Wagon Wheel (song)
|Single by Old Crow Medicine Show|
|from the album O.C.M.S.|
|Released||February 10, 2004|
|Studio||RCA Studio B, Nashville, Tennessee|
"Wagon Wheel" is a song co-written by Bob Dylan and Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show. Dylan recorded the chorus in 1973; Secor added verses 25 years later. Old Crow Medicine Show's final version was certified Platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America in April 2013.
The song has been covered numerous times, notably by Nathan Carter in 2012 and Darius Rucker with Lady Antebellum in 2013. Rucker's version reached No. 1 on the Hot Country Songs chart and was certified triple Platinum by the RIAA in March 2014.
The song describes a hitchhiking journey south along the eastern coast of the United States from New England in the northeast through Roanoke, Virginia, with the intended destination of Raleigh, North Carolina, where the narrator hopes to see his lover. As the narrator is walking south of Roanoke, he meets (but does not likely travel far with) a trucker who is traveling from Philadelphia through Virginia westward toward the Cumberland Gap and Johnson City, Tennessee.
Old Crow Medicine Show's version of the song is in 2/4 time signature, with an approximate tempo of 76 half notes per minute. It uses the I–V–vi–IV pattern in the key of A major, with the main chord pattern of A–E–F♯m–D.
Background and writing
Chris "Critter" Fuqua
"Wagon Wheel" is composed of two different parts. The chorus and melody for the song come from a demo recorded by Bob Dylan during the Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid sessions in February 1973. Although never officially released, the Dylan song was released on a bootleg recording, usually named after the chorus and its refrain, "Rock Me Mama". Dylan left the song an unfinished sketch.
Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show wrote verses for the song around Dylan's original chorus (and melody):
So rock me mama like a wagon wheel
Rock me mama any way you feel
Hey mama rock me
Rock me mama like the wind and the rain
Rock me mama like a south-bound train
Hey mama rock me
Chris "Critter" Fuqua, Secor's school friend and future bandmate, first brought home a Bob Dylan bootleg from a family trip to London containing the rough outtake called "Rock Me, Mama". Not "so much a song as a sketch, crudely recorded featuring most prominently a stomping boot, the candy-coated chorus and a mumbled verse that was hard to make out", the tune kept going through Secor's mind.
A few months later, while attending Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and "feeling homesick for the South," he added verses about "hitchhiking his way home full of romantic notions put in his head by the Beat poets and, most of all, Dylan." Secor's verses tell "the story of a man who travels from New England, through Philadelphia, and Roanoke, down the eastern coast of the United States, ending up in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he hopes to see his lover."
The Secor lyrics contain a geographic impossibility: heading "west from the Cumberland Gap" to Johnson City, Tennessee "you'd have to go east." As Secor explains: "I got some geography wrong, but I still sing it that way. I just wanted the word 'west' in there. 'West' has got more power than 'east.'"
Secor saw the Dylan contribution as "an outtake of something he had mumbled out on one of those tapes. I sang it all around the country from about 17 to 26, before I ever even thought, 'Oh, I better look into this.'" When Secor sought copyright on the song in 2003 to release it on O.C.M.S. in (2004), he discovered Dylan credited the phrase "Rock me, mama" to bluesman Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, who recorded a song with this title in 1944. He likely got it from a Big Bill Broonzy recording "Rockin' Chair Blues" from 1940 using the phrase "rock me, baby". The phrase "like a wagon wheel" is used in the 1939 Curtis Jones song "Roll Me Mama" that includes the lines "Now roll me over, just like I'm a wagon wheel" and "just like I ain't got no bone". He re-recorded it in 1963 as "Roll Me Over", with some of the lyrics. In the meantime, Lil' Son Jackson came up with "Rockin' and Rollin" in 1950 using the phrase "Roll me, baby, like you roll a wagon wheel". As Secor says: "In a way, it's taken something like 85 years to get completed." Secor and Dylan signed a co-writing agreement, and share copyright on the song; agreeing to a "50-50 split in authorship." When Secor discovered the famous singer-songwriter was willing to publish the song with Old Crow, he, like earlier claimed originators, disavowed authorship:
(Dylan) said ‘I didn’t write that; Arthur Crudup did.’ Arthur Crudup said, ‘I didn’t write that; [Big] Bill Broonzy wrote that.’ Bill’s first recording of the derivative of ‘Rock Me Mama’ is around 1928. That’s a true folk song—one that has gathered a lot of dust on the fender before it ever rolled into your town. And songs like that tend to last longer because they’ve been influenced by such lasting voices.
Secor recalls that "I met (Dylan's son) Jakob, and Jakob said it made sense that I was a teenager when I did that because no one in their 30s would have the guts to try to write a Bob Dylan song."
As Old Crow Medicine Show's signature song, "Wagon Wheel" is in some ways bigger than the group itself—even though the song's origins predate formation of the musical act. The song has become extremely popular since its inclusion on Old Crow Medicine Show's major label debut, O.C.M.S. in 2004, although the song appeared in an earlier form on the now out-of-print EP Troubles Up and Down the Road in 2001. The group reportedly performed the song at the Station Inn in Nashville in 2001, as part of a series of songs commemorating Bob Dylan's 60th birthday.
