Old Crow Medicine Show takes a Chance
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Every few years, another West Virginia musician makes it to the national stage. This time around, it's Harpers Ferry's Chance McCoy.
A few months ago, the 33-year-old former construction worker and old-time music teacher at Augusta Heritage Center at Davis & Elkins College joined Old Crow Medicine Show, a popular alternative country/Americana string band maybe best known for its song "Wagon Wheel."
The Old Crow Medicine Show began with Ketch Secor and Critter Fuqua in Harrisonburg, Va. The band came up in the late 1990s, just as string band music and bluegrass began a resurgence in popular music, which was also about the time when McCoy first heard it.
McCoy began playing music in his teens, but he came to old-time music late.
"I got a guitar from my dad when I was 14 years old," he said.
He played what was popular, which was mostly grunge rock like Pearl Jam and Nirvana, as well as classic rock and punk tunes, but nothing that might be construed as bluegrass, old-time or string band music.
McCoy's father played keyboard in a couple of local rock bands and his grandfather had played the violin in a college orchestra, but he was never exposed to traditional mountain music.
He said, "There's plenty of bluegrass music around, but if your parents don't listen to it, it's something you might not ever hear."
Garage grunge, basement bluegrass
McCoy discovered bluegrass and old-time music in his early 20s through some friends. One Friday, they'd invited him to come down to a speakeasy bar started by a couple of students at Shepherd University.
"I think it was in one of their basements," he said.
On Friday nights, the club would host a fish fry, and the house band would pick around an old metal barrel.
McCoy said, "They sold beers for like a dollar out of a keg they had. It was sort of an illegal bar thing."
He gravitated toward the music, he said. It was new.
"They had a washboard bass, a couple of guitars, a fiddle, a mandolin and a ukulele. It was a real mix of folks down there -- just young people getting together, playing on the music."
They called themselves the Speakeasy Boys and played a little bit of everything, but they weren't especially serious about music for the sake of music.
"It was more about having a good time," McCoy said.
He played with them a while and became interested in the culture and history behind string band and old-time music. He went to a talk at the Harpers Ferry library given by Gerry Milnes, a fiddle instructor and the folk art coordinator at Augusta Heritage Center.
"It was exactly what I was looking for -- somebody who knew something about the music."
McCoy became a student at the center, got to know some of the prominent pickers and players, and then started visiting summer bluegrass and string band festivals.
"I had this old, beat-up 1979 Ford F-15 pickup. It was primer gray," he said. "I'd drive that thing to Clifftop, Vandalia, to Galax and to any little festival going on."
Through the acquaintances he made, McCoy began learning other instruments. With the Speakeasy Boys, he picked up the fiddle. When he met Becky Ledarsky, she taught him how to play banjo.
"I got a really crummy banjo from the Civil War," he said. "I had to refret it, get new tuners and replace many skinheads. It's not a great banjo, but I still love the way it sounds."
Breakout success at festivals
After a few years of just picking and playing, he started competing at festivals.
In 2007, he placed fourth in the fiddle competition at the Appalachian String Band Festival. That same year, he won the under-60 fiddle contest at Vandalia Gathering.
"I took the prize money and bought a dulcimer," he said.
The next year, he recorded his first record, which he still loves, but said it was never about making a living.
"It was never on a record label, never really promoted and I just give it away, but what's cool is people are always discovering it." (The record "Chance McCoy and The Appalachian String Band" is available as a free download at McCoy's website, www.wildhogintheredbrush.com.)
In 2009, he returned to Vandalia and took second place in the fiddle competition. He hadn't specifically planned to enter any other contests, but on his way back from the fiddle competition, he bumped into a friend with a banjo.
"I borrowed his banjo and won a contest."
Then McCoy borrowed a dulcimer from somebody and won that contest too.
"I was on a really lucky streak that day," he said.
But luck didn't pay the bills. When McCoy wasn't playing music, he mostly worked construction jobs. He wasn't even sure he wanted to try making a living as a musician.
"It seemed like a really hard way to make a living."
However, the heavy labor made it hard to play. Often he'd come home nights and his hands would be so sore and swollen that he couldn't make much sense out of his fiddle.
McCoy said, "I just realized at a certain point that if I wanted to play music, I had to become a professional musician or I just wasn't going to get the time I needed to do it. It wasn't that I was attracted to the lifestyle; I just wanted to be a creative person."
He found his way into a couple of bands. He played with Larry Keel for a year, was a founding member of The Woodshedders, and then played with the Lilly Brothers for a while.
He said he'd work those shows in on the weekend, teach music lessons during the week and sometimes fall back on construction and carpentry work to supplement his income.
"I scratched out a bare-bones kind of living," he said. "But I was happy. I wasn't making a lot of money, but I was doing exactly what I wanted to do."
Still, he said, the hours were long. A single father, McCoy said sometimes it felt like he didn't get to spend as much time as he wanted with his 5-year-old son.
"Tuesdays were the worst. I wouldn't get home until midnight."
'Would you like to audition?'
The email that came from Secor, of the Old Crow Medicine Show, arrived completely out of the blue. McCoy said he didn't know any of them.
"They were looking to replace someone who'd left the band. Ketch and Critter had gone to Augusta at some point as students -- when they were teenagers -- and they remembered the old-time music they'd learned there.
"They went to the Augusta website and looked through the teachers."
McCoy had become a teacher for the weeklong workshops held during the summer.
Impressed with his bio on the website, they said, "Hey, would you like to come audition for our band?"
The offer to join the band that followed came at a good time, McCoy said. He'd been struggling for a while, and after a break from having to do construction work, he was starting to fall back into it to help pay the bills.
"Playing with Old Crow Medicine Show is amazing," he said. "It's even better than I could have imagined. They're all incredibly good musicians, and they're into the tradition of old-time music, even though they write new songs.
"There's an amazing sense of camaraderie within the band. It makes the music even better."
It also doesn't hurt that the band provides a stable income, which allows him to pursue some of his own side projects. McCoy just finished a fellowship with One Beat, a U.S. State Department cultural exchange program that puts musicians from around the world together to create, perform and build ties.
According to his website, McCoy will also return to Augusta Heritage Center this week for October Old-Time Week, where he'll be teaching fiddle classes.
McCoy hopes for a long career with Old Crow Medicine Show, but he said he hasn't completely given up playing some of the stuff he started with.
"I'm into a lot of different music. I don't really see them as having boundaries. I think you can rock out playing rock 'n' roll and you can rock out with some bluegrass."
Reach Bill Lynch at email@example.com or 304-348-5195.