Valerie June and Old Crow Medicine Show Are Rippling the Pond Together

The friends and collaborators catch up.

Ketch Secor is the frontman of the Americana band Old Crow Medicine Show, as well as an author and the co-founder of the first Episcopal School in Nashville, TN; Valerie June is a singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and author from Memphis. Earlier last month, the two old friends got on a Zoom call to catch up about Valerie’s new guided workbook, the origin story of their friendship, Nashville, and much more. 
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Ketch Secor: Where are you?

Valerie June: I’m headed down to Texas this week — I’m in New York right now — and then to Tennessee.

Ketch: Back home again.

Valerie: Yeah. What about you?

Ketch: I’m here in Nashville. I just got in off the road. Tell me about your trip to Africa!

Valerie: Oh, my goodness, it was so amazing. It was the trip of a lifetime. The first thing that I experienced was being on this tiny, tiny plane and landing on a dirt landing strip in Lamu, [Kenya] which is right on the beach. And then the way you get around in Lamu is by either boat, donkey, or walking. [Laughs.] So that was new for me. I performed, I read poetry, and I got to collaborate with artists from different parts of Africa. There were some musicians from South Africa, some from Kenya, some from Tanzania, Uganda. It was a small gig — it’s called Littlegig — and it was really, really cool just to hear other people’s work. There were painters and fashion designers, and writers, and you would just go to their show and listen to their talk or their speech or whatever. And from there I went to the safari. Have you been on a safari, Ketch?

Ketch: I have not. But the first part you’re describing sounds so inspiring. I love the thought about the fellowship of trans-continental artistry and finding like minds from different cultures. I’ve taken such a deep dive on African folk music styles, particularly equatorial Africa — so music from Tanzania to Zimbabwe and Zambia and Congo, I know so much more about it than I ever did at any other time in my life. So I want to get this gig!

Valerie: Well, the thing about it too is, you and I were talking at Edmonton Folk Festival, and I was telling you that I was going and you were like, “Oh, they have a huge country music scene in Kenya.” And so when I returned from the safari and went to Nairobi, I went to a record shop in this market. It was full of all these vinyl records and 78s and all kinds of things, and this older gentleman owned it. I was looking through the records, and there was a lot from the Congo and a lot from many different parts of Africa, but the biggest section in the record shop was country music. You wouldn’t believe it. And so I said to the gentleman, “Do a lot of people here listen to country music?” He was like, “Are you kidding? Tons of people!” And he was like, “I don’t really like it, but I sell a lot of it…” [Laughs.]

Ketch: That’s great. I feel like Nashville has a lot of work to do in its creating the relationships with the far flung places that have been impacted by country music, and I think that Africa is certainly a principal among them. But I also think that there are other regions of the country that Nashville just doesn’t really consider as part of its story. One place I always wanted to go — there’s two places on Earth that are on my bucket list, and one is Equatorial Africa, and the other is the Arctic of Canada — another place where people love country music, where you can play country songs up there and people just go wild for it. It’s entered the consciousness.

Valerie: Wow. Every time I talk to you, it’s like speaking with an encyclopedia. I love it. 

Ketch: Let’s let ‘em know how we first met, because I think our story is a pretty interesting one.

Valerie: Well, I was in Memphis and I got invited to open for Old Crow at Rhodes College, and that’s what I remember. I was such a fan. I was very, very excited to get that invitation. It was like, Oh, my goodness, I can’t believe it! And the students of Rhodes College were the ones who put my name in the hat, and that’s how I got so lucky.

Ketch: Well, I don’t remember it that way at all, because all I remember was walking into a room and seeing you play and being instantly fascinated, a fan — interested, wanting to know more, loving what you were doing, and knowing that I was seeing somebody who was doing something that that I loved already in a different way than anybody I’d ever seen do it before. And that’s a pretty, that’s a jaw-dropping experience, because by that time I’d been in Old Crow for about 15 years or something — I’d been around the block — and yet you were just such a captivating performer. I think you were doing a Carter family tune, or just a really old song, and doing it with such a unique voice that I was stopped in my tracks. You were playing on a different floor of this sort of student conference center, and it was pouring down rain outside. I just knew right then and there I needed to learn everything I could about you, and I remember walking up to you, and I think I boldly asked if I could get your number. And I think I called you the next day. [Laughs.] 

