Editor’s Note: CMT Hot 20 Countdown takes a look back on 10 years of incredible music with Decade, a weekly segment that features a modern country classic that made its greatest impact between 2010 and 2019. This week, Darius Rucker talks about his 2013 single, “Wagon Wheel.” CMT Hot 20 Countdown airs at 9/8c Saturday and Sunday mornings.
CMT: How did you first come across “Wagon Wheel”? And when did you decide to cut that?
DR: Oh, I heard it years ago for the first time. When it first came out, a friend of my wife played it for me and of course everybody loved the song. It was a great song and it had this legendary life, but it was such a bluegrass song the way [Old Crow Medicine Show] did it. I loved it, it was cool, and I never really thought about it as a country song.
And then when I heard it [again], I was at my daughter’s high school talent show. … The faculty band with drums and everything was playing “Wagon Wheel” and I’d never heard it with drums before. I was like, “Wow, that’s really cool,” and I decided to cut it. You know, I called up Frank Rogers, my producer and talked about it and talked him into cutting it. (Laughs)
As best you can, describe how this song took kind of a twisted, winding road to get to you.
The way I understand it is Dylan was writing the soundtrack to Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, which is a great record by the way. And he wrote the “rock me mama like a wagon wheel,” you know, which he said he got from an old blues song. It was on some demo, some Dylan demos and stuff like that, and Ketch heard it — Ketch Secor, who’s one of the lead singers and fiddle player for Old Crow Medicine Show.
He heard it at 17 and decided he was gonna finish the song because it was just a chorus basically. He wrote these great lyrics to it and I’m sure Dylan loves it. And it became this cult classic that everybody knew and didn’t know why they knew it but everybody knew it.
Yeah. How about Ketch, writing that at 17?
I know, I always say only a 17-year-old kid will go home and finish a Dylan song. [Laughs]
I’ve seen a clip of Old Crow and you doing that together on the Opry. How’d that come about and what was that like for all you guys?
I had met those guys long before that. I had talked to them before, when the record first came out. I started talking to Ketch and those guys and they were cool. … I mean, how could you be mad that somebody’s covering your song? And then for Ketch, the writer, I’m sure that was some good mailbox money. [Laughs] You know, that song did all right. …
Now we’re Opry brothers, but when we were on the Opry together we said, “Let’s do this song.” Just let people know, just show people — because that was always the big question, you know, “[Don’t you think] Old Crow hates it?” I don’t think they hate it. [Laughs] They know it’s not as good as theirs but I don’t think they hate it.
You had Lady Antebellum on the song, too.
Lady A, that was big. We were on tour together. When I cut that song, I really wanted them on it. It sounded like something cool that we could do together. I called them up and it was so cool to call them up individually and ask them. Everybody was like, “When do you want me there?”
I had heard the song a lot before they were on it, with just me singing the chorus. And it was cool, I liked it, great song, yeah. But when they got on it, it really went to a whole new level. I mean the first time I heard them on it I went, “Wow, that’s really cool.”
You’ve got a lot of songs that fans go nuts for, but what is it like to do this song live?
It’s fun! No matter where I am, all over the world, when you play “Wagon Wheel,” people lose their minds. I get texts from my buddies or somebody, “I’m in Uganda and I just heard ‘Wagon Wheel.’” [Laughs] I laugh about that because it’s funny. It’s one of those songs that’s everywhere. … I never thought it would be that big. I didn’t know it was gonna do what it did.
Every band on Lower Broadway in Nashville is playing that song. Were you aware of that?
Oh, absolutely. … I don’t go to a lot of bars or anything, but we were somewhere in Missouri and decided to go out on a night off. We went into this bar where bands were playing. I walked over and they had a sign on the stage and it said, “22 days since someone played ‘Wagon Wheel.’” [Laughs] I thought that was so awesome. That is so awesome to have a song that’s impacting people so much that they want to hate it.
I’ve never heard it put that way.
Absolutely. No one’s ever really hated a song that wasn’t huge, because you don’t care about it! You know, you don’t. No one ever hates an album track. [Laughs]
As a guy who’s a very prolific writer, does it bother you that one of the biggest songs you’ve got is something that somebody else wrote? Or does that not bother you in the least?
That doesn’t bother me at all. I’m a singer, man. You know, I sing. That’s what I feel like I do. I love songwriting and I love the fact that I’ve written some songs that have mattered over the years and everything, but I’m a singer. …
I told this to Mike Dungan when he signed me to Capitol — you give me 13 covers, I’ll cut them right now if they’re great songs because I’m a singer. So, no, that doesn’t bother me in the least.
What do you think made that song connect with people?
It’s just one of those songs that’s undeniable. The chorus is so catchy and you know it instantly. It’s one of those songs that people invested themselves into. You either loved it or hate it. There was no in-between. A lot of folks loved it and it’s one of those songs.
You ask why and I just say because it’s undeniable. The lyrics are great, the melody is so awesome, the chorus makes you want to sing along. I mean, that’s what great songs do.