This "catchy country-infused sing-along" has "taken on the status of 'Free Bird'"—"in that it has become a bar room staple that drunks love to loudly request at every show, regardless of who the band is" John Cranford with music label Swampfire Records—who organize a regular jam session on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina called Swampfire Sessions—says "It has become our generation's 'Freebird.'"
Lately, it's been open season on "Wagon Wheel," which has become the acoustic musician's "Freebird," one of the very few songs that people actually know well enough to find it funny to request.
The song has been performed so often live that venues and events that some actually discourage its performance. At the Swampfire Sessions, Cranford states: "We banned it. (We) literally put signs up that said 'Absolutely No Wagon Wheel.'" The New England Americana Festival sells a shirt with an image of a wagon wheel with a line through it—creating a "no 'Wagon Wheel' zone"—and "hipster bar owners 'ban' it."
The song is basically inescapable. It's as much a part of country music as the classics like "Hello Walls" or "Islands In The Stream." That's a big claim, sure, but how many other country songs actually get banned from clubs they're played and requested so much?
"Man, some of us hate that song," Cranford said. "Others play it all the time." Often playing "Wagon Wheel" on request, he quit doing so after Rucker's cover. "This song was great when Dylan wrote it and Old Crow played it, but once Darius Rucker flooded the airwaves with his version, all hope was lost," Cranford said.
The group's version of the song was certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America in April 2013. To celebrate they released a limited edition 7" vinyl record of the song with "'All Night Long' Live At The Station Inn" (2003) on the B-side. Secor himself enjoys its popularity, saying in mid-2008, "I don't mind playing it every night. I like to see what it does to people, and it's nice to have something that's guaranteed, especially when you're shuffling through new material." Of its popularity he says:
Most of all, the reason why that song is so popular is because of Bob Dylan and his magical touch. Bob Dylan cast a spell with every song he made, particularly in 1973, when he wrote that chorus. I’m convinced that he put down his legal pad after he wrote that chorus, and he scrapped it because he wrote "Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door."
|Canada (Music Canada)||Gold||40,000^|
|United States (RIAA)||Platinum||1,167,000|
*sales figures based on certification alone
Nathan Carter version
|Single by Nathan Carter|
|from the album Wagon Wheel|
|Released||15 June 2012|
|Nathan Carter singles chronology|
The English-Irish singer Nathan Carter covered the song in a release June 15, 2012, a few weeks before the song became a hit for Darius Rucker in the United States. The Carter version was the title track taken from his 2012 album, Wagon Wheel. He appeared with a live version of the song on the popular The Late Late Show on RTÉ, being his first appearance on the show. He also engaged on a tour in Ireland, Northern Ireland, England and Scotland to promote the album.
Although released independently on Sharpe Music, the song became a huge hit for Carter and was his first hit song on the Irish Singles Chart. The single spent 47 weeks on the chart in its initial release. It was the biggest commercial success of any Country and Irish release in 2012 and considered a crossover hit in the mainstream pop charts. With its re-entry in the charts later in 2013, it has totaled 52 weeks in the Irish Singles Chart (as of December 5, 2013).
Various versions are available through iTunes including:
- "Wagon Wheel" – Nathan Carter – single – (4:12)
- "Wagon Wheel" (Radio Dance Mix) – Nathan Carter and Micky Modelle – (3:46)
- "Wagon Wheel" (Club Mix) – Nathan Carter and Micky Modelle – (3:23)
Carter released a music video of the song which features an outing on the beach where Carter sings the song with his band to his friends on the beach with those present joining in clapping and dancing. The video was filmed on Rossnowlagh beach in County Donegal, Ireland.
Darius Rucker and Lady Antebellum version
|Single by Darius Rucker|
|from the album True Believers|
|Released||January 7, 2013|
|Length||4:57 (album version)|
|Darius Rucker singles chronology|
Darius Rucker recorded a country version of the song with backing vocals from Lady Antebellum as the second single on his third solo project, True Believers, released on Capitol Records. He joined Old Crow Medicine Show at the Grand Ole Opry July 6, 2012, "for a special rendition of 'Wagon Wheel'" where the fans "went crazy over Rucker's cover of the Old Crow Medicine Show hit." After this reception he tweeted out: "Secret out after @opry perf. I recorded a version of 'Wagon Wheel' for my new record and @ladyantebellum sings on track."
The song did not at first appeal to Rucker. "Somebody had played 'Wagon Wheel' for me years ago," he said. "It was one of those things that I didn't really get." The faculty band at his daughter's high school performing had a different effect, as he relates,
We were watching my daughter, and the faculty band gets up. It's just the faculty from her school, and they play "Wagon Wheel." I'm sitting in the audience, and they get to the middle of the chorus, and I turned to my wife, and I go, "I've got to cut this song."
With guidance from Frank Liddell, Rucker cut the song with Lady Antebellum on backing vocals. He told Taste of Country: "Lady Antebellum took the song to a new level. Up until they added their vocals, I thought it was another song on the record."
