Music

The Surprising Origins of ‘Wagon Wheel,’ One of the Most Popular Country Songs Ever

Old Crow Medicine Show

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.

Then again Melvin “Lil Son” Jackson’s 1950s track “Rockin & Rollin'” (which would later become B.B. King’s famous “Rock Me” features the lyric “roll me baby like you roll a wagon wheel.

What’s clear is that “Wagon Wheel” had its origins in mid-century blues, whose artists all seemed to borrow from themselves anyway.

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, the Bob Dylan song 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.

Secor wrote the song in 1995 and OCMS recorded it for an early independent album, but it wasn’t until their 2004 release that “Wagon Wheel” began to become a major hit – at least in bars and at open-mics around the country.

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.

Another little-known iteration had Ireland’s Nathan Carter ride the song to No. 14 on the Irish charts in 2012. He would later release a live album based around the song that would reach No. 1.

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.

“Wagon Wheel” Lyrics:

Heading down south to the land of the pines
I’m thumbing my way into North Caroline
Staring up the road and pray to God I see headlights
I made it down the coast in seventeen hours
Picking me a bouquet of dogwood flowers
And I’m a-hopin’ for Raleigh, I can see my baby tonight
So rock me momma like a wagon wheel
Rock me momma any way you feel
Hey, momma rock me
Rock me momma like the wind and the rain
Rock me momma like a southbound train
Hey, momma rock me
I’m running from the cold up in New England
I was born to be a fiddler in an old-time string band
My baby plays a guitar, I pick a banjo now
Oh, north country winters keep a-getting me down
Lost my money playing poker so I had to leave town
But I ain’t turning back to living that old life no more
So rock me momma like a wagon wheel
Rock me momma any way you feel
Hey, momma rock me
Hey, rock me momma like the wind and the rain
Rock me momma like a southbound train
Hey, momma rock me
Walkin’ to the south out of Roanoke
Caught a trucker out of Philly had a nice long toke
But he’s a heading west from the Cumberland Gap
To Johnson City, Tennessee
And I gotta get a move on before the sun
I hear my baby calling my name and I know that she’s the only one
And if I die in Raleigh at least I will die free
So rock me momma like a wagon wheel
Rock me momma any way you feel
Hey, momma rock me
Oh, rock me momma like the wind and the rain
Rock me momma like a southbound train
Hey momma rock me
Oh, so rock me momma like a wagon wheel
Rock me momma any way you feel
Hey, momma rock me (mama rock me, mama rock me)
Rock me momma like the wind and the rain
Rock me momma like a southbound train
Hey, yeah momma rock me (you can rock me, rock me)

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The Surprising Origins of ‘Wagon Wheel,’ One of the Most Popular Country Songs Ever