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Old Crow Medicine Show rejuvenates a Bob Dylan classic at Philly Folk Fest

"Blonde on Blonde" earns a 50th-anniversary celebration from Old Crow Medicine Show at the Philly Folk Festival this weekend.

Ketch Secor (right) and Old Crow Medicine Show will perform at the 56th Philadelphia Folk Festival.
Ketch Secor (right) and Old Crow Medicine Show will perform at the 56th Philadelphia Folk Festival.Read moreLAURA E. PARTAIN

There won't be a solitary soul walking the grounds at the Philadelphia Folk Festival this weekend who hasn't been transformed by Bob Dylan, Old Crow Medicine Show frontman Ketch Secor  was assured the other day by a veteran festgoer (that would be me).

Secor and his band will close Friday night's bill in Upper Salford. "Well, I guess that means we better rethink our set plans and do the new album in its entirety," he reacted with a chuckle. "We'd been reserving doing that for more intimate theater shows — just did some in New York, Boston, and Washington, and are taking it soon to Australia. There's a video version coming out in September, too. And it sounds like the folk festival demo is really ripe to hear this."

The project in question is 50 Years of Blonde on Blonde, Old Crow's shape-shifting, hoedown, bayou jump, and symph/twang-infused golden anniversary celebration of the Dylan landmark that many consider one of his most vital, romantic, and influential sets.

Blonde on Blonde was the third peg in the formative-years, rock-transforming Dylan trilogy that started with Bringing It All Back Home and then hit Highway 61 Revisited. Characterized as one of the first (and still greatest) double-disc pop albums, it's the 17-track set that spawned "Just Like a Woman" and the epic "Visions of Johanna," both on Rolling Stones' "500 Greatest Songs of All Time" list. It also twice landed Mr. D in the top 20  — with his heady, radio standards-challenging  "Rainy Day Women #12 and 35" and jangle-rock-attuned "I Want You."

It's also the fountain of youth and truth that delivered many of the folk/rock visionary's most-quoted pronouncements — like, "To live outside the law you must be honest," "Everybody must get stoned," and, "Oh, mama can this really be the end, to be stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again?"

For Secor and colleagues who heard it first "maybe 20 years after the release," Blonde on Blonde was just one of many memorable Dylan albums that changed their lives.  "I love Bob Dylan. I mean I love him," Secor shared in the liner notes to the 50 Years of tribute set, cut live in concert in May 2016 in Nashville. "In my opinion, Bob Dylan, the bard, is the greatest spinner of rhyme and couplet since Shakespeare. It is by no other force of nature, will, or reason that I play music for a living than simply to be like Bob."

Old Crow's million-selling-single breakthrough, he reminded us, was a Dylan obscurity, "Wagon Wheel," discovered "on an overpriced bootleg we pulled off a vendor in Hyde Park and finished." Secor's alt-bluegrass band also had a hit with "another song from the Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid sound track that Dylan sent me" — the country-waltzing "Sweet Amarillo,"  though "the ownership on that one was challenged by another songwriter and wound up costing us a lot."

The singing/fiddling/songwriting Secor has committed "pretty much everything Dylan ever wrote" to heart, he said. "My latest find is a bootleg of 10 songs from his 1978 Christian World Tour that never came out. There's a song on there called 'I Ain't Gonna Go to Hell for Nobody' that would have been a stone smash if Otis Redding had still been around to cut it." FYI,  Secor's favorite of all Dylan albums is 1983's Infidels — best known for "Jokerman."

So when Peter Cooper from the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum pulled Secor aside in an East Nashville record shop in January 2016 and asked whether Old Crow would help honor the 50th anniversary of Blonde on Blonde as part of the museum's multiyear celebration of Dylan, it was "a no-brainer. What's been exciting to me about it is to explore the way this album fits into Nashville music history. Dylan started the sessions in New York but then shifted base to Nashville, where his producer, Bob Johnston, was based, as was his newfound friend Charlie McCoy, an 18-year-old harmonica and guitar player and buddy of Bob Johnston's who wound up playing second guitar in New York, almost by accident, on 'Desolation Row.' "

Himself a Nashville musician and member of the Grand Old Opry and someone "who's sort of outside the mainstream of modern country," Secor likes to reflect on stories "that reflect a widening of the town's traditional country music scope. Dylan's arrival didn't just reflect on that; he shattered the whole mirror. The commonality he found with Nashville musicians was really in rhythm and blues, and that's the prevailing sound on much of Blonde on Blonde. To me, the album marked the beginning of a new dawn in Nashville music in which the records made there aren't all country records. You had everyone from Leonard Cohen to Neil Young to Linda Ronstadt showing up in the next five years to make their albums."

Truth is, the "slow drag, rhythm and blues with lots of harmonica sound" (of Blonde on Blonde) isn't really Old Crow's thing. "If you lay fiddle on that, it doesn't sound very good," Secor says. "So we had to do a lot to alter the nature, the tempos. One of the methods we evoked was to look elsewhere for variations on the songs. Bob makes that easy. He recorded 'Most Likely You'll Go Your Way and I'll Go Mine' on three different albums — also on Bob Dylan at Budokan and on After the Flood with the Band — that's the one we used. Our version of 'Just Like a Woman' comes from The Concert for Bangladesh. 'Absolutely Sweet Marie' comes from George Harrison's singing of the song at the 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration."

Has Dylan heard and reacted to the project? "It was officially signed off on and blessed. That doesn't necessarily mean he's sitting in his car at a red light in Malibu cranking it up."

And Secor  is "really happy with the way the record and the music stand up in 2017. With all the things going on, to sing a song like 'Visions of Johanna' and let it be the way I engage. … I've got a 50-year-old message and it still matters. It might be a better distillation of the way I'm feeling now than anything specific or acute or on the page. And 'Stuck Inside of Memphis' … that's a song that's totally clamoring to break through the picket lines, and at the same time, it's beating back the marchers. It's such a protest scene on both sides, with the ideologues and the demagogues and the oligarchs in the park."