See the guy in the photo up there, the one with a beard but without a hat, sitting in the back of the truck behind the more well-known members of Old Crow Medicine Show?
That’s Joe Andrews of Anniston.
Andrews, 34, joined up with the Grammy-winning string band four years ago, after working for 12 years in Nashville as a session musician. He will be back home and on stage Sept. 13 at the Anniston Performing Arts Center when Old Crow Medicine Show plays as part of the Knox Concert Series.
It’s hard to put Old Crow’s music in a box (although if you did put it in a box, they’d probably put strings on it and play it. Really fast.). There’s guitar, banjo, fiddle, upright bass, mandolin — but with drums and keyboards and electric guitar thrown in every now and then. “I call it a rock ’n’ roll string band,” Andrews said.
Founded 20 years ago by Ketch Secor and Critter Fuqua, Old Crow Medicine Show was playing old-timey hillbilly music while everybody else was playing grunge.
The band’s breakout song was “Wagon Wheel,” which was written by Ketch using a chorus written by Bob Dylan in 1973.
Last year, the band released “50 Years of Blonde on Blonde,” a reimagined version of the classic Dylan album.
This spring, the band released its first album for a major label, “Volunteer” on Columbia Records. The record was produced by Dave Cobb, who has worked with alt-country stars Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson.
Old Crow was recently profiled in The New York Times, and is working with filmmaker Ken Burns for an upcoming PBS series on country music.
Andrews’ journey to Nashville started right here in Anniston, where he was raised, as he likes to say, on “Southern roots music, bluegrass and classic rock.”
“Growing up in Anniston was great,” he said. “I walked to the country club and played tennis and swam in the pool. I played in Hamilton Park. I rode bikes around the neighborhood. It was a good, small-town, happy life.”
He spent summers at Camp Mac and went to school at Donoho. He took guitar lessons and played in a local band called Blue Routes. (The lead singer was John Flannagan — now a dentist in Anniston.)
And Andrews attended his fair share of Knox Concerts shows. “I’ve seen everyone from Dudley Moore and Dionne Warwick to Alabama,” he said.
“We’ll be louder.”
From day job to tour bus
After graduating high school, Andrews had to choose between following his bandmates to Auburn University or going to Vanderbilt University in Nashville.
“Coming to Nashville would be much better for me musically, so I came to Vanderbilt — mostly for the music scene, but also for the education,” he said.
“I’ve been in Nashville for about 16 years now, and there’s still a lot to learn up here. It takes a while to break into the town, as far as the music scene. A lot of people say it’s a seven-year town.”
He started playing with other musicians in college, performing at frat parties and bars.
He’d sit on the porch and play music with Will Owsley, a fellow Annistonian who also built a successful career in Nashville. “He had a similar love for bluegrass music and Tony Rice,” Andrews said.
“The more I became friends with musicians and got to know the music from the inside, I realized how much I didn’t know.”
And then one day he fell in with Old Crow Medicine Show.
He was working a day job building guitars at Gibson Guitars. “I wanted to get out of that. I needed to get out and play more, do more,” Andrews said.
He was friends with the tour manager for Old Crow, who mentioned that the band was looking for someone to come out on the road and help out with their instruments.
“I promptly quit my job at Gibson and got on the bus,” Andrews said.
“You have to bite the bullet with things like that. I know a lot of musicians who are good enough and qualified enough to do it full-time, but don’t want to take the leap of faith.”
The next year, Old Crow member Gill Landry left the band to go solo. The band looked at Joe and said, “Joe, do you want to play pedal steel on five-six songs a night?”
“I said, yeah, of course … I don’t know how to play that instrument, but I will certainly learn.”
During the band’s winter break from touring, Andrews holed up in his office and taught himself to play pedal steel.
When touring season rolled around again, he was on stage.
And then the band looked at Joe and said, “Gill played dobro on this song, so you should probably do that.”
So Andrews taught himself to play dobro.
“Then it just turned into, ‘What are you going to play on this song?’” Andrews said.
“And that’s kind of how I fell into it. I didn’t have to put in 10 years in a band, which is what most sidemen do before the band gets a break. I skipped that whole part.”
From pedal steel to ‘guitjo’
In the four years he’s been with Old Crow, Andrews has toured Europe and Australia. He plays mostly pedal steel, with some dobro, mandolin, banjo and guitar. Most recently he learned to play a six-string banjo called the “guitjo.”
“I’m not a great pedal steel player. I’m a functional pedal steel player,” he said. “The guys at the Opry say, ‘I like your style, it fits with this band’ — which is their way of saying, ‘You’re not very good, but it works.’
“This band is not about being super-polished and perfect. It’s not about hitting the right notes 100 percent of the time. It’s about emotional delivery and energy and community and the message,” Andrews said.
And they live that every night on tour. “Often we play new songs we’ve learned earlier that day. Most of the time it goes pretty well. Sometimes it doesn’t. That’s OK,” Andrews said.
For the Anniston concert, Andrews said to expect a lot more besides “Wagon Wheel.” “There’s some zydeco stuff in there, some folk ballads, calypso stuff sometimes, some rock ’n’ roll, some blues … Being in this band is fun because it spans all sorts of genres.
“It’s a fun show for the whole family — even when we sing about cocaine and moonshine.”
“They’re all cautionary tales.”