By now everyone has heard the smash hit “Wagon Wheel,” whether it’s Darius Rucker’s smooth, overproduced number one single, Old Crow Medicine Show’s fiddle-heavy, snarly original, or some Nashville hopeful singing the song in a bar.
But the song had its origins much before its debut on Old Crow Medicine Show’s major label debut in 2004. Most people are aware that Bob Dylan originally wrote the refrain that would blossom into “Wagon Wheel.” But to really get to its roots, we need to trace the song even further back in musical history.
Let’s start here:
Legend has it that Big Bill Broonzy’s “Rock Me Baby” was the original source of inspiration for “Wagon Wheel.” Broonzy’s song inspired bluesman Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s song “Rock Me, Mama,” which Dylan directly credits as the inspiration for his half-finished song “Wagon Wheel.”
However, Broonzy’s influence may have been confused with a different, yet similar, song by another bluesman, Curtis Jones. Jones’ 1939 “Roll Me Mama” features the lyric “roll me, mama, just like I’m a wagon wheel.” Take a listen.
Bob Dylan crafts the song
Once the refrain got into Dylan’s hands, it began to develop into what we know it as today. Dylan was working on the song for the soundtrack to the movie in which he was starring, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (which also stars Kris Kristofferson).
The song was never finished and wasn’t included on the soundtrack, but a bootleg of the recording session somehow got out and decades later landed in the hands of OCMS’s Ketch Secor.
Interestingly enough, Dylan’s unfinished demo “Rock Me, Mama” was recorded during the same session as the now classic “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” so in a bizarre twist, that one recording session yielded two of the world’s most widely-recognized songs.
The song became a favorite for burgeoning musicians and campfire sing-alongs, no doubt helped by its simple four-chord structure easy melody. “Wagon Wheel” was certified gold, despite never having cracked Billboard’s Top 50.
Finally, in 2013, Darius Rucker released his version of “Wagon Wheel,” backed by all the bigwigs and money of Nashville. Rucker and his “boo-quet” version, which includes Lady Antebellum on backing vocals, quickly became a number one hit and has been certified platinum, winning a whole bunch of recognition in the process.
And now you know how a 1940s blues song became one a number one smash 80 years later.