Polarizing “Wagon Wheel” Now One of The Most Popular Songs Ever

There is one thing that can’t be disputed about the song “Wagon Wheel.” It is unequivocally now one of the biggest songs in country music history. Last week, Darius Rucker and his label Capitol Records Nashville celebrated the song going Certified Diamond by the RIAA, meaning it has now racked up 10 million equivalent units in sales, downloads, and streams. Actually, 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 was officially awarded the new certifications on October 27th.

And this says nothing about the original version of the song from Old Crow Medicine Show’s 2004 album O.C.M.S. That version has been Certified Double Platinum all unto itself, and is likely to go much higher in the coming years. There are also scores of other cover versions of the song that have accumulated sales and streaming data. Irish singer Nathan Carter recorded “Wagon Wheel” in 2012, and had a major hit with it in Ireland. Carter’s version has been streamed some 9 million times on Spotify alone.

But just off the strength of the Darius Rucker version, “Wagon Wheel” has become one of only three songs in the history of country music to go Diamond. The other two are “Cruise” by Florida Georgia Line, which singlehandedly launched 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’s coffin when Stapleton performed it on the 2015 CMA Awards with Justin Timberlake. “Tennessee Whiskey” is currently 13X Platinum, and “Cruise” is 14X Platinum.

But of course, how certain country music fans feel about “Wagon Wheel” depends on who you speak to. After Old Crow Medicine Show released the song, it exploded in popularity, but only among independent/underground/Americana circles. Country radio would never consider playing it. But the song found such a favorable reception that bluegrass and folk revival bands started playing it all around the country. It was regularly shouted out by the audience as a request.

The popularity that Old Crow Medicine Show found via “Wagon Wheel” also made them a strangely popular act for an old fashioned busking band, while similar string band outfits began to form all across the country to emulate the throwback sound Old Crow made popular. Soon, former punk rockers to anthropology majors in college towns were all joining the string band craze with their fedora hats and Vaudevillian flare. Next thing we knew, Mumford & Sons was one of the biggest acts 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 amongst independent artists and fans that usually disfavor anything popular, a backlash started to ensue. The zeitgeist started making fun of busking bands in their suspenders and bow ties. “Wagon Wheel” became so effusive and requests for it so common, it took on the aspect of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird.” Before you knew it, there were literal bans against the song in certain venues across the country. Signs were hung in hipster bars, forbidding the playing or requesting of the song. T-shirts were sold with a wagon wheel on the front, and a strike across it.

Then of course there was the somewhat dubious origin of the song itself. Since the chorus and melody for the song were lifted from a Bob Dylan demo recording that appeared on the Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid sessions from 1973, and Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor had started playing the song years before officially giving Dylan credit as a co-writer, rumors swirled that the song itself was a ripoff. Others pointed out that elements of the song could even date back to the 40s, and blues artists such as Arthur Cudrup and Big Bill Bronzy.

While all of this consternation and hand-wringing was happening over “Wagon Wheel” though, the average American had never even heard the song, let alone the average mainstream country music fan. Though Darius Rucker was staunchly criticized for choosing to record it in 2013, in many respects, it was absolute genius. “Wagon Wheel” had easily proven itself to be a mega hit, but nobody in popular country had stepped up to make it one. Darius Rucker did, and not only did it eventually land him a Diamond-Certified single, it also won 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 happened to be cut by a Black man. It made Rucker only the second Black artist to both be nominated for and win a Grammy as a solo artist. That is why when some look to erase Black legacy in country music, and specifically the legacy of Darius Rucker, they do a disservice to the Black community.

But of course, none of this legacy, or the accolades “Wagon Wheel” accrued mattered to those that had initially discovered, then loved, the later reviled “Wagon Wheel” well before Darius Rucker got a hold of it. The fact that Hootie was now co-opting the song for commercial purposes added insult to injury, or was the icing on the cake of why “Wagon Wheel” deserved to be reviled as opposed to revered.

Yet when you think of all the other popular songs in country music, especially over the last 20 years, it’s fair to conclude that “Wagon Wheel” is given an unfair shake by some. After all, the whole reason there was a backlash against it was due to how reverberative and anthemic the song felt when it first hit listener’s ears. In 2004, a song like “Wagon Wheel” was completely out of fashion and fuddy-duddy, but it touched a nerve and something elemental inside of listeners. It was the opening salvo in a flight towards authenticity and vintage sounds that would overtake country and roots music in the coming years as hip-hop’s dominance over popular music made wood, wire, and organic sounds from acoustic instruments feel more vital and real.

“Wagon Wheel” is a song about a hitchhiker traveling down the eastern seaboard of the United States to reunite with a lover. An no matter if the Cumberland Gap is east of Johnson City, Tennessee as opposed to west, or how popular the song ultimately became, it is a rootsy country song written and composed well that speaks to the rural experience of American life.

Even the Darius Rucker version of “Wagon Wheel” features prominent fiddle, as well as other traditional instrumentation. When it was released in 2013, the song swam completely upstream compared to the Bro-Country sound of country radio at the time. In fact, it wouldn’t be for another seven years and Jon Pardi’s single “Heartache Medication” in 2020 that a mainstream country single featuring significant fiddle would return to #1. Rucker’s “Wagon Wheel” was revolutionary in its own respects.

With the nature of “Wagon Wheel,” it’s understandable why some still pinch their nose, or make a funny face whenever the title of the song is merely mentioned, especially the Darius Rucker version since it was the commercial release as opposed to the original, or even Dylan’s prototype. But there are a lot worse songs that could have risen to be one of only three songs to be Certified Diamond in country music history, like “Cruise” by Florida Georgia Line for example. Regardless of how one feels about “Wagon Wheel” now, it feels like this is a victory for real, authentic country music.

And when you combine that with the fact that the other Certified Diamond song is one that was originally released in 1982, was a semi-hit for David Allan Coe, then a bigger hit for George Jones, and was revitalized by Chris Stapleton—we’re talking about Tennessee Whiskey written by Dean Dillon and Linda Hargrove of course—then two out of three ain’t bad. The fact that “Wagon Wheel” and “Tennessee Whiskey” are two of the biggest songs in country history speaks to how when actual country music is actually given a chance, it can be wildly successful, even to the point of being hated for it’s popularity.

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