Valerie: I was so shocked at your warmth because, I mean, everybody knows “Wagon Wheel” — I knew every lyric. Sometimes, you know, you meet people that you respect and admire, and they’re big stars, and you’re like, Oh, my god, they weren’t very sweet. And you just beam, in every way, and the band as well. You were like, “Hey, if you ever want to record some music, let me know, because I’m just in Nashville and if you come our way, we’ll make it happen.” So y’all invited me up, I said, “Sure, I’m going to do it.” And we went to — was it Whites Creek?

Ketch: Yeah. You came over, it was wintertime—  because I remember it was really cold — and I feel like it might have been around maybe 2011 or ‘10 or ‘12 or ‘09. I get mixed up on the dates, but you had already done some work in Nashville. You knew some people. And of course, your sister was at MTSU, so you had that family connection. I was impressed with how far along you already were, and I was just trying to be a collaborator. But we made some music together and recorded it, and Gill [Landry] and me — and Bo Stapleton, I think, was pretty influential on it, too, and this guy Larry, who had that studio up in Whites Creek. That’s all no more. I think there’s, like, 17 tall, skinny houses where that all was.

Valerie: Wow. Well, it did feel like we were driving far out into the country. Even though it’s very close to the city, it’s rural out there, so it reminded me a lot of where I grew up — Humboldt, Tennessee — and just being in the middle of the country. And you mentioned that I knew people in Nashville — my lawyer at the time, Coy Martin, introduced me to all these people. We would meet people, and those connections were grounding for me in my career, but the doors just weren’t opening. The doors opened after working with you, and just the warmth — y’all created a home and a space for me in that in Nashville. Because I certainly didn’t feel very embraced at first, when I hit the ground there. So it was great to meet y’all and see a different side of it. And then we did a performance over at — I can’t remember the name of it, but it was a family restaurant type place.

Ketch: You and me played at a family restaurant? 

Valerie: Yeah! In Nashville. It was like a restaurant, but they had music. And so we got to do some of the songs in front of an audience after recording them. I can’t remember what the name of that place was, but that was so cool.

Ketch: I just remember getting ready for the showcase gig. Because, I mean, I always wanted to do more than just be a singer-songwriter guy. I wanted to be a producer guy. And I also had management type instincts. I always was really interested in the business of music just as much as I was in the performance of it, or the conjuring of it. And so I was 30 or something when we met, and you were somebody who made me think, Oh, maybe I’m supposed to get into another side of this work. Maybe I’d be like a talent scout, you know? Because I always thought that a woman like you belonged in country music and in Nashville, and yet it didn’t seem like Nashville thought that at all. And I wanted to stand up to that, because I felt like Davey and that looked like Goliath to me, and I wanted to hit him in the eye with a rock and wake him up out of its slumber to say, “This is a woman from an hour outside of Nutbush, Tennessee — this is what Tennessee music sounds like!” Nashville, especially 10, 12 years ago, was a lot more old guard. It’s a tough word, but the country music business has had a bit of an apartheid-like stance for about 100 years, and it’s been an edifice that needs to be cracked really deliberately. It’s a wall that needs to come down brick-by-brick, and it’s still coming down. And yet as it comes down, it’s still being erected, so we really gotta hustle to take it apart. I just feel like that’s what I was called to do. 

Valerie: Deep breath on my end there. [Laughs.] In all these years, I see the growth and I’m so grateful for it, and the way you just said that — I’m emotional today anyway, but definitely it brings a few tears to the sides of my eyes. Because being from Tennessee and that being my home — Joyce Cobb is a Memphis jazz musician and years ago she said, “You sound amazing. If you ever want to make it, you need to leave here.” I was like, OK. [Laughs.] She’s an older woman and she is very successful — she teaches at Memphis University — and it just really hurt me. I don’t want to hear that. But she was very wise to say that. 

