Hey, you know that song “Wagon Wheel”? Of course you do. That catchy refrain of hey… mama rock me is basically inescapable. It stands out among other country songs as much 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 because they’re played and requested so much?
It may be a behemoth of a tune now, but Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel” actually took decades to become the staple it is.
Hold up, Old Crow Medicine Show? Not Darius Rucker? Nope. In fact, it really all boils down to the incomparable Bob Dylan. Rucker’s 2013 version was a monster hit, it even reached number one on the Billboard Hot Country Songs Chart. Rucker’s “Wagon Wheel”, however, wasn’t even close to the old Dylan song.
The whole thing started back in 1973. The film Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid needed a soundtrack. And wouldn’t you know it, Bob Dylan needed a 12th album. So, for the first time ever, he created a film soundtrack. During those sessions, he recorded a few extra tidbits that, though never released, made their way to the public via bootlegs.
One of those tidbits comprised the melody and chorus of “Wagon Wheel,” without the verses. So, yeah, one of the biggest country hits ever was pretty much just Bob Dylan messing around.
But the Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel” didn’t come about until a young Ketch Secor heard the bootleg. Bandmate Chris “Critter” Fuqua showed the bootleg to Secor, and he reportedly couldn’t get the tune out of his head, so he wrote down some words for a verse and began playing it out with his friends at age 17.
In case you’ve been living under a rock since the Darius Rucker version came out, here’s a little bit about the song. Ketch Secor’s lyrics take listeners on a tour of the Southern United States. In the song a gambler chooses to leave behind his old life. He escapes Philly and the “north country winters” by hitchhiking back home. He hops rides and even walks to Roanoke, and finally on into Raleigh, where he laments “at least I will die free,”. By the way – if you haven’t seen the Old Crow Medicine Show music video, you’ve got to watch it.
“Wagon Wheel” is at once a love song to the south and a kitchy conglomeration of country music archetypes.
He eventually found a way to ask Dylan for permission to cut it, which he agreed to as one half of the writers on the song. Their first version came about in 2001 on an independent EP called Troubles Up and Down The Road. They even played the tune at the famous Station Inn in Nashville, Tennessee in 2001 as a tribute to Dylan.
Their label debut O.C.M.S. featured the fully recorded version, which became the band’s biggest hit, going gold and eventually platinum. Before Darius Rucker got his hands on it, Irish singer Nathan Carter had his first No. 1 in Ireland in 2012. The song spent an amazing 47 consecutive weeks on the Irish charts.
Which kind of makes Rucker’s success a year later a forgone conclusion. But nobody expected it to be the hit it was, even with Lady Antebellum’s backing vocals on the track. Rucker debuted his version of the song at the Grand Ole Opry alongside Ketch Secor. He eventually won a Grammy award for the song. Oh, and his version went platinum — three times.
And yet there’s something distinctly special about the Old Crow Medicine Show Wagon Wheel that just can’t be replaced. Whether it’s Secor’s classically understated vocal or the true bluegrass instrumentation and harmony, who knows. But the song clearly captivates an audience no matter who plays it.
And let’s be real, even the folks who “banned” “Wagon Wheel” probably sing along when nobody’s watching