Great songs always have interesting stories behind them. Sometimes, they seemingly fall from the sky fully formed. Other times, they take years of sculpting and honing to no avail. But a random spark will bring them to life.
Bob Dylan’s songs tend to have an interesting backstory. For example, take “Tangled up in Blue.” Dylan famously said that song, which is about his crumbling marriage and ruminations on nostalgia, took him “ten years to live and two years to write.” Or, consider, “All Along The Watch Tower.” Originally, a small track on his “John Wesley Harding” album that was beloved by his fans. But became a cultural touchstone under the hands of Jimi Hendrix. His cover of the song was so good, in fact, that Dylan only plays it Hendrix’s way in concerts.
That’s closer to the mark for a song like “Wagon Wheel,” which also started out as a Dylan lyric — then went for a little stroll.
It Begins with Bob Dylan’s ‘Rock Me, Mama’
In 1972, during a session for the Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid soundtracks, Dylan wrote a chorus for a song that he never finished. But, just hearing the chorus, you can hear the potential. What was then called “Rock Me Mama” would become “Wagon Wheel.”
The chorus goes likes this:
So rock me mama like a wagon wheel Rock me mama any way you feel Hey, mama rock me Rock me mama like the wind and the rain Rock me mama like a south bound train Hey, mama rock me
And that’s how the song stayed until 1995. That’s when Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor, then 17, heard a bootleg recording of the song from his future bandmate, according to Nashville Scene. Further, he wrote some lyrics around the chorus about a traveler seeking his love and hope on the roads of the American South.
The band recorded it and released it in 2003, and it became their biggest hit, which by their standards meant it was a moderate success in the mainstream. They’d need something or someone to help re-introduce Bob Dylan to a larger country music audience.
“Bob Dylan taught us, each and every one of us in this room, how to write songs,” Secor said at the 2013 CMA Awards, “yet he’s not a part of mainstream country music. He really isn’t, but he was this year, and Darius Rucker made that happen.”
‘Wagon Wheel’ Keeps on Rolling
Originally, Darius Rucker did not like “Wagon Wheel.”
“Somebody had played ‘Wagon Wheel’ for me years ago. It was one of those things that I didn’t really get,” Rucker said according to Taste of Country. “So, I’m at my daughter’s high school talent show, and I’m sitting in the audience with my family. We were watching my daughter, and the faculty band gets up. It’s just the faculty from her school, and they play ‘Wagon Wheel.'”
“I’m sitting in the audience, and they get to the middle of the chorus, and I turned to my wife, and I go, ‘I’ve got to cut this song.’ I’m serious. This all happened in three-and-a-half minutes, four minutes, while they’re playing the song.”
Making this connection even more ironic is that Dylan had previously sued Rucker and won. Dylan accused Hootie and the Blowfish of ripping off his song “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Idiot Wind” for their hit “I Only Wanna Be With You.” They settled out of court.
But Rucker persisted. In 2012, he performed the song with Old Crow Medicine Show at the Grand Ole Opry. Additionally, after the performance, he tweeted out that he’d recently recorded his cover of the song with a special guest, Lady Antebellum — now Lady A.
After its release, the song was an instant smash hit. It hit No. 1 on the Country chart and it also made it to No. 15 on the Top 100, a rare feat for a country song, according to Billboard.
And that’s how a scrapped chorus, heard by a high school kid and reimagined as a long-lost love affair, re-interpreted by a high school band, that inspires a most unexpected country stars became a No. 1 hit. It’s just that simple.