Instead, the 11-song set features material from the troupe’s numerous performances between 2013 and 2019 at the historic Nashville venue, with a variety of Old Crow lineups and guest appearances by Margo Price on “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man,” War’s Lee Oskar on “CC Rider” and Molly Tuttle and current Old Crow member Charlie Worsham on the finale, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”
“We’ve been playing the Ryman for almost 20 years, but only got the tape recording going consistently after about 2009,” frontman Ketch Secor tells Billboard. “The Ryman is really significant in our lives as performers. We like to think we’re about as lucky as we can be in country music to have the keys to the backdoor.”
Like so many of his peers, Secor considers the Ryman to be country music’s proverbial Mother Church. “It has the feeling of being in a cathedral,” he says, but the group’s attitude toward getting to play there back in 2001 was characteristically irreverent.
“I think other bands might have thought, ‘Oh, the Ryman’s sacred. We have to prove ourselves before we can get there,'” Secor recalls. “We thought, ‘Hey, that place up the road from where we’ve been busking is air-conditioned. Let’s see if we can get in!'”
Old Crow’s first time onstage there, in fact, was for a 7 a.m. radio show. As Secor notes, “It was pretty easy to stumble in.” But he adds that the group’s history with the Ryman is also indicative of Old Crow’s relationship with the country and Americana communities in general.
“The way Nashville opened itself up to us when we were 20, playing on the curb … it felt like the gates were wide open and we could come and go,” Secor remembers. “We felt like the way seagulls follow a boat; they don’t have to stay on board, they can go any which way but might swoop back in every now and again. We’ve just swooped into a lot of places, and the Ryman is one of those.”
Secor has plenty of Ryman memories, of course, but he says many of them aren’t necessarily related to what happened onstage. “I think about getting drunk with Cowboy Jack Clement backstage,” he notes, adding with a laugh, “I can think about getting drunk with a lot of people backstage at the Ryman Auditorium… “
In addition to the guest appearances, Live at the Ryman includes a prologue tribute by Marty Stuart (“There’s always a little extra magic in the atmosphere when the boys come home to the Mother Church”), as well as liner notes by Dayton Duncan, Ken Burns’ creative partner. Secor, in fact, served as a major presence and adviser for Burns’ acclaimed Country Music documentary and is bursting with pride over the end result.
“I learned so much from that film,” says Secor, who’s starting to consider Old Crow’s studio follow-up to 2018’s Volunteer. “When I was 12 years old, I saw The Civil War, which was like Ken Burns taking me on a tour of my backyard because I grew up in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. I think it took an outsider to tell the [Country Music] story, to be able to contextualize it in the greater scheme of things. Country music is an American institution, and it needs to be talked about by the purveyors of the music and by those who are fans. We all have our own ways of talking about it, and [Burns] gets all those voices in there and has ’em make sense together.”
Listen to Live at the Ryman in its entirety below.