The Evolution of Wagon Wheel

You may have heard Darius Rucker’s version of Wagon Wheel, but did you know it started as a simple folk melody?

In fact, one of the most famous rock-folk singers in the world started the song while dinking around between recording sessions.

We’re digging into Wagon Wheel’s beginnings and following its evolution to the hit we know today.

Let’s get started!

About the Song, Wagon Wheel

So, rock me mama like a wagon wheel
Rock me mama any way you feel
Hey... mama rock me

Who hasn’t heard these lyrics? Even those who rarely listen to folk or country music have likely heard this song.

Wagon Wheel speaks to wanderers, lovers, and rebels with the story of a man leaving his troubles behind and hitchhiking to the Carolinas. Can he escape his gambling debt, and will she be there for him? The tune is hopeful. He just has to make it to Raleigh.

The lyrics mainly talk about the people who pick him up and help him on his way. Much like the character in the song, Wagon Wheel came to be over time with the help of multiple people. Let’s take a look at Wagon Wheel’s evolution.

Who Wrote Wagon Wheel First?

‘Wagon Wheel’ initially started as ‘Rock Me Mama’ with just a melody and a chorus. Believe it or not, Bob Dylan created the tune while working on music for the movie “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.” He wrote several extra pieces during that time, recording some. 

You might know Dylan best for his protest songs or those that speak of the harsher realities of our world. Like a Rolling Stone is his biggest hit, though you could argue that All Along the Watchtower and Blowin’ in the Wind come close. 

The singer-songwriter has been prolific since his initial album release in 1962 and continues to create and perform today. 

So how did a little creative ditty with only a few words to it end up being the ‘Wagon Wheel’ we all know today? Somehow, someway, a bootleg copy got into circulation.

Who Wrote the Song’s Words?

And 25 years later, “Critter” of The Old Crow Medicine Show heard it. 

The Old Crow Medicine Show formed in 1998 and began busking on street corners in North Carolina. The legendary Doc Watson heard them playing and invited them to play at his annual festival. According to Secor, “That gig changed our lives.” 

From there, they went on to record ten albums with an 11th, Paint This Town, coming out soon. They’ve toured and played numerous festivals and been featured in a documentary. 

OCMS was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in 2013 and received the Trailblazer Award from the Americana Music Association the same year. Their solid folk and bluegrass music also won them a Grammy in 2015.

In their early years, “Critter” played Dylan’s ‘Rock Me Mama’ for the band’s frontman, Ketch Secor, who couldn’t get it out of his head.

Secor wrote lyrics for the tune, pulling on his love of the South to fill it out. The Old Crow Medicine Show played the song for the first time in 2001 and the rest, as they say, is history. 

Eventually, he connected with Dylan, who approved the new version and gave Secor the nod to play the newly named ‘Wagon Wheel’ with Dylan as co-writer. OCMS’s self-titled 2004 album carried the song and received the Recording Industry Association of America’s (RIAA) Double-Platinum certification in 2019. 

You’d think this means that OCMS’s version is the most popular. However, rock-star turned country crooner Darius Rucker’s cover holds that honor. 

Born in South Carolina, Rucker grew up around music and even sang in his church choir. But he didn’t think about it as a potential career until college when he formed Hootie & the Blowfish in 1986 with Mark Bryan and Dean Felber. 

The band played bars and the college circuit, releasing their first album, Kootchypop, in 1991. The record sold 50,000 copies, which is excellent for a self-promoted band. They eventually signed with Atlantic Records and released Cracked Rear View in 1994. 

CRV rocketed to #1 and sold over 21 million copies with popular songs such as I Only Want To Be With You and Hold My Hand. In fact, Let Her Cry won a Grammy for Best Pop Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal.

A Change of Focus

Hootie & the Blowfish continued to record and tour until 2008, when Rucker decided to switch to a solo country music career. His first album, Learn to Live, went platinum with three songs reaching #1 on the country charts. 

He continues to receive awards and acclaim throughout his country music career. But it was True Believers that blew the roof off the barn with his cover of Wagon Wheel.

Rucker was reminded of the song while attending a talent show at his daughter’s school. He realized what a great song it was and called his label to tell him he would record it. They had their doubts, but Rucker cut the track regardless. That was probably one of the best decisions he ever made.

According to the RIAA, “Rucker is now the only solo male country act to achieve the honor of an 8x-plus multi-Platinum song in RIAA’s history.” In addition, his version is one of the five all-time best-selling country songs.

Who Sings Wagon Wheel the Best?

Oh sure. Other versions of Wagon Wheel are out there, including one performed by Irish country singer Nathan Carter that spent over 50 weeks on the UK charts. His cover came out just a few weeks before Rucker’s. Mumford and Sons also recorded the hit song.

And while Darius Rucker’s version can be labeled the greatest as far as popularity and sales, some say Old Crow Medicine Show’s version is still the best. Who do you think did the most excellent cover of Wagon Wheel?

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