Interview with Chance McCoy of Old Crow Medicine Show

Old Crow Medicine Show, everyone's favorite old-timey roots music band, are back with a brand-new album, Carry Me Back, and it's been getting some wonderful press (You can check out our review of the albumhere on KEXP's Blog)! But they've also added a new member, and though he doesn't appear on the new album, we're incredibly excited to see what he brings to the band. Chance McCoy is one of the brightest lights in old-time music, a renowned fiddler and singer whose debut album made him a well known name in insider old-time circles. He grew up in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, though he was born in Washington DC, and connected with the music after playing in garage and punk bands in the region. Following his solo debut album, he joined the band Old Sledge and cut two incendiary albums of straight-up old-time music before the group disbanded. Just a few months ago, he was snapped up to join Old Crow Medicine Show, playing guitar and fiddle and singing with the band. Old Crow seem stoked to have him, as Critter Fuqua told us: "Chance McCoy, besides being a dude with a great name, is one of the most tasteful and accomplished multi-instrumentalists and singers I have had the honor to play with. He's a natural fit for Old Crow in talent and in spirit, a true brother in arms." 

Hearth Music Interview with Chance McCoy of Old Crow Medicine Show


Are you staying in Nashville right now?

Chance McCoy: Yeah. I’m renting a house here and living with another band mate, Critter [Fuqua]. We’re sharing a house together and I’m gonna move down here full time at the end of the summer and rent my own house.

I see. What’s it like living with Critter?

CM: It’s great. It’s been wonderful living with Critter. He’s really funny and easy to get along with and he grew up in Harrisonburg, Virginia, so we have a similar background too, which is nice.

It’s just an arrangement until you get your own place?

CM: Yeah, I’m gonna try to get my own place here in the end of the summer. But Critter just moved back from Texas, so we both needed a place, so we found a place so we could have something for the summer cuz rehearsals started a couple of weeks ago, so we both moved down here about the middle of May.

So, Critter is actually coming back to the band, right? He had taken a break from the band?

CM: Yeah. He had taken a break from the band. He had been out of the band for 4 years.

What brought him back?

CM: What brought him back? Well, I think it was a timing thing. He was down there in Texas and he’s an alcoholic, so he had gone into treatment and rehab and had to get clean. He’s been clean and sober for a couple of years now, been down in Texas, and then Old Crow was on hiatus for a while, and then Ketch and Critter got back in touch with each other. They started to do some of that Ketch and Critter stuff together, and got the idea of doing the “Old Crow” thing together again and Critter was really, really into doing it. He just wanted to move back and he was in school down in Texas and he was getting an English degree. He was having an okay time in school but I think he really just realized that he really loved being a musician, and really loved being a songwriter, and now he’s clean and sober, there’s a lot to do here in Nashville. He just wanted to come back and be in the band, be here in Nashville doing his thing.

So, what’s the feeling in the band right now when you guys are getting together to rehearse? Is it a good feeling or is there still tension? How’s it going?

CM: There’s no tension at all. It’s awesome; everybody’s having a great time. So that’s a good feeling. We’re just all having a really good time, playing music together. There’s no tension at all, it’s really enjoyable, really fun. I think that’s good. I think they’d been under some tension for a while. It’s a good place to be in right now.

Chance McCoy: Gospel Plow

Well, tell me about joining Old Crow Medicine Show. It’s really exciting. How did that come about for you?

CM: That came out of nowhere. It was totally out of nowhere. I was just getting home from work one day; I was living in Floyd. I was getting home from a really long day and I came home and I checked my email on my phone right before I went to bed and there was an email from Ketch that said, “Hey, this is Ketch from Old Crow Medicine Show and we’re looking for a new member of our band and we’re really interested in you and we want you to come and audition for our band. So, get back to me and let me know what you think.” I took his phone number and called him up the next day and talked to him and he seemed like a really nice guy and he said that they wanted to get Old Crow back together and on the road again. They had a new record coming out and they wanted somebody to join the band as a singer and guitar player and banjo and fiddle too. They were looking for somebody who was steeped in old time music and they found me through Augusta Heritage Center because Ketch and Critter both went to Augusta when they were teenagers. They remembered from their experience there that there were a lot of really great old time musicians who teach there. When they were thinking about people to ask to audition for their band, they went to the Augusta web site and saw who was teaching this year and I was on the roster and then, they started asking around and they heard really good things about me. So they just decided to call me but it was completely out of the blue. I had never even met those guys before.

