SPRING HILL, TENNESSEE - AUGUST 29: Darius Rucker performs for CMT Storytellers at WorldWide Stages on August 29, 2022 in Spring Hill, Tennessee.
Erika Goldring/Getty Images for CMT

'Wagon Wheel': The Story Behind Darius Rucker's Century-Defining Crossover Hit


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Darius Rucker's omnipresent version of "Wagon Wheel" entered rare air in 2022, joining the short list of country songs to earn diamond certification from the RIAA for surpassing 10 million sales and streams.

The only country acts to reach such heights as primary artists or featured collaborators are Rucker, Chris Stapleton ("Tennessee Whiskey"), Florida Georgia Line (for both "Cruise" (sales and streams for the Nelly version included) and BeBe Rexha collaboration "Meant to Be") and the artists sharing the only 16-time platinum hit to date: "Old Town Road" collaborators Billy Ray Cyrus and Lil Nas X. Others playing a huge role in diamond-certified songs are Rucker's background singers on "Wagon Wheel," Lady A, as well as Dolly Parton, whose composition "I Will Always Love You" became an all-time top-seller for Whitney Houston.

L to R: "TODAY" Anchor Craig Melvin, who presented Darius Rucker with the RIAA Diamond certification honor; "Wagon Wheel" Producer Frank Rogers; Rucker; UMG Nashville Chairman/CEO Mike Dungan

Steve Lowrey

Though it topped Billboard's Hot Country Songs and Country Airplay charts upon its 2013 release and became a Top 15 pop hit, "Wagon Wheel's" numbers say more about its staying power than its initial crossover surge.

"The longevity of that song has been incredible," Rucker told Wide Open Country. "Before we could announce that it went to 10 million, it went to 11. It's a crazy thought. That's just a testament to the song and our version of it."

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Rucker's singalong-friendly version took an already popular song by Old Crow Medicine Show and introduced it to a broader audience. Through that, it became as obvious a bar band cover song as Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire."  More impressively, it's not a stretch to say it's as synonymous with country music in the 21st century as something as iconic as Willie Nelson's "On the Road Again" would've been in the past-- meaning "like 'Wagon Wheel?'" might be a common question when you tell others that you listen to the genre.

"'Wagon Wheel' has become part of the lexicon now," Rucker said at an Oct. 26, 2022 press event. "When I play it, people lose their minds. The other night at the Opry, we got to that song and everybody stood up and started dancing. How many times has that happened at the Opry? It's one of those songs that I'm so lucky that I recorded it and Lady A got on it and [producer Frank Rogers] did such a great job."

Rucker added that he knew the song 10 years before he cut it, with the inspiration to record it himself coming from hearing it at one of his children's school functions.

"Wagon Wheel" dates back to at least a chorus and melody heard on a Bob Dylan demo for 1973's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid soundtrack. Old Crow Medicine Show's Ketch Secor wrote the verses that tell the story of a hitchhiker headed to North Carolina.

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"I'd gotten a Dylan bootleg in like ninth grade and I let Ketch listen to it, and he wrote the verses because Bob kind of mumbles them and that was it," Old Crow's Chris "Critter" Fuqua told The Island Packet in 2013. "We've been playing that song since we were like 17, and it's funny because we've never met Dylan, but the song is technically co-written by Bob Dylan. What's great about 'Wagon Wheel' is that it has grown organically. The popularity of it was all based on word of mouth. There was no radio airplay for it. We made a music video for it, but it wasn't 'November Rain' or anything. No one was like, 'Oh my God, what's this video about?' And 16 years later, it went gold, then Darius Rucker cut it."

As the band later learned, Dylan didn't consider himself the true writer of the familiar song lyric "hey... mama rock me."

"That song is one of those rare ones that took almost a century to come to fruition," Secor told Relix in 2014. "When I found out that Bob was willing to publish it with us, he 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."

Old Crow's version appeared in 2004 on the band's self-titled major-label debut album. Massive in its own right, that recording has since gone platinum.

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"Wagon Wheel" Lyrics

Headin' down south to the land of the pines
I'm thumbin' my way into North Caroline
Starin' up the road and pray to God I see headlights

I made it down the coast in seventeen hours
Pickin' me a bouquet of dogwood flowers
And I'm a-hopin' for Raleigh, I can see my baby tonight

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 southbound train
Hey... mama rock me

Runnin' 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-gettin' me down
Lost my money playing poker, so I had to leave town
But I ain't a-turnin' back to livin' that old life no more

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So, rock me mama like a wagon wheel
Rock me mama any way you feel
Hey... mama rock me
Yeah, rock me mama like the wind and the rain
Rock me mama like a southbound train
Hey... mama rock me

Walkin' to the south out of Roanoke
I caught a trucker out of Philly, had a nice long toke
But he's a-headin' west from the Cumberland Gap
To Johnson City, Tennessee
And I gotta get a move on before the sun
I hear my baby callin' my name and I know that she's the only one
And if I died in Raleigh, at least I will die free

So, rock me mama like a wagon wheel
Rock me mama any way you feel
Hey... mama rock me
Oh, rock me mama like the wind and the rain
Rock me mama like a southbound train
Hey... mama rock me
So, rock me mama like a wagon wheel
Rock me mama any way you feel (oh, I wanna feel)
Hey... mama rock me

Rock me mama like the wind and the rain
Rock me mama like a southbound train
Hey... mama rock me

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READ MORE: Wynonna To Recreate The Judds' 1991 Farewell Tour for Concert Special

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