Roots Revue

The Big Surprise Tour brings a new spin on old music

It's only hours before the Big Surprise Tour would take the stage somewhere in New Hampshire for the old-time revue's inaugural performance, but Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show couldn't sound calmer. It's a ruse, though—during a phone interview, the calm soon gives way to the infectious enthusiasm for American roots music, classic country, and old fashioned rock 'n' roll that was the impetus for the tour in the first place.

"This kind of music makes you feel good all over," Secor says. "It's so engaging—it can lift you up, and I think people need some lifting up, maybe even more than they know. To take the time to actually watch a song be played, and to hear it with your ears and to hear it with your feet, is an experience that's good for your heart, and good for everybody."

Besides Secor's Nashville-based acoustic string band, the Big Surprise show will also feature the Dave Rawlings Machine (with self-dubbed "American Primitive" songstress Gillian Welch), Justin Townes Earle, and New York rockers the Felice Brothers. Though the show's promoters are promising a "free-form ramshackle flow," it's hard to say exactly what's in store for audiences. In this era of tightly choreographed, over-processed performances, the very old-fashionedness of the Big Surprise Tour makes it feel like an innovative concept.

In fact, as Secor points out, the bands themselves really don't know what to expect yet. Throughout two 90-minute sets divided by an intermission, the artists will share the stage—and each other's songs. The result will be an organic, protean thing that could vary from night to night and from audience to audience.

By the time the show makes its way to Knoxville, though, the performers will have had time to give things a proper sorting-out. The show will tour the eastern United States for two weeks before wrapping up with what promises to be a raucous outdoor event at World's Fair Park.

"We decided to do something new, something that we've never done before," Secor says of the tour's revue format. "There are a lot of groups touring out there with a lot of JumboTrons and fireworks and all that hoopla, but this is about live music and engaging an audience, and it's a different way of doing things. There's something that you can take away from this show that you can't take away from a $160-per-ticket show from some chart-topper."

The tour's performers represent a variety of musical genres, from the soulful country-rock of the Felice Brothers to the classic country and pre-war folk sounds of the pedigreed Earle (son of Steve). It's Old Crow Medicine Show, though, that will be most recognizable here in Knoxville. During their last show here, a December performance at the Tennessee Theatre, the group recorded a concert-length live DVD that will go on sale Aug. 18.

The quintet has made quite a name for itself since they first met 11 years ago in New York. Their playlist is a combination of original songs and traditional American roots music from the 1920s and "on back there in the folk-music catalog," as Secor describes it. The lines between the two often blur: The group's original songs sound like traditional ones, and they have a penchant for giving traditional songs an original spin. Close your eyes, and you might think there are twice as many musicians onstage; a wide assortment of acoustic instruments are passed around, so it can be hard to keep track of the harmonicas, violins, guitars, dobros, and upright basses. Their sound, though, is as harmonious, energetic, and joyful as anything you're likely to hear. They've opened for Dolly Parton, toured with Merle Haggard, and performed at the Grand Ole Opry and on NPR. The New Yorker, Village Voice, Billboard, and Vanity Fair have sung their praises.

Though Secor is thrilled with the resurgence in the popularity of traditional American roots music, he isn't surprised by it. "It's always been there," he says. "Every generation rediscovers it. As we move further and further away from the lifestyle that spawned the sound of American roots country and blues music, we lose touch with it—with the power and the beauty of this music that we all had a hand in making."

He likens it to the recent rejuvenation of downtown Knoxville. "I think it's great that there's a resurgence of interest in staying traditional in more than just music," he says. "It's great that people are moving back to downtown Knoxville. They moved away not that long ago, and it kind of crumbled, but they didn't let it crumble so much that they couldn't build it back up again. That's the same thing with the music. You can trade it in for some shiny new hot rod of a song, but at the end of the day, we all return to those songs, like lullabies, that we hear when we're young. And Knoxville has made such a great contribution to the whole body of country music, so I feel like there's a lot of ghosts walking around that town—guys like Cas Walker that, if they have any kind of feeling left, are gonna be pretty jazzed that we're bringing this road show back to downtown Knoxville."