That’s crazy. You were pretty excited?

CM: Yeah, definitely. It was cool! I came down to Nashville; we set up an audition, and they gave me some pieces to audition with and I learned those pieces... There was 5 other people who auditioned for the part and we had a great time. It was like the audition turned into way more than an audition. We just ended up hanging out all day and playing a bunch of music. We did some recording together. I just felt really good, right off the bat. Then, they called me a couple of days later and said, “We want to give you a job.” That was exciting for sure.

You gotta tell me about this audition. Did it take place in a theater, like you were on stage and they were on chairs?

CM: Yeah, it was a lot more organic than that. They have a studio in Hendersonville, which is their studio. They said, “Come on down to Hendersonville and come down to our studio and audition. We’ll audition and we’ll record some of it, so we can listen back to it.” So I went down there and I rolled up to the studio in a non-descript brick building in the suburbs of Hendersonville. Their manager, Norm, was waiting for me outside and he introduced himself and he said, “Come on inside. The boys are just warming up now.” I could hear, inside the studio, it’s like rock music, it was like garage rock, like electric guitar and drums coming from inside the studio. I thought, “Oh, maybe there’s a session going on right now.” and I opened the door and Ketch had his electric guitar. He was whaling on it with his foot up on the amplifier and Critter was over in the corner beating the drums and they were just going at it, garage rock style, when I came in. There was a really funny scene but I have played garage rock and stuff like that too. It was, “Oh, cool, these guys rock out too.” It was a good feeling and then, we talked for a little while and then we just went upstairs basically and jammed like you would in an old time jam. We sat down, pulled out fiddle, guitar, banjo. Morgan was there with his bass and we just played some tunes. They were like, “Don’t worry about your audition pieces right now, let’s just sit down and play some music.” That’s what we did and then, we ran through some of the audition pieces and it was great! We passed the instruments around too, so I played some guitar and they had me play some fiddle and they had me play some banjo. We jammed for an hour or two, just hanging out jamming, and then we went and got some lunch and we came back, and then we got around mics and we recorded some of the audition pieces. It was fun. It wasn’t nerve wracking at all. It wasn’t high tension and it wasn’t like some auditions when you’re in bands this big, can be pretty business-like. This wasn’t like that at all. And then, after the audition was over, they were just like, “Hey, you want to hang out and help us record some stuff?” I was like, “Sure!” So we just ended hanging out the whole day.

Old Crow Medicine Show w/Chance McCoy (playing guitar next to the bass)

Sounds like the perfect audition. Have Old Crow Medicine Show been influential to you as an Old Time artist?

CM: They haven’t, because I didn’t listen to their music. I, of course, heard some of their songs and they were everywhere. I saw them playing at festivals and I appreciated what they did, but they weren’t influential to me as an old time artist because I was staying away from modern bands. Even the Old Crows, though obviously very traditional and very rooted in old time music; they’re still a contemporary band and all the stuff that I was listening to and being inspired by was old 78s and field recordings. So I wasn’t really that influenced by them, but it’s kind of funny, because, even though I wasn’t influenced by them, we have such a similar take on old time music. But the way I got into old time music, it was something that was really social, and it was something that young people did and it was very energized and very much dance music. I started playing old time music with this band called The Speakeasy Boys, which was a rag-tag bunch of kids that just graduated college that ran their own speakeasy in this college town, Shepherdstown, West Virginia. It was just basically a booze fest, selling beer out of a cooler and playing string band music. This band became really popular and we would pack our speakeasy and there would be 100 – 200 college kids there. They were dancing. It was very wild and energetic and then, when I got more into the old time scene, I was disappointed how tame it was in a way, where people just sat down in chairs and it just seemed very stuffy sometimes. When I wanted to do old time music, like perform it, I wanted to stand up and jump around stage and not be inhibited in performing it. I ran into some confrontations with that, where people thought that that was inappropriate, to be playing old time music and to be energizing it and making it a performance. So, it was nice to meet Old Crow and play with them because they totally got the performance aspect of it. For some kinds of old time music, going back to the tradition of minstrelsy, I think the show part of it is a big part of it. I think sometimes people miss that and they think old time music should be some kind of pure Appalachian traditional art form that is not performed. But I think, even if you look historically at it, there’s precedence for that. So, it was cool to meet those guys and play with them. They have the same attitude about performing.

