Old Crow Medicine Show’s ‘Critter’ Fuqua: ‘You can stay sober in this business’

Critter Fuqua sober
Old Crow Medicine Show: Charlie Worsham (from left), Cory Younts, Christopher "Critter" Fuqua, Ketch Secor, Joe Andrews and Morgan Jahnig. (Courtesy of Crackerfarm)

From his first drink, Christopher “Critter” Fuqua knew he was an alcoholic.

The Ties That Bind UsAt the time, he told The Ties That Bind Us recently, he was a 14-year-old kid consumed by insecurity and discontent. It wasn’t something he recognized as a child, but after getting sober, he began to see that those feelings had been a part of his emotional wheelhouse as far back as he could remember.

Booze, he added, became the medicine to make it all go away.

“I remember having terrible anxiety starting around third or fourth grade, and I was 14 or 15 when I had my first beer,” Fuqua said. “It was like, all that stuff went away and I felt normal. I felt like I could function because that anxiety and that sense of dread was gone. And that’s why I kept drinking, man. I had to fix myself.

“I found out what works, and then it ended up not working, and it ended up almost killing me, but that’s how it started: with that sense of dread, that nebulous anxiety, that existential hum. It was always feeling off, always not feeling comfortable in your skin. That made it hard to function socially.”

Even after his band, Old Crow Medicine Show, became one of the most popular roots acts in bluegrass, country and Americana circles, liquor was his crutch — until it no longer worked. And when it stopped working, his life deteriorated quickly, to the point that he had to leave everything behind — the road, the band and even the music.

The time off allowed him not just an opportunity to get sober but to find a new way to live. It’s a path he still walks, face upturned toward the sun each morning, heart filled with gratitude for a second chance to live a life free from the specters of the spirit that so long plagued him.

“My network, recovery, unity in a spiritual fellowship: I try to follow a spiritual path, every day,” he said. “I think the biggest thing is reaching out to another alcoholic to help them. That’s where it really starts, because we understand this disease like no one else. They’ve got to do the footwork, and there are actions that have to be taken, but you can show them the results in your own life and let them turn out how they’re going to turn out.

“So far, it’s been good without me steering the wheel as long as I do those things: community, fellowship, keeping in touch with my fellow sober men and helping out those who are wanting it and needing it. It’s a daily thing.”

The Medicine Show starts rolling

Courtesy of Rick Diamond/Getty Images for the Country Music Hall of Fame

Fuqua will be the first to declare that his story is in no way unique. He’s never attempted to downplay or hide his sobriety, but neither does he wear it like a badge of honor, either. It’s simply a part of who he is, and it serves him well both as a member of Old Crow Medicine Show and as a guy living his best life in his adopted hometown of Nashville, Tennessee.

Fuqua grew up in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and by all accounts, it was a quintessential Middle American upbringing, complete with a twin brother and two doting parents, he said.

“I grew up in the ’80s just riding my bike and having fun, but all through that, I had this terrible anxiety, this terrible sense of dread and fear and these sort of OCD thoughts,” he said. “I don’t say that to debase anybody’s trauma at all, because I didn’t experience any abuse or neglect, and I had a lot of friends and a loving family, but things just affected me. I remember watching (the movie) ‘Platoon’ in the ’80s, and that stuck with me. I was just really disturbed by that to no end.”

In the seventh grade, Fuqua met a lanky fellow Virginian named Ketch Secor. Previously, Fuqua was drawn to heavy metal, he said, and loved playing guitar in garage bands. With Secor’s country and Old Time influences, he began adding banjo and fiddle to his arsenal, and the two laid a foundation for what would become their band at venues like the Little Grill Collective in Harrisonburg.

That was around the time he started drinking regularly, he said. Like most musicians, there was a healthy amount of partying by all involved. After all, they were young, enthusiastic and dreaming of big ideas and bigger stages. While his peers could take it or leave it, however, Fuqua realized that he was growing to depend on it for something more.

“We all wanted to drink or smoke some dope, but drinking allowed me to feel somewhat comfortable,” he said. “I could be on stage, play my music, hang out, talk to girls and just function. I could just feel relief. In hindsight, I think I equated them together — playing music, and drinking just went along with it. After I got sober, I realized it didn’t matter what my path was: I was an alcoholic, so I was going to drink no matter what, whether I was on my way to being a lawyer or a musician.