And it’s still like that to me, because I feel that in Tennessee, we embrace things outside ourselves, but we don’t really embrace what is there — what was born drinking that muddy water from the Forked Deer River or walking those fields where the cotton was grown. We’ll embrace all the other states and we’ll embrace anything but what came from our own. And so the way you just said that, I couldn’t have said it any better. But to be embraced at all and be of color is worth something. I’ll say that. So we’re getting somewhere. 

Ketch: Well, it’s about damn time, I’ll say that.

Valerie: [Laughs.] Yes, Lord. It’s a little wild. But you know, as you said, as soon as we were [taking down] this one side, then this other side is being built at the same time. But that’s why I like to work in spirit ways, and I like to work small, because I think the work of just laying one brick at a time, we’re doing this for the future. We might not see the end result be what we want it to be in our lifetime — because for you, you said [it’s been] 15 years you’ve been doing your own music with Old Crow before you even met me, and you and I have known each other for a decade now! So this work is long. It takes a lot of longevity.

Ketch: Well, I’ve loved seeing where you’ve taken things since I first crossed paths with you, and did my best to try and impart wisdom and fellowship for you in those early days. You just took to flight. So it’s been pretty cool to see the ways that that you’ve grown, adapted, and expressed yourself, going on to New York and making some really powerful, critically acclaimed records and becoming a mainstay on the circuit. I didn’t see you there because you were working so hard for about five years after we first met, and then we caught up in Australia in about 2016 or ‘17. And that’s when I got to finally touch down with you and learn about some of some of the things that you were feeling and thinking. Since then, I only got to spend a little bit of time with you this summer — I guess I thought when I first met you that I was going to see a whole lot more of you in my life. I’m glad that this conversation has brought us back together, and that show we did up in Alberta. And your book, which you just sent to me — tell me a little bit about that. I’m an author, too, and I’m curious how it’s been for you since your book came out.

Valerie: Well, it’s been a month, and I was in Africa when it came out. It’s been really sweet since, because I went on tour right after I got back, and we did something before the performances that was like a mini workshop. We didn’t allow any more than 30 people to come to the venue before the performance, and we did some of the exercises from the book together. It was so wonderful to just have that one-on-one contact with people, and then afterwards, them be able to ask me questions about sharing light and beauty in this dark world.

What I found with this book is that it opens the door for conversations to be had, and for me to learn from my listeners and from people that are inspired by my work. I’m learning so much there. It’s a guide book, a guided journal — so it’s like, I don’t feel like I have any answer for what this world could be, but I think collectively we all have a lot of questions, and if we start asking them of each other and having conversations and holding space, then we start writing new stories. And that’s kind of what’s been happening in small spaces for me. 

Ketch: I just love the concept behind the guided journal, that there’s a collectivism to us telling our personal stories. I can’t think of a better contribution — and really a more Valerie June way of putting herself out there. It’s so you. I remember when your first record came out and you had a moniker for it that was so original — I think it had the word “moonshine” in it, and it might have had “organic” in it too.

Valerie: [Laughs.] “Organic moonshine roots music.”

Ketch: [Laughs.] That’s right, that’s what you called it! I think you’ve always had a unique way of expressing yourself that is so true to you. And that truth is just so refreshing, because there’s a lot of different ways to be a musician. One of them is to try and get famous doing it, and I think that’s a motivator for a lot of people. I always saw you as a more process-oriented type of artist who was just looking to make peaceful her corner of the world. 

I feel myself more of a duality. I feel resigned to folk music. You know, I probably wanted to rock — I probably wanted to be an actor or a tap dancer or a movie star — but through the twists and turns of my coming of age, I gravitated towards the banjo and the fiddle, and that became my soapbox. But it also became my ceiling, because I think I’ve taken it as far as you can take a fiddle and a banjo. But I always wanted to take it further. I think that for me is one of the reasons why I’ve sought out artists like you and others, and have sought to work with them in the capacity of development so that I can help expand it, make the ceiling higher. You know, if I can make the ceiling higher for you, then I’m making it higher for me too.

