“Wagon Wheel” is one of the biggest country hits in the last twenty years. There are several versions of the song floating around. Chances are, you’re reading this article because you already have an opinion on which version is best and want to compare notes. Toward the end of this, you can see who I think put out the best version of the song. For now, though, let’s take a look at the crazy history of the song, its content, and then get into who did better.
The Strange History of “Wagon Wheel”
Some fans may already know the story behind “Wagon Wheel” but it’s interesting enough that it bears repeating.
Bob Dylan and the Birth of Wagon Wheel
In 1973, Bob Dylan was working on his twelfth studio album “Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid.” The album would also serve as the soundtrack for the film of the same name. He recorded the album in three days. One day in Mexico and two in Burbank. It was during one of the Burbank sessions that Dylan took a moment to improvise a little. He started strumming and singing. What came out was the chorus and chord progression of what is now known as “Wagon Wheel.”
This was just an outtake. The guys were blowing off steam between recording tracks for the album. This version was not officially released at the time but did make its way onto several bootleg tapes.
Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor Gets a Song Stuck in His Head
Ketch Secor, frontman of Old Crow Medicine Show got one of those bootleg tapes from his long-time friend and bandmate, Critter Fuqua. After hearing the sketch of a song which, at the time, was titled “Rock Me Momma.” he couldn’t it out of his head.
So, being homesick for the south, Ketch set about writing verses to the song. He and his friends would play the song any time they did a live show. Shortly after this, Ketch, Critter, and a few others officially formed OCMS.
Before their label debut, Secor reached out to Bob Dylan to get permission to record the song. In exchange for a 50/50 royalty split, Dylan gave his blessing.
“Wagon Wheel” became a smash hit as well as Old Crow Medicine Show’s signature tune. It has since been covered by countless artists at every level of musicianship. From coffee houses to arena tours, this song is everywhere.
A Look at the Lyrics of “Wagon Wheel”
At its heart, “Wagon Wheel” is two things. First, it’s a story song about traveling. More importantly, it’s a love letter to the South. Ketch wrote the verses while in New England. Life’s different up north and winters are harsh. He just wanted to be back home. “I’m running from the cold up in New England/ I was born to be a fiddler in an old-time string band/ My baby plays a guitar, I pick a banjo now/ Oh, north country winters keep a-getting me down…”
There are a few references to getting home to his baby, but there is more reverence for this home soil than anything else. “And if I die in Raleigh, at least I will die free.”
So, Which Version is the Best?
As the title suggests, we’ve narrowed this question down to three possible answers. Mostly because they are the most popular versions of the song. Bob Dylan’s version is the inspiration for the “original” song by Old Crow Medicine Show. Their song was covered by several people. Most notably, Darius Rucker.
Rucker made the song a massive hit in 2013. He won a Grammy for the song. His version of “Wagon Wheel” went eight-times platinum and topped the country charts. Before releasing the album “True Believers” which contains the song, Rucker played the song with OCMS at the Grand Ole Opry. It’s definitely in the running.
Honorable mention goes to Nathan Carter’s cover of the song. It’s fine but it doesn’t seem like Carter really feels the song. He does an alright job singing it and his version was a huge hit in Ireland but it’s got too much accordion and not enough soul.
At the end of the day, though, Old Crow Medicine Show has the best version of the song. Darius Rucker does a great country version of the song. His cover is fun and upbeat. It truly captures the on-the-road feel of the original tune. It doesn’t really nail that high lonesome feel. It’s just too upbeat.
There’s a sadness at the heart of “Wagon Wheel” and that’s what many of the covers, including Rucker’s miss the mark.
Old Crow Medicine Show’s version, with it’s authentic old-time instrumentation and Secor’s lonesome southern drawl nail the true spirit of the tune. But, of course they do.