 Yeah. The people who recorded old time music in the 20s and 30s, a lot of those guys were hard-core performers, who came out of medicine shows.

CM: Yeah, exactly. That’s what great about Old Crow, it’s “Old Crow Medicine Show”. Right off the bat, they’re already saying, “Hey, this is a show.”

Old Crow Medicine Show w/Chance Mccoy


Right, right. So you got in trouble, you said, when you were playing Old Time? Tell me about that.

CM: Well, yeah. I think you know. Some people just want to be stuffy and some kind of re-enactment of some forgotten style of music, and everything’s got to be by the book and played exactly like it is on old recordings. I was always really young and energetic and the music was my own. I learned it from other people and learned it from old recordings but I played it the way that I play it. Sometimes I want to get into it and have fun and yell a little bit and fuck stuff up. [laughing] So that offends people.

Did you get in trouble in West Virginia or playing outside of West Virginia?

CM: I think outside of West Virginia. The people in West Virginia are completely different about it. There’s not as many strict boundaries. Occasionally, somebody would get upset in West Virginia because I played something too fast or something wasn’t what they considered right. Most of the people in West Virginia, for them it’s just music. They don’t even have boundaries between Bluegrass and Old Time; that doesn’t even exist really. When I first got together with the Speakeasy Boys, they didn’t even know what old time music was, even though that’s what they were playing. They just thought it was bluegrass, they didn’t know really much about it. They just played the old songs. They had a washtub bass and a claw hammer banjo player but they considered themselves a bluegrass band just cuz they’d never really heard of old time music yet, even though that’s what they were playing. That’s funny.


Old Crow Medicine Show w/Chance McCoy on banjo


It must have pissed you off to be lectured about your own music by people who were outside of the tradition, who weren’t from your area.

CM: Yeah. It is kind of annoying but I don’t feel like I have any special claim to the music anymore than anyone else does, just cuz I’m from West Virginia. I just feel grateful that I was included in the scene there, was able to be part of the scene, because that’s such a special thing but I never really got up on a high horse and felt that I had any... That’s exactly the thing that I’ve been fighting against, is people thinking that they have some kind of claim or say against something, because I could do the same thing. I could get up on my pedestal and try to be all-righteous because I’m from West Virginia and be like, “Well, this is how it’s supposed to go.” But, whoever’s playing the music, they’re the one’s have to decide what they’re going to do with it. I feel like nobody has a right to tell anybody else what to do with their music even if it is a traditional music form. I just always thought the only thing that was really important about the old time music scene is that you learned it from other people that were in the scene. So there was always that connection, a healing connection.

You learned from your peers, you learned from people of your generation. Did you ever go back and try and hunt down older players or were you content to learn from your friends?

CM: I was influenced half and half. I definitely learned from older players. I hung out and played with some of the old-timers, like the real old-timers, like Lester McCumbers from West Virginia. A lot of them were passing away about the time that I was getting into the music. Some people felt a real need to go and visit people like Clyde Davenport and Lester McCumbers and go to their houses and hang out with them but I always felt kind of awkward doing that. I wasn’t friends with them really, so it just seemed kind of weird to be going over to their houses but they were around. A lot of the people that I learned from, the older folks, were my parent’s generation... A lot of those people in West Virginia; they weren’t old-old-timers. They weren’t 80 years old but they were in their 50s and 60s and those are the guys that I was really influenced by, but I was also influenced by my own peers a lot too. So, it was sort of a mix. But I didn’t have to go out for anybody too much. I just went to the festivals and everybody was there.