“Because really, it wasn’t about drinking. It was about hitting that sweet spot so I could be comfortable in my own skin. My primary goal was to feel okay, because I didn’t feel okay for so much of my life.”

'Wagon Wheel' is born

critter fuqua sober

Christopher "Critter" Fuqua (from left), Ketch Secor and Darius Rucker. (Courtesy of Rick Diamond/Getty Images for the Country Music Hall of Fame)

When he and Secor were still in their teens, they completed one of the most seminal songs in contemporary popular music. “Wagon Wheel” has become so ubiquitous that some bars post signs instructing bands not to cover it, and wherever Old Crow Medicine Show plays, the crowd never fails to raise the roof with a collective roar of “Johnson City, Tennessee.”

And it all started with a discovery Fuqua made in a London music shop.

“I had gone to London with my parents; their colleagues had a flat, and I remember I found a Bob Dylan bootleg at the Virgin Megastore,” he said. “It was a three-disc set, and I was so excited. I brought it home to Ketch, and there was one song on there called ‘Rock Me Mama,’ this very garbled bootleg that was an outtake of the ‘Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid’ sessions.

“I remember Ketch was listening to it, and he couldn’t understand the verses, so he wrote new ones. We’ve been playing that song since we were 17, and it’s been the best thing for the band ever, because more people know about that song than the band. Darius Rucker (the frontman for Hootie and the Blowfish and a successful solo country artist) covered it (his 2013 version was a No. 1 country hit), and after I got off stage one time in South Carolina, someone came up and said, ‘Hey, thanks for playing that Darius Rucker cover!’”

After high school, Secor moved north to go to college in New Hampshire before settling in New York State. Fuqua traveled north to join him, and together they threw in with New Yorker Willie Watson, who helped them find area musicians equally enthusiastic about Old Time music. Traveling hobo-style across the country, busking on street corners and village squares all the way to Canada and through the Southeast, they eventually settled in Boone, N.C. There, folk legend Doc Watson’s daughter heard them playing outside a drugstore; Watson invited them to perform at his annual MerleFest.

That level of exposure took Old Crow Medicine Show to new heights of fame. By 2000, the band had relocated to Nashville, where the boys made fans out of country icon Marty Stuart and Americana darlings Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. Rawlings produced the band’s debut album, “O.C.M.S.” (featuring the aforementioned “Wagon Wheel”), and the band was hailed as part of a new generation of musicians embracing roots music that dates back to the time of their grandfathers.

By 2001, they performed for the first time at the Grand Ole Opry (where they received a standing ovation and a call for an encore), and shortly thereafter embarked on their first “proper” tour. The future seemed bright, but for Fuqua, there was a darkness creeping up in his rearview.

The man takes a drink; the drink takes the man

Courtesy of Rick Diamond/Getty Images for the Country Music Hall of Fame

Around that time, Fuqua recalled, a former girlfriend who came to Nashville to visit first said something about his drinking. She was under the impression, he said, that in her absence, he knuckled down and went to work on his fledgling music career. His consumption during her stays, however, raised eyebrows.

“She brought up for the first time that I drank a lot, because I always had a beer in my hand,” he said. “I tried to quit, but not really that hard, and pretty soon, I was the guy at the festival, and I’d still be up at 3:30 or 4 in the morning, looking for beer, passing out in the field, then waking up and looking for more beer.”

“O.C.M.S.” topped the Billboard Bluegrass Albums chart, as did its follow-up, 2006’s “Big Iron World,” which also made it to No. 27 on the Country Albums chart. By 2008, the guys cracked the Top 10 of the Hot Country Albums listings, making it to No. 7, and even put their third album, “Tennessee Pusher,” into the top 50 of the Billboard 200 chart, which ranks records of all genres. By that point, however, Fuqua's problem had grown out of control.

“We all drank back in the day, so it was hard to say who was an alcoholic, but it had definitely started to become a problem,” he said. “We all said, ‘OK, no drinking before the show,’ but I couldn’t do that, so I started sneaking drinks. Then I started slipping off to bars by myself. Then I was missing gigs. I left the band a couple of times and came back, but I was still drinking.”

By 2007, the booze was running the show. Fuqua remembers returning from a “pretty rough” tour of Europe and drinking on the long flight over the Atlantic. After landing in Newark, New Jersey, he rented a car and drove to Virginia, where he decided to step away from the band.

