Darius Rucker — “Wagon Wheel”
The year is still young, but this is likely to be the oddest pairing of song and singer that country music will have to offer in 2013. On one hand, you have “Wagon Wheel,” the ragged-but-right traveler’s anthem that Old Crow Medicine Show recorded in 2004 and are probably sick to death of playing by now. On the other hand, you have Darius Rucker, who’s known for smooth, radio-friendly, rather boring country-pop songs celebrating family life and love.
If anyone was going to try to bring “Wagon Wheel” into the mainstream, Rucker is a logical candidate. He was recording Foster & Lloyd songs as B-sides to Hootie and the Blowfish singles back when that band was at the height of its popularity, and his earliest country cuts were reportedly deemed “too country for country” by his record label. There’s more to Rucker as a country artist and fan than he’s shown in tunes like “This” and “Alright.”
His version of “Wagon Wheel” is an intriguing blend of OCMS’ rawness and Rucker’s mainstream sound. There are more fiddles, banjos and mandolins in this song that the rest of the Country Top 40 combined. Drums and electric guitar have been added to the mix, but they don’t drown out the acoustic instruments. Even the marijuana reference is left intact – though a radio-friendly version with sharing a “smoke” is inevitable.
That said, the song does have the typical pristine mainstream country music production, eliminating any trace of the street corner string band feel that Old Crow Medicine Show brought to the table. Lady Antebellum shows up to make sure even the background vocals are spot-on and polished.
Does the mainstreaming of “Wagon Wheel” kill it? Sanding down the rough edges doesn’t take away the toe-tapping, sing-along feel of the original. Rucker’s soulful vocals are among the best in country music, and when he has a song with some substance, it makes for a wonderful combination. If you’re a fan of the original, Rucker’s take likely won’t become the definitive version, but he definitely does the song justice.
So, now that this combination has proven successful, how can the country and Americana worlds blend even further? Let’s see Jason Aldean cover Dale Watson and Carrie Underwood tap into the Neko Case catalog. Maybe Rascal Flatts can do “Dead, Drunk and Naked” by The Drive-By Truckers. On second thought, maybe some pairings are better left to the imagination.
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