Darius Rucker — “Wagon Wheel”

Sam Gazdziak | January 16th, 2013

dariusruckerSongwriters: Bob Dylan, Ketch Secor

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.

Thumbs Up

  1. Baron Lane
    January 16, 2013 at 8:31 am

    Not a huge Rucker fan but I am a fan of Americana being brought to the mainstream. OCM shaped a great tune from Dylan’s chunk of coal and I applaud Rucker for running it through the Music Row machine and not coming out with musical gruel.

  2. Barry Mazor
    January 16, 2013 at 8:41 am

    “Dylan’s lump of coal” was nothing more than Bob mucking with and abandoning in the studio variations on “Rock Me Baby,” a blues standard that goes back at least to the 1930s (the now relatively obscure Tommy McClennan, for one) and on through better known versions by BB King and Jimi Hendrix, for instance– which featured the “rock me, baby, mama, etc., like my back ain’t got no bone; roll me like a wagon wheel” lyric. In all ways that matter “Wagon Wheel” is Ketch’s alone; it had never been a narrative song at all, let alone one with a story that compelling and emblematic about moving into country, and using the blues as the pop singlaong chorus was dang smart. Which Ketch is. And hey, so is Darius Rucker for picking up on it. Glad you brought it up, Sam..

  3. Jon
    January 16, 2013 at 10:51 am

    I don’t think anything could make me like that song.

  4. Ben Foster
    January 16, 2013 at 11:31 am

    I like this well enough for what it is – even though it doesn’t hold a candle to the OCMS version – mostly for the arrangement, and just for getting to hear Rucker sing a quality song, plus a little more twang on country radio is always a good thing. I don’t think Lady Antebellum really adds anything to it, though.

  5. Barry Mazor
    January 16, 2013 at 1:01 pm

    This one will live without ya, Jon..

  6. Jon
    January 16, 2013 at 2:33 pm

    Oh, I know, Barry – I figure I’ll be playing it every 45 minutes or so any time I’m working on Lower Broadway from now until the day I die.

  7. Jon
    January 16, 2013 at 2:38 pm

    But that doesn’t mean I can’t wonder what the hell Sam’s talking about when he calls it “a song with some substance.” Really? Substance?

  8. Sam G.
    January 16, 2013 at 3:10 pm

    Compared to many of his other singles, yes

  9. Leeann Ward
    January 16, 2013 at 3:58 pm

    I love this song and look forward to it’s potential run on mainstream radio. To me, this is the most engaged that Rucker has sounded in his country career so far. Of course, OCMS still has the definitive version, but I like this version much better than I imagined I would.

  10. Jon
    January 16, 2013 at 5:58 pm

    Well, I listened to Rucker’s version. I like it better than Old Crow’s, but I still would just as soon never hear (much less have to play) “Wagon Wheel” again.

    In the meantime, I’m still waiting to hear what the song has in the way of “substance”; the original statement wasn’t qualified or comparative, it called it “a song of some substance.” I’ll stipulate that doesn’t have anything to do with whether it’s enjoyable or not (and unlike some of its defenders, I’ve never said or even implied that a song has to be substantive in any respect to be worthwhile, much less enjoyable), so let’s not be distracted by that, eh?

    This isn’t a question about taste, it’s a question about music criticism and analysis. As Clara Peller said, where’s the beef? You want to tell me you love love love it, fine; that puts you in with a big bunch of people. You want to tell me it’s “a song of some substance,” I want to know exactly where you see it.

  11. Mike Wimmer
    January 16, 2013 at 7:02 pm

    It’s an ok version of the song, more than anything I’m just glad someone besides the usual Music Row suspects are gonna be getting some nice royalty checks from radio for a change. It’s like when the Eli Young Band covered “Even If It Breaks Your Heart”, was a huge fan of their cover itself? No, but at least the Peach Pickers or some of the other crappy mainstream Country writers wouldnt be getting ANOTHER big check for mailing in a truck song.

  12. luckyoldsun
    January 17, 2013 at 6:27 pm

    “I’m still waiting to hear what the song has in the way of ‘substance'; the original statement wasn’t qualified or comparative, it called it ‘a song of some substance.'”

