The Meaning of Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel”

Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel” is a rootin’, tootin’ song about a man traveling around the country playing music, broke and beaten down, but always finding his way back to Raleigh to see the woman he loves. Originally released in 2004 on the band’s self-titled debut album, the song has become permanently etched into the American musical landscape over the years and is now one of the most popular country songs of all time.

The lyrics to “Wagon Wheel” were famously borrowed from Bob Dylan, who wrote the chorus way back in 1973 as part of a never-published song called “Rock Me Mamma”. Then, in 1998, the 17-year-old Ketch Secor came along and penned his own verses, which he later recorded with Old Crow. As he told American Songwriter in 2020, he was trying his best to write a song in Bob Dylan’s voice, imagining the lyrics as Bob himself would have written them.

Listening to the lyrics with this in mind, you can certainly hear the Dylan influence in Secor’s songwriting:

Headin’ down south to the land of the pines
I’m thumbin’ my way into North Caroline
Starin’ up the road and pray to God I see headlights

I made it down the coast in seventeen hours
Pickin’ me a bouquet of dogwood flowers
And I’m a-hopin’ for Raleigh, I can see my baby tonight

First two verses to “Wagon Wheel” by Old Crow Medicine Show.

In addition to appropriating Bob Dylan, Secor also managed to write a song to which singing along becomes irresistible to many, especially after a few drinks. Just about every college bar (and needless to say, country bar) in America has been known to play “Wagon Wheel” late at night on weekends, and patrons often sing along so loud that you can hear it from the street. Not to mention sports arenas.

The Bob Dylan-penned chorus is even more irresistible, and if the general populous doesn’t know the verses, they certainly know this part:

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 southbound train
Hey… mama rock me

Chorus to “Wagon Wheel” by Old Crow Medicine Show, written by Bob Dylan in 1973.

Here, the singer tells his lover to rock him like a wagon wheel, which is a metaphor for the sexual experiences that the two will be sharing together when he reaches Raleigh.

Darius Rucker of Hootie & The Blowfish released a cover of “Wagon Wheel” in 2013 that was a smash hit, topping the country charts and peaking at number 15 on the Billboard Hot 100. Rucker’s version gave the song even more widespread recognition, so his version may be the one you hear at your local country bar (especially in the Southeast, as Rucker is from Charleston).

His rendition is so popular that many falsely think that he is the one who wrote the song, although in my opinion Old Crow’s original is the superior recording. There’s something about that fiddle that really gets you moving.

In 2006 the band released a boot-stompin’ music video for “Wagon Wheel” that features the band performing the song at a burlesque hootenanny. Watch the video, in all its glory below. See the video for Darius Rucker’s version below that, and the original Dylan demo called “Rock Me Mamma” at the bottom.

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