Ever since he was a teenager, Ketch Secor has been obsessed with Bob Dylan.
“In any kind of relationship with the arts, you come up as an apprentice,” he told The Star recently. “And he’s the master. He’s the best.”
Not many music apprentices get to collaborate with their masters, but Secor has now worked with Dylan twice. In 2004, with permission from Dylan, Secor’s Nashville-based band, Old Crow Medicine Show, released the song “Wagon Wheel.”
Secor wrote it from a piece of an unfinished Dylan song he’d heard years before on a collection of B-sides and rarities. The single has sold more than 1 million copies and inspired a cover version by Darius Rucker, who turned it into a No. 1 country hit. (Rucker’s version has sold more than 3 million copies.)
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Dylan was pleased by it all.
“Jeff Rosen, his manager, sent me a congratulatory note,” Secor said. “It basically said, ‘Way to go. You got a No. 1 hit. Bob takes that seriously when he does get one because he doesn’t get a lot.’
“Shortly after that, we got another email that said, ‘Hey, Bob wants you to take a crack at another song from the same session as the other.’ It was pretty amazing.”
That song is “Sweet Amarillo,” and it appears on “Remedy,” Old Crow Medicine Show’s sixth studio album, which was released July 1. This time, Secor said, the collaboration with Dylan was much different.
“With ‘Wagon Wheel,’ it was all about doing it myself first and not asking anyone,” he said. “Then maybe 10 years later, when we got somebody from his camp to sign off on it, we released it. So it wasn’t collaborative at all.”
However, Dylan had significant input on “Sweet Amarillo.”
“It started with me working up verses and a melody,” Secor said. “It’s a waltz, so it was kind of tricky to get it all together. I spent a lot of time listening to Marty Robbins’ ‘El Paso’ over and over and over. I made the demo and sent it to Bob and he really liked it.”
But Dylan had a stipulation or two.
“He said I should play fiddle instead of harmonica, and the chorus should come after 16 bars, not 32. So, yeah, he had a hand in producing it.”
Secor said he spent a few hours writing the song over the course of last summer. “I got the track at the end of May (2013), and by September we had it back with his blessings.”
The song is part of an album that Secor calls “joyful” and represents a new studio approach by Old Crow.
“We went into the studio thinking, ‘Let’s have a great time and make a joyful and spirited album, but let’s put more effort into it and study harder for it,’” he said. “We went in with lots of material and took more time to get ready.”
It also represents a band whose spirit has been renewed by the return of Critter Fuqua. With Fuqua and Willie Watson, Secor founded the band in 1998. Watson left the band shortly before Fuqua returned in late 2011, ending a four-year hiatus.
“The spirit of this lineup, we’re like the 1985 Kansas City Royals,” he said. “We’ve got a pennant-winning team in Old Crow, with Dan Quisenberry and George Brett and we’re gonna kill ’em.”
(Is he a Royals fan? “I was a Cardinal fan in 1985,” he said. “But you guys showed us.”)
Old Crow Medicine Show is a seven-piece all-acoustic band based in Nashville that plays old-time country music with a contemporary vibe. Its mission is to stay true to the string-band tradition but get itself heard in the country capital of the world, where modern country reigns.
It is making gains on both ends. In 2013, the band was invited to become members of the Grand Ole Opry.
“The biggest challenge for our band is having our songs be comparable to other folks making records in Nashville,” Secor said. “That’s the hard thing about it: How do you with acoustic instruments get on the same level as what’s on the radio coming out of Nashville?
“And we’ve accomplished that with this album. It’s as loud and as present as anything on commercial country radio, yet we did it all with acoustic instruments.”
And by evoking a sound that feels neo-traditional but genuine. Secor said one of the things he learned from studying Dylan is to borrow and steal from the right people.
“He taught me the folk process,” he said. “It’s about the distillation of songs you’ve had in your head when your head was sort of a virgin wilderness and how to turn those songs into songs of your own. It’s kind of like professional theft. He taught me to steal from the best and from him, because he’s the best.
“I mean, he stole from Pete (Seeger), Woody (Guthrie) and Liam Clancy. Those guys were the best, and it made sense to me that this generation would steal from Bob. It’s the only way to go.
“Songwriters and musicians, they typically don’t meet their masters. They listen to them. You listen to the Beatles’ albums, you don’t sit down and have lunch with them.”
Secor has never dined with or spoken to Dylan, but he has now co-written two songs with him, something that still boggles his mind.
“It’s a kind of a strange phenomenon, to find yourself being called up by the master as an apprentice and have him say, ‘Here’s a scrap of a song — would you finish it?’” he said. “It’s something you daydream about as something that could not possibly come true. But if it did come true, it’d be a real trip.”
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Old Crow Medicine Show performs at the Uptown Theater, 3700 Broadway. The Carolina Chocolate Drops open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $39.50 through ticketmaster.com.