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Old Crow Medicine Show's Ketch Secor Writes A New Song For A Troubled America

Jun 18, 2020
Originally published on June 18, 2020 3:46 pm

First, a pandemic, then economic collapse and now there are mass demonstrations over police brutality and racism.

In times of upheaval like this, music can be an escape. Maybe a way to reflect or try to make sense of things. This is what led to a new series we're launching today. For the Morning Edition Song Project, we've been asking musicians to write and perform an original song for us.

"What I really wanted to do was to write a song that felt like 'God Bless America,' but I also wanted to have a little 'This Land is Your Land,' too," says Ketch Secor, the lead singer of Old Crow Medicine Show and the first guest in the series.

"I think we, as songwriters, got to keep adding to the canon of songs about America because we need to update it," he says. "These are troubling times and we need new songs about our country to inspire unity."

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When we approached Secor some weeks ago, we asked him to write a song about the pandemic. The demonstrations sparked by the police killing of George Floyd hadn't started yet.

The song Secor wrote is called "Pray for America," and he hopes it speaks to this moment as well.

"You know when you write music, you're trying to make universal statements. Great songs like 'Blowin' in the Wind,' they're not about particular vantage points, they're not about any particular side or affiliation," he says. "Great songs are there for all to enjoy, and for all to see themselves in. So writing a song about COVID-19, if it's any good, it ought to be able to translate from a global pandemic to a cry for justice."

Listen to the full interview, including a conversation with Old Crow Medicine drummer Jerry Pentecost about navigating Nashville's country music scene as a black man, in the audio player above.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

First, a pandemic and economic collapse, then mass demonstrations over police killings and racism. In times of upheaval like this, music can be an escape, maybe a way to reflect, try to make sense of things. Well, this is what led to a new series we're launching today. We've been asking musicians to write and perform an original song for us. We're calling it The MORNING EDITION Song Project.

KETCH SECOR: What I really wanted to do was to write a song that felt like "God Bless America." But I also wanted to have a little "This Land Is Your Land," too.

GREENE: That is Ketch Secor. He is the lead singer of the band Old Crow Medicine Show. And he's the first guest in our series.

SECOR: We as songwriters, we got to keep adding to the canon of songs about America because we need to update it. These are troubling times. And we need new songs about our country to inspire unity.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRAY FOR AMERICA")

OLD CROW MEDICINE SHOW: (Singing) When sorrows are befallen and shadows darken her door When the fever spreads and a silent scourge outshines her golden shores.

GREENE: So this is the song Ketch wrote, "Pray For America." When we approached him some weeks ago, we asked him to write a song about the pandemic. The demonstrations sparked by the police killing of George Floyd hadn't started yet. But Ketch says he hopes his song speaks to this moment as well.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRAY FOR AMERICA")

OLD CROW MEDICINE SHOW: (Singing) America to thee may God's hands outreach. Lord, have mercy on America.

SECOR: When you write music, you're trying to make universal statements. Great songs like "Blowin' In The Wind," they're not about particular vantage points. They're not about any particular side or affiliation. Great songs are there for all to enjoy and for all to see themselves in. So writing a song about COVID-19, if it's any good, it ought to be able to translate from a global pandemic to a cry for justice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRAY FOR AMERICA")

OLD CROW MEDICINE SHOW: (Singing) Pray for America, our promised land.

GREENE: Over the past few months, Ketch saw a tornado rip through his hometown of Nashville. During the pandemic, he lost work. He saw relatives get sick. When we spoke, it was the cry for racial justice that was on Ketch's mind. And it's actually something the band has been talking about a lot. Their drummer, Jerry Pentecost, is one of the few African Americans on Nashville's mostly white country music scene. And he was with Ketch when we talked.

JERRY PENTECOST: To me, the problem when I talk to people and I tell them what I do - I play drums in country bands - you know, like, from both sides, people are like, really? You know, I don't see anything weird about it. But black and white people alike are always kind of thrown off by it or assume that I have another gig, you know, with a gospel band, that this is just, like, my paycheck on the side.

GREENE: Jerry is also a big runner. So when a black jogger, Ahmaud Arbery, was chased by white men and fatally shot in Georgia, Jerry thought about himself.

PENTECOST: I think it's probably the one thing that's affected me the most because I'm a avid jogger. I've been jogging since high school. Every time I lace up my shoes and I leave the house, I give my wife a kiss goodbye because, like, that could be the last time that I get to do that.

GREENE: You think about that every time you put your shoes on and go running?

PENTECOST: Every single time. And that was before this. So now it's even more present. But I'm 6'3. I'm only 150 pounds. But because I'm tall, I feel like I'm viewed as a threat. And when we walk our neighborhood, I kind of need my wife and our dog so that way people don't think that I'm casing their houses.

GREENE: I want to ask you guys about a meeting, it sounds like, you had where the other members of the band, Jerry interviewed you about race and about this moment. Can you guys take me through that? Like, whose idea was sitting down and doing that?

PENTECOST: That was Ketch's idea, actually. Before George Floyd, I had approached him with an issue that was bothering me. It was the lack of A-list minority session players, not just black, but people of all colors and genders. And the lack of session work that comes my way, I've struggled with. And so I brought it to him. And he was like, you know, you're right. We should address it. And I feared to address it because I didn't want to be blacklisted. I didn't want people to think that, oh, he's a troublemaker. And so I sat on it for a little bit.

And then George Floyd happened. You know, Ketch was like, well, why don't we sit down and, like, just kind of, like, talk about it? You know, like, it might be nice just to get some of this stuff off of your chest. So I told some experiences. It was painful. They were very, very supportive. And, yeah, we talked for, like, an hour and a half. And he was right. I had been holding onto so much, from, you know, like, dating girls whose fathers didn't accept me, so the girl would tell them I was gay so that we could hang out, all the way to being pulled over because I just happened to be in the wrong neighborhood at the wrong time and being harassed by the cops, being arrested, you know, like, being handcuffed for no reason.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRAY FOR AMERICA")

OLD CROW MEDICINE SHOW: (Singing) Lord, have mercy on America.

GREENE: So Ketch, "Pray For America," can you kind of take me through the songwriting process a little, like, what inspired it and what you were reaching for?

SECOR: Well, David, you know, we're down here in Tennessee. And all along Roadside America in the South, you'll see these signs that say, pray for America. And yet, they don't often make me feel a spirit of unity. It often feels like pray for America because things are wrong with America that have to do with a political spectrum. And so I kind of wanted to take the page of just make it holy. Just make it really asking God. So I don't know if God knows what America is. But if God does, then I hope that the Great Spirit will lay a blessing on us, man, because we need it pretty bad here in this country.

GREENE: Jerry, what's on your mind as you're playing drums on this song and listening to the lyrics?

PENTECOST: Basically, just the American dream. Who's it for? Because to me, the American dream, I'm sure mine is completely different than yours. And, you know, like, I hope that we all can, like, land on the same page.

GREENE: So after we spoke, Ketch Secor, Jerry Pentecost and Old Crow Medicine Show performed "Pray For America" for us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRAY FOR AMERICA")

OLD CROW MEDICINE SHOW: (Singing) America to thee may God's hand outreach.

GREENE: You can hear this full performance on MORNING EDITION's Facebook page or on Twitter at @MorningEdition. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.