“The very first time I played on a street corner, which was something I was going to do for the rest of my life, I did in Chicago,” says singer-songwrier Ketch Secor, about his late teenage years. Secor planted himself near Soldier Field during Taste of Chicago’s 1998 run in Grant Park. “I think I made $80. It was unbelievable. That’s where it all started.”

Old Crow Medicine Show
When: 8 p.m. June 27 and 28
Where: Thalia Hall 1807 S. Allport
Price: $39 (June 28 sold out)
Info: thaliahallchicago.com

Busking on streets and at various other spots across the country eventually led to the creation of his band, Old Crow Medicine Show, that same year. Twenty years later, he can’t help but be thankful for the journey the band has taken. In fact, the Grammy award-winners picked “Volunteer” as the title of latest album as a way to acknowledge this unique bond.

“When you’ve been playing in the same band for 20 years with virtually the same group of people, it makes you wonder how it’s possible that you could possibly stuck it out with the same gaggle all those years,” Secor says. “I tend to think of this in terms of oath or marriage or enlistment. Whether you’re taking an oath or getting hitched, the spirit of volunteerism is in that. In that you have to take on a collective identity.

“When we become volunteers, we lose a little piece of the ego and the sense of self and we begin to look in the spirit of unity toward a collective sense of ourselves. That’s the kind of thing that allows a band to exist for 20 years — the letting go of yourself and wearing the mask of many.”

“It was more than our desire to be in a successful band,” Secor continues. “We wanted to be successful in an old-time strings band, which is kind of weird, right? We weren’t even in a bluegrass band. We were in a genre-less genre. And we had to figure out how to do it. The spirit of volunteerism is in everything we do, whether it’s volunteering for our audience or one another and for the very song itself.”

It also helped that esteemed producer David Cobb volunteered his services. They recorded the new album in Nashville at the legendary RCA Studio A.

“The spirit and environment in which we made this album was influenced by his presence and generosity of his ears,” says Secor of Cobb. “We recorded it in 11 days. I think one of my favorite quips is that we probably could have made it in six if we hadn’t taken such long lunch breaks.”

“Volunteer” is the first Old Crow Medicine Show album to include electric guitar since their 2004 debut. It was Cobb’s idea to include it.
While the instrument is perfectly within their wheelhouse, the band’s tried to stick as close as they can to be a true old-time string band.

“We could’ve always had electric sounds we just never did. It doesn’t feel like a major deal to have them or not have them. It’s no groundbreaking Dylan goes electric at Newport,” Secor says.

Still, they aren’t afraid to try new things. They performed recently with pop singer Kesha for the CMT series “Crossroads.”

“It was a fabulous opportunity to understand what pop music is about and what it takes to do it,” Secor says. “I felt a great appreciation for what she does and for what all the women of pop music do to inspire their audience and be impactful in this world.”

Secor also is glad the band has been able to leave its own impact on music and the world at large.

“It’s affirming of the suspicion I had when I was 18 years old that I was going to make a splash, make a joyful noise,” he says. “And that it would be heard and reverberate for years to come.”

“You don’t really pick a genre and figure it out,” he continues. “These things are chosen by a great spirit and then laid before you. And you can choose to walk them or not. I’ve always chosen to follow the signs and they’ve led me to beautiful and tragic places. And I keep walking.”

Joshua Miller is a local freelance writer.