Valerie: And you are such an excellent mentor for me and so many of us coming up. Watching you even in being an author and knowing, Oh, well, that’s possible too, the door is open there, too. I don’t have to just choose one form of using my creativity. What’s it like for you? Do you feel divided when you’re writing a book? Do you feel like you’re not focusing on your music? Or do they go side by side?

Ketch: Well, I wrote this book — it’s a children’s book and it’s called Lorraine: The Girl Who Sang the Storm Away, and it is a book that I first started thinking about when I was a kid myself, about 18. I had been up in East Tennessee, where behind me there was a tobacco field. I was squatting in this old lady’s house, didn’t have any running water — it was sort of like some intentional hillbilly boot camp kind of lifestyle thing that Old Crow was doing back in the late ‘90s. And so this elderly woman had given me her house to stay in as long as I fixed it up. West Tennessee is really different from East Tennessee, particularly when it comes to topography — you know, East Tennessee has really high and rugged mountains, and West Tennessee is rolling hills. But what West Tennessee has a lot of is ramshackle, fallen down houses, and that’s what I was living in up on the east side of the state. 

Anyway, I met this woman of Cherokee descent named Lorraine, and she told me a story about her pet crow and I started thinking, That’d be a good story for kids. So I spun out this book, but I couldn’t find anybody to illustrate it. The publisher was sending all these cheesy, sort of computer generated looking graphics, and finally I was on the website of the art college here in Nashville, and I met this woman, Barbara Higgins Bond. Now, Barbara, who went to Memphis State and is from Little Rock, was the first African-American woman to design a US postage stamp. She hadn’t illustrated a book in 20 years — she’s in her early 70s now. Well, I brought her out of retirement, and she created this character based on her granddaughter, and it’s just been such a powerful combination of her artwork and my words to be able to tell the story. I’ve read this book to more than 10,000 children, and I just know that the change that we want to see in the world begins with sitting down with kids and exemplifying peace and love and and opportunity. 

We live in a tough state. You know, there’s a high infant mortality rate in our state, one of the highest in the country. There is a low graduation rate, one of the lowest in the country. Tennessee is a problematic place for children to come of age, so it’s just ever so important that artists like you and I take a stand for our kids, because the continuum continues and we really gotta raise them up. Right?

Valerie: It’s true. I’ve visited several schools around the kids book, Somebody to Love, and so many of the schools, in a musical state, don’t have much of a music program anymore. So the kids were really excited to have music coming in. And I was just coming in to play and and read the story. But I think about it — and the literacy rates and just ways we can get kids excited about learning and growing in that way — and music, I think, is a big way to do that. I think it’s a good way to open the door for kids, because most kids love sound. They love just playing with sounds and seeing where it goes, you know? So if you can somehow connect that to science and math and reading, then you’re getting ahead on something. How’s your school?

Ketch: Oh, pretty good. We’re in our eighth year. We got a permanent building now. We got 150 kids — when I started it, there were 16. So it’s really coming along. It’s not without its problems, because it’s so hard to raise money, but, you know, both my children go to this school, and 153 other kids. About half of them are on scholarship, and we have a really great, diverse community. I think a lot about the concept that others and, of course, Dr. King came up with called the Beloved Community — and Valerie, I feel like you and me are in the Beloved Community together. And I think that our work together and as individuals expands the Beloved Community to include others. So you’re over there in Tanzania, and you’re inviting people into your Beloved Community that we all share, and I’m inviting people in and I want people of all stripes in my Beloved Community, because that’s what makes it so beloved. 

We got a short time here and there’s a lot of work to be done. I know I’m feeling really heavy hearted about the affairs of the world, and I was curious how you’re feeling when you turn on the news.