Rucker had been introduced to Fuqua's source for Dylan's outtake years prior: "I got turned onto the Pat Garrett soundtrack when I worked retail back in the day. It's so different from a lot of his other stuff. It's such a cool record." Rucker also previously had had some experience with crediting Dylan on a song he'd performed. His group Hootie and the Blowfish's 1995 hit single "Only Wanna Be With You" quotes an entire verse from Dylan's 1975 song "Idiot Wind". When the record began selling big, the "Dylan camp" took issue, and Dylan was ultimately credited as a co-writer. As Rucker remembers, "They wanted some money, and they got it. We weren't trying to rip anybody off."
For Rucker it was largely an issue of musical genre and the high school group changing his thinking on it: "I knew the song, and to me it was such a perfect bluegrass tune that I didn't think I could do it. But they did a country version of it, with drums and pedal steel. I was like, 'Wait a minute. That would be a great country song.'" On deciding to go country with it, Rucker says:
It's such the perfect country song. When we were cutting it, all we had (to model it on) was this perfect bluegrass song. I couldn't do it as a bluegrass song. It's just not me. So if we were going to do it, we had to make it a 1950s country song. I'm not shocked at how successful it's been, but I didn't expect it.
Chris Talbott (on Rucker version)
When asked if he thought his recording would be nominated for a Grammy Award, Rucker responded: "If 'Wagon Wheel' doesn't get nominated for a GRAMMY, country music is screwed. It's as simple as that. I'm not saying I should win it, but it should be nominated."
Matt Bjorke of Roughstock gave Rucker's version a five-star rating. Billy Dukes of Taste of Country gave Rucker's version four and a half stars out of five. As to the reaction of the originating group, Rucker says, "I think the Old Crow Medicine Show guys are very happy about it, and that's all that matters to me." On Rucker's version of the song, Chris 'Critter' Fuqua of Old Crow Medicine Show says:
I love it. He actually played with us at (The Grand Ole) Opry, and it was great. I think he sees something special in that song and understands it. He's a country music fan and, more than that, he just loves music and loves playing. I'm really glad he cut the track. It's been good for him and good for us, but I'm just waiting for the time when people come up to me and say, "I love when you guys played that Darius Rucker cover."
Rucker's version was nominated as Single of the Year for the 47th Country Music Association Awards along with Florida Georgia Line ("Cruise"), Tim McGraw with Taylor Swift and Keith Urban ("Highway Don't Care"), Miranda Lambert ("Mama's Broken Heart") and Kacey Musgraves ("Merry Go 'Round"). Rucker closed the televised awards show with the song November 6, 2013.
Rucker won the Grammy Award for Best Country Solo Performance at the 56th Annual Grammy Awards (held January 26, 2014) for his version of "Wagon Wheel". Rucker's win makes him only the second African American after Charley Pride to be both nominated for and win a vocal performance Grammy award in a country music category. Other nominees up for the same award were Lee Brice for "I Drive Your Truck", Hunter Hayes for "I Want Crazy", Miranda Lambert for "Mama's Broken Heart" and Blake Shelton for "Mine Would Be You".
Rucker released a music video of the song on March 21, 2013, which features Si Robertson, Jase Robertson, Sadie Robertson, Korie Robertson and Willie Robertson of the television show Duck Dynasty, along with Charles Kelley of Lady Antebellum. It was filmed in Watertown, Tennessee.
The most popular song of his career, solo or otherwise, Rucker's "Wagon Wheel" debuted at No. 51 on the U.S. Billboard Country Airplay chart for the week of January 19, 2013. It also debuted at number 32 on the U.S. Billboard Hot Country Songs chart for the week of January 26, 2013. It debuted at No. 96 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart for the week of February 6, 2013; it debuted at 72 on the Canadian Hot 100 chart for the week of February 13, 2013. In its 10th chart week, March 20, 2013, Rucker's version made "a strong move" on Hot Country Songs, going from 11 to 5, and to 18 on Country Airplay (to 14.7 million, up 20%). Old Crow's original (from 2004) sold 15,000 and ranked 28 on Country Digital Songs the same week. The song reached number one on Hot Country Songs in its 12th week. It is his most successful song as a solo artist on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at No. 15, as well as the Canadian Hot 100, where it peaked at number 23. By March 2014, the song has sold 2,678,000 copies in the United States, making it then the fifth best-selling song by a male country solo artist. As of October 2019, the song has sold 3,776,000 copies in the US. On February 12, 2020, the song became eight times platinum. 
Charts and certifications
In popular culture
South Dakota Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Rick Weiland sang a parody of the song "with lyrics rewritten to match his campaign message" at a campaign "folk-rock concert" at the Strawbale Winery north of Sioux Falls in October 2014. Parody lyrics included the line: "I can't run a nine million-dollar campaign, but I don't have EB-5 to explain". Democratic vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine played the song on harmonica with local act Nikki Talley and Jason Sharp at the Catawba Brewing Company in Asheville, North Carolina on August 15, 2016.
In 2019, as part of the release of Ken Burns' miniseries Country Music, Bank of America released a video of the song, featuring six musicians from across the United States, with the tag line "Nothing connects the country like country." Each musician sang one line for the first six lines of the song.
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