“If it’s never been new and never gets old, it’s a folk song.”
So says the fictionalized protagonist of the 2013 Coen Brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis. He delivers his canned stage banter at the Gaslight Café circa 1961, the setting of the first great folk revival in American popular music. His glibness aside, Davis’ words speak to the romantic preconceptions that have resuscitated the genre’s commercial and cultural import several times since.
It’s not clear, though, what he would think of “Wagon Wheel,” a tune that embodies not just fans’ wistful nostalgia, but also the crass excess that nostalgia fuels in today’s Americana marketplace.
Penned by Old Crow Medicine Show frontman Ketch Secor in the late ’90s and borrowing its chorus from an unreleased song fragment by Bob Dylan, “Wagon Wheel” solidly predates O Brother Where Art Thou?, another Coen Brothers movie that helped kickstart folk music’s renewed popularity back in 2001. At some point in the last 10 years, though, it emerged as the unlikely anthem for restless legions eager to unleash the banjo — and all of its rustic associations — as a building block in modern popular music. You can hear it at frat parties, weddings, baseball games and barrooms across America, its saturation approaching the ubiquity of standards like “Free Bird” and “The Weight.”
What: Old Crow Medicine Show
Where: Township Auditorium, 1703 Taylor St.
When: 8 p.m., Thursday, April 24
With: Robert Ellis
More Info: thetownship.org
Witness the recent “Wagon Wheel” cover by country music superstar Darius Rucker or the original’s stark similarity to early hits by newer groups like Mumford & Sons, The Avett Brothers and The Lumineers. As much as any Coen Brothers soundtrack, Old Crow helped shape the tenor of folk music’s latest revival, a mantle that doesn’t bother longtime Old Crow member Critter Fuqua in the slightest.
“Growing up in [rural Virginia], we really had to search out [old-timey] music,” he recalls. He and Secor have been friends since childhood. “Folk music or Americana was really kept alive by some of the hippie generation, particularly in upstate New York. But it’s just an ebb and flow.”
Fuqua demurs when offered the chance to celebrate his band’s trailblazing position for younger, more successful bands. He refers to Old Crow as “just a link in the chain” and refuses to pass judgment on his more pop-friendly peers. “It’s got to change, and it’s got to stay relevant,” he says. “We’re just happy to be playing on a level that’s sustainable.”
The group started as a rag-tag group of buskers blasting through a seamless blend of old-timey covers and original material with punk rock spirit and bluegrass precision. Doc Watson famously discovered Old Crow on a sidewalk in 2000 and invited the band to play MerleFest. To Fuqua and his cohorts, the idea of penning a tune for country radio was anathema. Of the group’s four studio albums and assorted singles, only “Wagon Wheel” has piqued any mainstream interest.
“I’ve never really felt like we belonged anywhere in particular,” he says. “We seem to draw fans from all other genres. Lots of hippies and rednecks love us.”
Much of the band’s early success came from its desire to be little more than an old-time string band. From the name to the casual donning of cowboy hats and flannel to the down-home performance style, every aspect of Old Crow’s aesthetic pointed to this ambition. But the members are also astute songwriters; check the earnest anti-war tune “Big Time in the Jungle” or the Dylan-esque protest ode “I Hear Them All.”
For musicians like Charles Funk, guitarist in Columbia’s similarly ragged and energetic Black Iron Gathering, this songwriting proficiency is as important as the aesthetic Old Crow helped popularize: “[Bands like that] are opening people’s ears, hearts and minds to real lyrics,” he offers, “and giving a fair listen to instruments like fiddles, banjos, mandolins, accordions and acoustic guitars.”
Others, like Daniel Machado — leader of Lexington’s The Restoration, a band that deals with complex themes, but rarely with restraint — see the popular shift toward folk music as more organic. He isn’t sold on Old Crow as central to this rise. Instead, he cites films like O Brother, Cold Mountain and Walk the Line as his primary inspirations.
“I think this folk boom was really just a backlash against the over-saturation of post-hardcore pop-rock,” he opines, returning to “Wagon Wheel” and postulating that its oversaturation makes it difficult to evaluate the song — or the band — objectively. Perhaps, despite the commercial and critical intrigue, listeners should just embrace the simple pleasure of a song well-played.
That’s how Fuqua feels, anyway. He’d be fine returning to the street corners that gave Old Crow its start, so long as he can keep playing.
“When the nuclear apocalypse comes, we’ll be just fine,” he says. “We can always just play.”
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