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“Wagon Wheel”: The strange history of country music’s number one song

June 20, 2013
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IMG_3878bDarius Rucker, formerly of Hootie and the Blowfish and now the first major African American country star since Charlie Pride, has taken his cover of the Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel” to the number one slot on the country charts.

The song, however, has a much stranger history. On Old Crow Medicine Show’s 2004 album OCMS the song was credited to Dylan/Secor–Ketch Secor, the driving force behind Old Crow and, yes, Bob Dylan, who originally cut a fragmentary song “Rock Me Mama” for his soundtrack to Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, which featured “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Dylan said he got the riff from Arthur Crudup, who said he got it from Big Bill Broonzy–such is the history of a folk song.

But like Dylan did with so many songs, Secor added the verses, filled with words that made the song compelling to a new generation. “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” hardly seems like the anthemic call to arms–or stringed instruments–for a bunch of 21st century kids, but it was. By a  month or two after the release of OCMS, “Wagon Wheel” had become a standard; you couldn’t go to a bluegrass or folk jam or a picking party in someone’s backyard without playing the song five or ten times. Everybody wanted to sing it, and it was a really weird thing. There probably had not been a new standard added to the folk cannon since . . . Bob Dylan? And certainly not one whose ascent was so swift.

But Secor’s words resonated with that crowd in the same way that punk songs resonate with the punk crowd–because they are about the audience they are intended for. So many people playing acoustic folk music were doing so at the time because they were looking for something more authentic and communal than mainstream culture was offering. (I was in a jug-band who would busk at the DuPont Circle farmers market in Washington D.C. with a sign that read “Jug Bands Against George Bush” and we could clear a hundred bucks in an hour–those were dark days, but they had their upside).  Like punk, this kind of folk music broke down the barrier between audience and performer, and Old Crow brought the sensibilities of kids who grew up listening to punk back to the music. Long before OCMS came out and before I ever heard their music, I was enchanted by the band because of Matt Dellinger’s masterful story about them in the Oxford American:

“The two years before Nashville were spent hoboing quixotically across Canada and back, then living in self-imposed squalor in the mountains of North Carolina. They brought music nobody really played anymore to towns where no other touring performer would stop to use the bathroom, and people embraced them, fed them, sheltered them. This, in turn, fueled their sense of cosmic destiny. They had come now to Nashville not to go glitzy, but hoping that perhaps some space might remain for what once was country music-hoping, they might say, that their medicine might sell in the sickest place of all.”

I quickly ordered a cassette of their album Eutaw, which was far rougher than OCMS turned out to be (they’ve gotten progressively slicker ever since). But the same sentiment found in Dellinger’s story was embodied in the fragmentary folk song that has now moved out of the back yards and on to the country radio that the band was rebelling against in the first place. So it goes.