Polarizing “Wagon Wheel” Now One Of The Most Popular Songs Of All Time
There is one thing that cannot be disputed about the song “Wagon Wheel”. It is unequivocally one of the greatest songs in country music history today. Last week, Darius Rucker and his Capitol Records Nashville label celebrated the song certified Diamond by the RIAA, meaning it has now racked up 10 million equivalent units in sales, downloads and streams. In fact, for good measure, the RIAA also certified the song 11X Platinum at the same time. Rucker’s version of “Wagon Wheel” originally released in 2013 officially received the new certifications on October 27.
And that says nothing about the original version of the song from Old Crow’s 2004 album Medicine Show SMCO This release has been certified Double Platinum on its own and is likely to go much higher in the years to come. There are also dozens of other cover versions of the song that have racked up sales and streaming data. Irish singer Nathan Carter recorded “Wagon Wheel” in 2012 and had a big hit with it in Ireland. Carter’s version has been streamed some 9 million times on Spotify alone.
But just off the strength of Darius Rucker’s version, “Wagon Wheel” became one of only three songs in country music history to go Diamond. The other two are Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise,” which single-handedly kicked off the Bro Country era in country music when it was released in 2012, and Chris Stapleton’s version of “Tennessee Whiskey,” which in many respects put a nail in Bro-Country. coffin when Stapleton performed it at the 2015 CMA Awards with Justin Timberlake. “Tennessee Whiskey” is currently 13X Platinum and “Cruise” is 14X Platinum.
But of course, what some country music fans think of “Wagon Wheel” depends on who you talk to. After Old Crow Medicine Show released the song, its popularity skyrocketed, but only among indie/underground/Americana circles. Country radio would never consider airing it. But the song found such a favorable reception that bluegrass and folk revival bands started playing it all over the country. He was regularly shouted by the audience as a request.
The popularity that Old Crow Medicine Show found via “Wagon Wheel” also made it an oddly popular act for a band of old-school buskers, while similar string band outfits began to form across the board. country to emulate the retro sound made popular by Old Crow. Soon, ex-punk rockers to anthropology majors in college towns were all joining the string band craze with their fedora hats and vaudevillian flares. Next thing we knew, Mumford & Sons were one of the greatest bands in all of popular music while playing acoustic instruments in an old-school folk music approach, but with a punk energy, just like Old Crow .
At some point, the popularity of “Wagon Wheel” found such critical mass among indie artists and fans who generally disapprove of anything popular, a backlash began to ensue. The zeitgeist started making fun of groups of street musicians with their suspenders and bow ties. “Wagon Wheel” became so effusive and requests so common that it took on the aspect of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird”. Before you knew it, there were literal bans on the song in some venues across the country. Signs were hung in trendy bars, prohibiting playing or requesting the song. The t-shirts were sold with a wagon wheel on the front and a strike across.
Then, of course, there was the somewhat dubious origin of the song itself. Since the song’s chorus and melody were taken from a Bob Dylan demo recording that appeared on the Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid sessions in 1973, and Ketch Secor of the Old Crow Medicine Show had started playing the song years before officially giving Dylan credit as co-writer, rumors swirled that the song itself was a scam. Others have pointed out that elements of the song may even date back to the 1940s and blues artists such as Arthur Cudrup and Big Bill Bronzy.
While all this dismay and twist was happening on “Wagon Wheel,” the average American had never even heard the song, let alone the average mainstream country music fan. Although Darius Rucker was heavily criticized for choosing to record it in 2013, in many ways he was an absolute genius. “Wagon Wheel” had easily turned out to be a mega hit, but no one in the popular country had risen to make one. Darius Rucker did, and not only did it ultimately earn him a Diamond-certified single, but it also earned him a Grammy Award for Best Country Solo Performance in 2014.
It’s also important to point out that one of the most popular and commercially successful tracks in country music history was cut by a black man. This made Rucker the second black artist to be nominated and win a Grammy as a solo artist. This is why, when some seek to erasing black heritage in country musicand specifically the legacy of Darius Rucker, they are doing a disservice to the black community.
But of course, none of that legacy, or the accolades ‘Wagon Wheel’ racked up, mattered to those who first discovered, then loved, later reviled ‘Wagon Wheel’ long before Darius Rucker seizes it. The fact that Hootie was now co-opting the song for commercial gain added insult to injury, or was icing on the cake for why “Wagon Wheel” deserved to be reviled rather than revered.
Still, when you think of all the other popular songs in country music, especially over the past 20 years, it’s fair to conclude that “Wagon Wheel” gets a rough ride from some. After all, the reason there was a backlash was because of the song’s reverb and anthem when it first hit the listener’s ears. In 2004, a song like “Wagon Wheel” was completely old-fashioned and fuddy-duddy, but it touched a nerve and something basic inside listeners. It was the opening salvo of a flight into authenticity and vintage sounds that would overtake country and roots music in years to come, as hip-hop’s dominance over popular music made wood, wire and the organic sounds of more vital and real acoustic instruments.
“Wagon Wheel” is a song about a hitchhiker traveling to the east coast of the United States to find a lover. Regardless of whether the Cumberland Gap is east of Johnson City, Tennessee, as opposed to west, or how popular the song eventually became, it’s a well-written and composed country roots song that speaks. of the rural experience of American life.
Even the Darius Rucker version of “Wagon Wheel” features a prominent violin, along with other traditional instruments. When released in 2013, the song swam completely upstream from the Bro-Country sound of country radio at the time. In fact, it wouldn’t be for seven years and Jon Pardi’s single “Heartache Medication” in 2020 that a mainstream country single with a major fiddle would return to No. 1. Rucker’s “Wagon Wheel” was revolutionary in its own ways.
With the nature of “Wagon Wheel”, it’s understandable that some still hold their noses or make a funny face whenever the title of the song is simply mentioned, especially the Darius Rucker version since it was about of the retail version as opposed to the original, or even Dylan’s prototype. But there are far worse songs that could have become one of only three songs to be certified Diamond in country music history, like Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise” for example. No matter what one thinks of “Wagon Wheel” now, it feels like a win for real, authentic country music.
And when you combine that with the fact that the other Certified Diamond song is the one that was originally released in 1982, was a semi-hit for David Allan Coe, then a bigger hit for George Jones, and revitalized by Chris Stapleton – we’re talking about Tennessee Whiskey written by Dean Dillon and Linda Hargrove of course – so two out of three isn’t bad. The fact that “Wagon Wheel” and “Tennessee Whiskey” are two of the greatest songs in country history shows how, when real country music has a chance, it can be wildly successful, even to the point of being hated. for its popularity. .