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Old Crow Medicine’s “Angel from Montgomery” anchored Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows: Songs of John Prine ten years ago. We recently caught up with Old Crow lead singer Ketch Secor to talk about the late, great legend, his influence on the band, and recording his most well known song.
“The first time I met John Prine was on my birthday,” Secor says. “It was when I turned thirty on May 14, 2008. Felt like a big deal. I wanted to get the best lunch I could have in town so I met my friend at the Silver Sands [soul food cafe in Nashville]. I got meatloaf, sweet fried corn, turnip greens and hot water cornbread. Then in walks John Prine.”
Alt-country Specialty Chart: Did you talk with him?
Ketch Secor: No. I was just like, “Oh, my god, there he is.” I watched John walk through the line and get the same as me: meatloaf, turnip greens, sweet fried corn, and hot water cornbread. He sat down one table away from me. That was my birthday present. I didn't say hi. I didn't say I was a singer, too. I didn't ask if he had ever heard of me. I just walked away. It was such a gift to see that we had gotten the same thing. That made me feel like a man of good taste.
Explain how you discovered his music.
I had heard John Prine for the first time in high school. My buddy who was more hip than me had a family in San francisco who had a copy of “Lake Marie.” We played it on our radio show, and I had never heard anything so awesome. I was so into “Lake Marie.” Then fast-forward until I was eighteen and I got my first John Prine record Bruised Orange.
I wanted to know everything I could about John after that. I felt so moved by his creation of a new indigenous-oriented mythology and fable in “Lake Marie.” I always wanted to see a cast of characters who were American and could exemplify the divinity of God and man as written in the Bible or other sacred texts. There wasn't any part of the Mormon book that felt like what I was after.
Explain what draws you to the song as a songwriter.
I always appreciated the way songwriters, playwrights, and novelists could create an American mythology. I think “Lake Marie” does it better than most. I think that's it's important that it's happening in Manitoba, Canada, above the lakes. The story is in another world and collects these moldering newspaper clippings and stories within a story. There's a great use of mythology and narrative.
I could talk about that song all morning. It's super meta. One thing John did better than most is that he has a way of anointing the characters in his songs. Loretta becomes a saint when he sings, “when me and Loretta don't talk much no more.” Sam Stone puts the needle in his arm and becomes a tragic angel. John was able to make for us beauty out of tragedy in the human experience.
Describe how crowds react when you play a Prine song live.
We typically see two rival factions in the front row of an Old Crow show having a really good time, but we were singing “Paradise” in Western Kentucky one time. It was so beautiful to see this largely conservative crowd confronted with a song that speaks to an environmentalism that's in your own back yard. It's hard to reduce it to an agenda or a terminology.
You can't just say, “This is a song by the crazy liberals or environmentalist wackos or new Green Deal.” Do we all deserve clean water? Yes. Do we all have the right to live and breathe? Yes. That song is such an wrecking ball to those aphorisms that polarize people and make them think environmentalism is some crazy city plan. It's about pastoral landscapes like Western Kentucky.
Talk about recording ‘Angel from Montgomery’ for his Broken Hearts tribute.
We went into Cowboy Jack Clement's to record that. Knowing Jack and John at the same time sure made each of them richer to me. Knowing them both made Prine taller and Cowboy brighter. They were already so large in my mind. Anyway, we were up there at Jack's to record “Saddle in the Rain” and it went great.
Then somebody said to sing this one out of the blue. That was fun, but my favorite memory of John was singing “Lake Marie” at Bonnaroo and having Kris Kristofferson sit on the corner of the stage watching us the entire time. We probably did about six or eight shows together and he would always have us out on the stage with him.
Was playing with him nerve-wracking?
There's always a general nervousness that artists like me feel when they're onstage with their heroes, too. You worry that you're too stoned or won't be able to do a cool solo. There's this feeling of, “Oh, my god, don't fuck this up. This is everything you ever wanted.” It's hard to be with your heroes onstage. You only get to do it five or six times or sometimes once. You think about yourself and how you shouldn't be thinking about yourself.
The best part is when it's over. It's like a thoroughbread racer. You're kicking to get out of that stall and then you're out, you're out, you're out, you're done. You're like, “I'm so glad that's over. I don't know if I won or lost, but there are a whole lot of roses flying around right now. Maybe one is for me.”
- Brian T. Atkinson
Artist: Byron Dowd
Hometown: Celina, Texas
Album: High Road
Release Date: April 3, 2019
Record Label: Self
Album’s common lyrical theme: “These songs remind me of a relationship. Worn out doesn't mean something can't work. You just need to try new things sometimes. We need to look and work outside the comfort zone to see or hear beauty in things every now and then.” – Byron Dowd
- Brian T. Atkinson
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