“I just couldn’t stop drinking, but the lightbulb was kind of starting to come on,” he said. “One of my buddies in the band told me, ‘I just don’t want you to die,’ and he said it very clearly and very honestly. So I left Virginia and drove down to Texas, where I was staying at my parents’ house, still drinking.

“I remember my dad showing up at a bar where I was drinking, just following me and trying to get me not to drink. There was this great guy, this Native American, who had gone to a treatment center in the hill country of Texas, and he told me to go there. So I talked to my parents, and for some reason, I drove myself up there. I don’t know why I got up there safely, but I did.”

Deliverance and re-dedication

Christopher "Critter" Fuqua (left) and Ketch Secor.

And so at La Hacienda in Kerrville, Texas, Christopher “Critter” Fuqua was born again. It wasn’t an instantaneous deliverance from the discontent that had been his lifelong albatross, but through work in an addiction treatment center, things began to change, he said.

“After a couple of weeks, the brain starts to clear a bit, and I went into a sober house afterward with a great group of guys and a great house leader,” he said. “We were all on our path to recovery and working together, and in hindsight, the drinking problem was removed, but I don’t even remember when it happened. I just remember that for the first time in my life, I started feeling comfortable in my own skin without alcohol.”

That realization strengthened his spiritual connection and increased his desire to live life to the fullest. He enrolled in Schreiner University in Kerrville, studying history and English. Although he had a slip in 2010, he immediately got back on track and continued to work on his sobriety, his education and his relationship with his parents, who lived in San Antonio. And, he added, he kept tabs on his old band, working through some of the emotions attached to his departure.

“In hindsight, it was definitely the best decision I ever made, because I went to treatment and got sober, but at the time, for a band that was on its way up and being successful, it was hard to be the one to leave,” he said. “I felt guilty about affecting them and the careers that they were building as well, so there was a lot of guilt. Like any relationship with an alcoholic, there was a lot of codependency and anger and frustration and hurt. But in hindsight, it had to be that way. I had to be able to get sober in order to go back and make it right, and that takes some time.”

In 2011, Watson left Old Crow to pursue a solo career, and the band announced an indefinite hiatus. Around the same time, Fuqua and Secor got to talking.

“I had made things right with Ketch, but we were a little distant — not in a bad blood kind of way, but because I was in Texas doing my thing, and he was in Nashville,” Fuqua said. “He said, ‘What do you think about doing a duo tour to reconnect?’ So we did that in 2012.”

Morgan Jahnig came on board, and the three toured as a trio; Chance McCoy came back around, and suddenly Old Crow Medicine Show was back together, this time with Fuqua as a fully present and sober member.

“We started building it back and building some trust and getting back to being friends,” he said. “That’s when I moved to Nashville and got plugged in with some sober guys.”

'A 41-year-old sober man who plays D&D'

The group’s 2012 record “Carry Me Back” became both its best-selling and highest-charting album, and in 2015, the album “Remedy” won a Grammy Award. In 2017, the guys released a live recreation of the seminal Bob Dylan record “Blonde on Blonde,” and in 2018, “Volunteer,” recorded with noted producer Dave Cobb, was released.

While Fuqua is still a member in good standing, he’s taken a break from the road this summer, choosing instead to stick close to Nashville and play in-town shows as Old Crow Medicine Show enters its third decade as a band.

“The band’s changed again, and now there are a couple of guys who are doing solo stuff, and we just, you know, roll with the changes,” he said. “I tend to think in black-and-white terms, but I’m trying to let that be what it is. For me, my life outside of the band is a good one. I do a lot of writing and reading; I’ve got a heavy metal side project; and I’m a total nerd who plays Dungeons and Dragons.

“I’m a 41-year-old sober man who plays D&D — it’s a life beyond my wildest dreams, but really, what it is, is just me enjoying my life.”

And if there’s a moral to his story, it’s that anyone similarly afflicted can find relief from drugs and alcohol and do the same. The freedom he’s found in sobriety has led him to be a better musician and a more content human being, and that’s a message he’s eager to share with folks inside and outside of the music business, he said.

“For some reason, society gives cart blanche to musicians, and I think society believes some people are musicians because they’re alcoholics,” he said. “That’s not true. I know so many musicians who are sober, who aren’t alcoholics, who are all incredibly artistic. You can stay sober in this business.

“It’s doable. It’s more than doable, actually. All you have to do is reach out for help. There’s no shame, and we have to break that stigma.”