Valerie: Definitely super emotional. I have days where, you know, I just cry. But I also have never felt more moved to create spaces of beauty and to highlight beauty, and to use beauty as a political force. Because what we really want to see, us in the Beloved Community, is more expansion of beauty. And so I think where we focus our energy is what we create. So while I think we need to know what’s going on in the news and we need to be aware of what’s happening in the world, we also have to take that and be alchemists with that energy. We cannot stay in the place of the heaviness and the darkness. We have to use that as motivation for creating and expanding the Beloved Community. Because every single second that we spend spiraling and spinning and feeling helpless is a second that we could be spending in the opposite direction. 

So, I don’t know. I feel that sometimes when I talk about beauty or I think about beauty, or I speak about small things or what a single person is able to do with one breath or one thought, it just seems like speaking to the side of a brick wall or something. Because people really, really want to hear something that’s going to make them jump up and feel some kind of rage or whatever. But I think there’s something to be said for creating a space of something beautiful and something tiny in just your home, your heart, your community and how that expands out across the world.

Ketch: I’m glad you’re not getting too down to continue that work. I agree with you. And yet, sometimes it feels like I’m watching the children of Gaza flee or the children of Israel run from bullets and I think, Wait, I’m supposed to write songs? I’m supposed to make sure that my kids go to the orthodontist? What are my responsibilities in comparison to, you know, the moms and dads of Crimea or the east of Ukraine? So I feel a little bit paralyzed sometimes when I take scope of my artist life and the privileges of having a life in which the expansion of beauty seems like that’s what I’m here to do. All you can do in the wake of tragedy, if you’re a person like you or me, is sing and build community and offer music as restorative, as hope, as optimism, as healing, as mourning, as lamentation. But we’re dealing with notes and sounds, and it just feels like when the perpetrator is dealing in bullets or in crimes or in injustice or in environmental catastrophe — going back to little Davey and big old Goliath, it’s just like hurling stones at a missile thrower, hurling rocks at a rocket ship. It just seems like you have to make an awful lot of beauty in the world if you’re going to counteract all the evil, all the ugliness.

Valerie: As I think about that, I think about my ancestors and what they went through as enslaved people, and what the mindset of being like Harriet Tubman had to be to pull out of conditions that were war zones. And even for our kids living in Memphis — which is such a violent town, and they’re not even able to go out on the street and play — I think about, Well, what does the mindset have to be in order to truly embody Dr. King’s Beloved Community? What do I need to think today as I watch these kids run in fear in war zones? What do I need to do? What can I do? What is my space and where is my power? Because every day we’re making small choices that add up to justify certain things that are happening in the world. And I think it starts first with the mind. So having our minds in a certain space to open up a way for growth to happen, for energies to shift. So that’s what I think in terms of beauty — that if my ancestors were to hold on to the pain and the trauma only, then I would probably not be sitting here free today. They had to shift their energy and focus and call forth something new in order for that to even start to be a possibility, they had to begin to see it. And so if all we can see is the pain and the heaviness, then it makes it very difficult for us to really, really start to put our boots on the ground and move toward what we want it to be like.

Ketch: Right on. I think it’s a thorny branch, and you are the flower.

Valerie: Uh, not alone. [Laughs.] Not without you, don’t put me out there like that!

Ketch: [Laughs.] Yeah, well, we’re gonna keep rippling this pond together. We’re going to keep throwing the big rocks and making them splash and making waves — and we’re going to ride them waves, and the new generation’s coming up that is going to ride those waves. I’m really glad you reminded me of Memphis — there’s so much work that musicians can do to help be inspirations, to shine a light in the dark places, in Memphis, Tennessee. We need it in Nashville too. And we need each other. And I’m so, so grateful that the Great Spirit brought us together.

Valerie: Me too, me too.

Ketch Secor is a songwriter, author, co-founder of the first Episcopal School in Nashville, TN, and the frontman of the Grammy-winning Americana string band Old Crow Medicine Show. Their latest record, Jubilee, is out now on ATO Records.