Last month, Old Crow Medicine Show was granted official membership into Nashville's Grand Ole Opry.
Morgan Jahnig, on upright bass, is a native Chattanoogan. He spoke with us via telephone last week about the honor, joining the band and performing in Chattanooga.
You can follow Jahnig on twitter at @thelowcrow.
First, congratulations on becoming a member of the Grand Ole Opry.
I can tell you that being a member of the Grand Ole Opry is at the top of our list of accomplishments and definitely at the top of our goals for the band ... It’s hard to think of what could be more special to us than being a member of the Grand Ole Opry. You think of other accolades that musicians get, Grammys and CMA awards, and those are fine ... but the Grand Ole Opry is a living, breathing thing. It’s been going on for so long and so many of our heroes have been members over its long life and it’s rooted here in Tennessee, being a part of WSM ... to be asked to be a part of it and to help shape it as long as we’ll be able to be active in it is something we’ve always wanted. It’s what brought all of us to Nashville.
You guys are no strangers to the Opry.
Yeah, I drive past the Opry House on my way home every day from my studio. And before it was just passing the building, but now I look over at it and I feel a part of it. I know in a month or two I’ll be on that stage again. It’s so amazing, so gratifying and inspiring. We look back on songs that we do, songs that we’re currently writing, and it changes your perspective. One of the things it does is it gives you a responsibility to this organization and this idea of the Opry that you want to honor.
... and with that responsibility, it’s a lot like carrying the Olympic torch, right? You’ve got the responsibility to move from point A to point B?
Exactly. One of the things that we’re doing that is unique to us is that we’re carrying the torch from the roots of the Opry and we’re taking it to next generation of Opry members. It’s not just the music that we do; it’s who we were inspired by. The sound of bluegrass was, in a way, sort of born on the Opry. The old-time musicians were some of the first players. To have another old-time string band as current members is reaching way back to the roots of the Opry.
Nashville and Chattanooga have been separated for a while despite the close proximity. We’re not necessarily a country town—maybe more bluegrass—could you talk about the differences between Chattanooga and Nashville from your perspective as a musician?
I was born in Chattanooga and moved away when I was 15 or 17 and left Tennessee for four years before I had to get back. Nashville was always this other place. It was a place apart from Chattanooga. Growing up in the South and growing up around country music, but being a rebellious kid, I didn’t want anything to do with country music, country culture at the time. I was in couple of punk rock bands in Chattanooga ... all those Dalton kids that would come up and play. That was really my first non-school-oriented foray into music was playing bass in punk bands. I didn’t want anything to do with country music. It was typical, sort of expected, what all my friends were into ... and I didn’t want to do anything that all the other kids listened to. Growing up, the live music scene in the mid-'90s wasn’t exactly a hotbed of talent. But there were things that came through. There was one club called The Metro—it was an all-ages club where you could get IBC root beer there in a bottle. There was an Australian band called Hoi Polloi. All Good came through [and] a band called Brick Halo, sort of an early contemporary of what Pantera would do. You really had to go out and find the music. There would be, maybe once or twice a year, a six-band bill at Miller Park. Right at the end, they started Nightfall ... but for everyday stuff, it was going to the mall and Camelot Music to search through the bargain bin for $3 CDs of bands you’ve never heard. So that’s really where my musical education in Chattanooga came from. I had to go find it.
Doesn’t that breed the most passion? The people who really didn’t like what they were hearing around them and had to seek themselves and do the dirty work?
Absolutely. It’s easier than ever to find and be exposed to music now. But I think that sentiment is still alive. I’m always looking for music still. It’ll come from unlikely places. Maybe a NoiseTrade sampler or something. It may have one song on it that I really like. That’s how I found a band from Washington called Hey Marseilles. But then sometimes that new Daft Punk record is really, really good. That’s sort of how I found Old Crow is that they were playing on the street and this sound was coming off them I’d never encountered before. It was so full of vitality and excitement. It just drew me in.
I’ve read the story and heard it repeated a million times how you were with your father in Nashville and you just sort of stumbled upon Old Crow busking on the streets. But then the story kind of trails off when you were a member. Could you fill in the details?
I saw them and I think that was literally it. I put some money in their guitar case and then went to dinner. They were playing at the Opry plaza that weekend. I went out and saw them again. I talked to them and sent them an email and told them I played bass. Basically, if there was anything I could ever do for them to let me know. A couple of months went by, and I got a call from somebody in the band. They said, "Hey, we’re playing a show on Thursday ... we don’t have a bass player. Do you think you could do it?" I was like, "I guess so. What’s the show?" They said, "The show is at 7:30 in the morning." I thought, "Jesus. OK. Where is the show?" They said, "It’s at the Ryman Auditorium." They were doing an Opry radio broadcast all day. I had to tell my boss that I wasn’t going to be in until around 9 a.m., and I think I went to work and walked my bass to the Ryman—and it might’ve been my first time inside the Ryman—and played my first show with Old Crow. I took my bass back and then finished my day at work. That was the start. Shortly after that I was working for dot com, so you can imagine what happened. That was the last day job I had.
What does it mean for you when you come home and play at Track 29 or the Tivoli Theatre? Is there a different feel when you play at home?
I still have such a special place in my heart for Chattanooga. I love coming back there. My wife and I have toyed with the idea of moving back there. It’s just such a great town. I have so many great memories of living there. Now that I’m a father, I think about sending my kids to school there, raising them there, to come back and play, to be in that town and see how far it’s come since I was there. Even from when I was really young, I saw the aquarium built there and went the first week it was opened. To where it is now, the music scene, the culinary scene ... to be able to come back and add a little of my own journey to Chattanooga’s journey is special to me. I can tell you that show at Track 29 was explosive was everything you always want a hometown show to be, but it isn’t always. To be at the Choo-Choo ... there was just so many things going right for me. I got to go out to dinner with my parents that night. It was so special. Usually you’re out and you’re in town for a moment. I always try to always make room for that.
What’s the band doing right now?
We’re working on some tunes, but we’re also just kind of taking a breather. It’s been a long one and half, two years that we’ve been working. This winter, I’ll be hopefully producing another band at my studio. I know Ketch is writing all of the time. Everybody is taking a moment to kind of reassess where we are. A couple of us have kids. Our new guitar, Chance McCoy, just moved his family here. Everybody is just kind of figuring out that after we’ve done all of this work and all of these amazing things have happened to us, what do we want to do next? It used to be you just go on the road, make a record, go on the road, make a record. But now, we get to really make choices about what’s going to be the next chapter for Old Crow ... the next chapter for me.
Sign up for our email list to get your morning news delivered directly to your inbox. All we need is your email address.