So, do you think that the torch has been passed from the baby boomer, folk-revival generation to the new generation of players, or did the new generation just take over and do it their own way?

CM: I think that there is definitely a torch passing going on. I think, overall, the older generation, our parent’s generation, has been really supportive, and they set the groundwork for us to come in. If they hadn’t been supporting festivals like Clifftop and camps like Augusta, we wouldn’t have had anything to go to or to get into. I know for people like me a huge part of being inspired by the music is to go to these festivals and just see all this great music being played... Just starting out, you can’t even play worth a shit and then you go see a hot jammer of the older generation playing and they're just tearing it up and that’s really inspiring. Without that, I don’t really think there would be a revival... It doesn’t seem to be that much tension between the generations. I think there’s always a little bit of tension between generations but I think, overall, there’s a real kinship there and real support and I think that the young generation has been enabled by the older one to come into the whole thing.


Chance McCoy: Yew Piney Mountain


Well said, well said. Your work has been described as having a punk attitude. What does that mean to you? Have you played actual punk music or do you more have an affinity for DIY punk culture?

CM: No. I definitely have played punk music. When I was growing up in West Virginia, when I was a teenager, I hadn’t heard old time music yet. I hadn’t even really heard bluegrass music yet, and I got hit by the Seattle sound, the grunge sound and then classic rock, so I learned how to play all that music first. And then, I think, just being Generation X, just having an independent attitude and having this underdog attitude, has carried over into my old time music too. So, I think that that’s been a big influence on me, just having that as a musical background and just an attitude. I think my generation just didn’t really give a shit about what was going on in the world, where people were at, and nobody wanted to join modern society. None of our friends wanted to be part of the system, we all wanted to rebel and do our own thing. I think we did in our own way; we eventually got pulled into this hole and now we’re trying to reclaim it with our own voice and our own music. That’s part of what I brought to old time music, is trying to reclaim it as my own music. I am still very much a part of something bigger but not feeling like I have to conform. That’s the non-conformance type of attitude, I think, that comes from punk music. I’m not gonna play it like somebody else. I’m not gonna listen, I’m not necessarily gonna take it if someone comes up and tells me it should be played a certain way, I’m more likely to just say, “Fuck you!” [laughing] And I think that comes with that attitude. To me, it’s not disrespectful, I still have very much respect for where the music’s coming from, I haven’t disrespected that, I just tried to take it as an independent thing and reclaim it. What’s going on here, and I’m sure that it’s the same on the West coast as it is on the East coast is, a lot of these kids are very counter-culture here, as far as the music. The music is very social; it’s not commercial, it’s not commercialized. Some aspects of it are, but for most people, old time music is a completely non-commercial art form, which is great. I think that’s a big part of what punk was, was having a non-commercial style of music.

Right, right. Does it seem a little ironic to you that, in trying to move away from mainstream society that you have adapted something that’s traditionally, a pretty conservative tradition? I mean, this is conservative, Southern culture, so they think.

CM: Well, what I’ve learned a lot about the music is that old time music was sort of the “bad boy” music though too. The moonshine, the drinking, the fights, and everybody knows what happens when you stay up all night playing music and drinking alcohol. It’s a good combination for non-Christian things to happen. [laughing] I think that’s a big part of it. This music is very rough and ready and to me, it doesn’t seem super-conservative as a music form.

Okay. I see. And now, you’re thinking about sticking around Nashville for a while, right? How do you like Nashville?

CM: Nashville’s great! I really like Nashville. I’ve come here and visited a couple of times and sort of have been interested in moving here several times but I didn’t want to try to come here and try to make it, quote, end quote. Now I have an opportunity to come play with this band, it was so easy just to come and do and I feel like, being here in Nashville, even the commercial country music industry’s here. There’s also a lot of other great music going on in Nashville and it’s starting to open up a lot, I think.



Chance McCoy and The Appalachian String Band: Debut


Old Sledge: Don


Old Sledge: EP


blog date 08/09/2012  | comments comments (0)