Critter" Fuqua and Ketch Secor are the co-founders and main songwriters for Old Crow Medicine Show, perhaps the most popular old-time string band in America at the moment. Old Crow makes electrifying, cleanly-picked folk, bluegrass, jug band music, the sort of stuff that's trickled naturally out of the Shenandoah Valley for generations.

They weren't, however, born banjo-picking hillbilly babies, the sons of jug-blowing hillbilly parents.

"We grew up in the South, but we didn't grow up on the back porch in the holler," the 35-year-old Fuqua explains. "We were smoking cigarettes and going to record stores."

Fuqua, who plays clawhammer banjo and acoustic guitar in Old Crow, elaborates: "The first band that I loved was Guns N Roses, and about the time we were in middle school, Ketch and I were listening to Nirvana, the Pixies, Dead Milkmen, all kinds of stuff. There was a big punk rock scene out of Richmond about that time, early '90s. And in high school, we'd just go watch the punk bands from Richmond play.

"I remember when Nevermind came out," he says with a laugh. "I had a little cassette player, and I listened to it over and over and over. It was the coolest album I'd ever heard."

So what changed?

"Ketch and I started going back in time. He started playing the banjo, and I started playing the blues. We realized that the energy and the passion of this kind of music is not really different from punk rock. It's just different instrumentation.

"The energy that we loved about Nirvana, and the unique songwriting and the real personal aspect of it, we were like 'We can apply this to banjos and fiddles, and write traditional songs that have a relevant edge.' It was a real organic process, it wasn't even a conscious decision."

"Wagon Wheel," written by Secor from an unfinished Bob Dylan song he heard on a bootleg (Secor and Dylan share songwriting credits), has become Old Crow's signature tune. In 2011, the single was certified gold.

Although it has a decidedly retro look and sound, Old Crow is far from an animatronic museum piece. Like Mumford & Sons (with whom the band has toured extensively), the Avett Brothers and the Lumineers, these guys have pumped new blood into an old art form and given it lungs full of fresh air.

A big part of Old Crow's appeal is the vocal harmonies. They're Eagles harmonies, Poco, Pure Prairie League harmonies, spot-on and shiver-inducing.

All of which trickled down from the Louvin Brothers, the Every Brothers and Bill Monroe.

Not surprisingly, the reigning luminaries of the revivalist old guard have embraced the band — they've worked with Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, Emmylou Harris, Merle Haggard and other first-rankers, and are frequent guest performers at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.

Garrison Keillor insists Old Crow is one of the best bands he's ever had on A Prairie Home Companion.

"We were onstage at the Opry the other night," Fuqua says, "and Ricky Skaggs introduced us. He was playing with us, and I looked over and thought 'That's pretty cool.' We did a lot of work last year with Woody Guthrie stuff, and we were invited to the Kennedy Center by his daughter. Stuff like that. It's great to be onstage with these people.

"And it's funny, I really have a pretty normal life, which is great. I can go anywhere I want; I'm not famous-famous, which is nice."

Old Crow got its kick-start in 1999, when Doc Watson's daughter brought her dad to hear them as they busked — something they used to do a lot o f— on a North Carolina street corner. Impressed, Watson invited the band to perform at the 2000 Merlefest.

In 2007, Fuqua took a mandatory hiatus in which he "got sober" (his words) and went to college. He stayed in school for three years, getting within waving distance of a degree in English.

"I thought that my music days were ended, but that was not true," he explains, then laughs: "It's like the Mob — they pull you back in."

Before re-joining the band, Fuqua embarked on a short, two-man, test-the-waters tour with Secor. "I hadn't played in years," he explains, "so I had to practice remembering my own songs that I wrote. I remember buying a couple songs off of i-Tunes because I didn't have them, and I needed to remember the arrangements that we had on the albums."

Old-time music may not be old school for much longer. The circle will be unbroken. "I first heard Old Crow's music when I was, like, 16, 17, and that really got me into, like, folk music, bluegrass," says Marcus Mumford. "I mean, I'd listened to a lot of Dylan, but I hadn't really ventured into the country world so much. So Old Crow were the band that made me fall in love with country music."

For Critter Fuqua, there are no sea changes in music, just an ongoing organic process. New blood, after all, circulates.

"There's so many great banjo players in Nashville, and in the country, that could play rings around me," he says. "I play clawhammer; I'm not that good. I'm good at what I do in the band, you know, but I think us together, we just play our music and our instruments with such heart. We love to do it and it shows.

"Half of it's performance. We love putting on a show. It's not just getting onstage and pickin' your instrument. We like the shtick. It's fun."