    Actually, I think the insertion of the word “some”–as in “some substance”–does constitute a qualifier.

    I can’t say I know for sure why Sam put it in there, but a plausible interpretation is that he’s suggesting that even a minimal amount of “substance” is enough to make the song stand out in comparison to what’s out there now.

  13. Barry Mazor
    January 17, 2013 at 6:42 pm

    I think the song does have “substance”–an almost totally subjective term, but I’m in a sometimes subjective line of work.

    The verses’ evocation of the move from the frozen north to the the hot South, and explicitly and by suggestion deeper into the music that goes with that, capped by the explosive blues-rock chorus that I’ve seen a Ryman-ful of audience swaying and singing, with that a effective “release” sort of feel to it–well, I think that’s all very skillful.

    That it’s become a sort of anthem of heading musically South and sexually ready seems completely understandable to me. I think it’s a terrific song that does what it means to.

  14. Jon
    January 17, 2013 at 7:56 pm

    “…a plausible interpretation is that he’s suggesting that even a minimal amount of “substance” is enough to make the song stand out in comparison to what’s out there now.”

    That would be plausible if, oh, something like “compared with” or “in comparison to” were in the original. Which there isn’t anything like that there. I tried to point that out by saying that the original statement wasn’t comparative, but evidently that went right over some folks’ heads.

    Barry, that’s a nice try, but – to take up the comparison theme – how is that “I wanna be where it’s warm and sunny” theme any more substantive or deeper or more artfully handled here than in, say, any of those Kenny Chesney islands songs so widely sneered at around here? You’d think a substantive paean to the South would, among other things, get its geography right.

    I’m happy to grant you the sing-along-ability-ness of the chorus (though not the “blues” part of your “blues-rock”), but it doesn’t relate to that theme (unless you’re arguing that people can’t or don’t, uh, rock, in cold weather states) and isn’t any more substantive than, oh, “hey ho a leena.” I’ve got nothing against feel-good singalongs, but their virtues are usually to be found somewhere else than in what’s generally meant by “substance.”

  15. Barry Mazor
    January 17, 2013 at 9:27 pm

    As I said, Jon, we see that differently. Period.

  16. Luckyoldsun
    January 18, 2013 at 7:29 pm

    “I tried to point that out by saying that the original statement wasn’t comparative, but evidently that went right over some folks’ heads.”

    You got it Jonno. I’m just too damn stupid to grasp the brilliance that you uniformly project.

    But I think “Wagon Wheels” has a certain mystical or poetic quality, a la Kristofferson or Ian Tyson (listening to the song for the second or third time, you may actually absorb some meaning that you didn’t get on first listen) that sets it apart from–and above–your typical Kenny Chesney island song.

Tagged In This Article

// // //

Current Discussion

  • Dave W.: Just read the news here. Will miss E145 very much - love this site. All the best to you Juli …
  • Leeann Ward: Oh, dang! This is real. Farewell to the most generous, informative, quality, intelligent, consistent, ethical country music blog! You …
  • bll: Thanks Juli for all the great articles and information; you'll be missed by me and I suss several others. Best …
  • Both Kinds of Music: I hope people appreciate the irony that one of the best "Americana" albums is titled Metamodern Sounds in COUNTRY Music.
  • Barry Mazor: I would not rule out that possibility..There's a different set of voters involved..
  • Dana M: Does anyone else think that Brandy Clark actually has a good chance of winning since this isn't a country awards …
  • Juli Thanki: UPDATE: Brandy Clark got a Best New Artist nom. BEST AMERICANA ALBUM: Rosanne Cash -- The River & The Thread John Hiatt -- Terms …
  • luckyoldsun: Glenn Campbell is great and I'd love to see him get an award, but the words of that song may …
  • Casey Penn: Juli, it was an honor to write for you here on Engine145.com. You're good at what you do, and The …
  • bob: Go Brandy FGL - Just go away.

Recently Reviewed Albums

  • walkerandthetexasdangers3
  • deadmanstown
  • tom t hall storytellers
  • paulthorntooblessed
  • duhksbeyondtheblue
  • kelleymickwee
  • sandrarhodes
  • candi staton