I gave it a good effort, I tried every trick I could think of, I thought about it for months, but I don’t just dislike what’s probably Old Crow Medicine Show’s best-known song.
I really, really hate “Wagon Wheel”.
To be honest, I’m sad about that. It’s catchy and it’s fun to sing along with — as long as you don’t think about what you’re singing. Stealing the chorus from Bob Dylan I can forgive. Snatching bits of other songs is a time-honored tradition in country and folk music. (Here’s a game if you’re bored: see how many songs contain the line peaches in the summertime, apples in the fall.) It’s just unfortunate that the chorus is the best part of the song, because the rest of the song is irritating at best.
The problem starts in the first verse. I spent a lot of time hanging out in dogwood trees as a kid — one in the front yard, one in the back — and I’m here to tell you that no matter how hard you try, you can’t pick a bouquet of dogwood flowers. You can put together some dogwood branches that have flowers on them, but then that’s a bouquet of branches. The actual flowers don’t have stems long enough to make for a bouquet.
The more egregious lack of research comes in the last verse: the Cumberland Gap is west of Johnson City, Tennessee, not east.
These slips showcase the larger problem in the song, which is that the whole thing is little more than a list of overly romanticized clichés about itinerant life in the Eastern time zone. It’s name-dropping, and sometimes image-dropping, and ultimately it comes off like a failed audition tape for A Mighty Wind, rejected because the tape was made by people who thought the movie was supposed to be a serious documentary about non-fictional bands. I have no problems envisioning a cover of “Wagon Wheel” by the Folksmen; the song is only slightly better than the Folksmen’s “Never Did No Wanderin'” and “Old Joe’s Place”.
In order to try to like “Wagon Wheel”, I compared it to a song about itinerant life in the Eastern time zone that I like a lot — The Band’s “The Weight”. The comparison showed me another reason I hate “Wagon Wheel”: the protagonist isn’t only stupid (dogwood- and geography-related errors), he’s selfish. Part of the beauty of “The Weight” is that it underscores how even when you’re traveling, you run into people and places you know. You carry messages back and forth. You stay in touch. You help out other people when, where, and how you can. All we know about the guy in “Wagon Wheel” is that he went up to New England, thought the weather was too cold, lost all his money in a game of poker (and presumably his girlfriend, as she used to be up there too), and started hitching down the East Coast in an effort to see the same girlfriend in Raleigh.
We’re probably not supposed to think about this song from the girlfriend’s perspective, but let’s pause for a moment. The guy you’ve been seeing wants to play fiddle in an old-time string band in New England. Good enough. For some reason, you head back down to North Carolina. Meanwhile, this guy gambles away all his money and starts hitchhiking down to see you — and the last non-chorus line we get from him is and if I die in Raleigh, at least I will die free.
Really? After all that effort? With that whole story with him chasing this girl up and down the East Coast and acting like a jerk in the process, the last thing we get is an affirmation that he’s okay dying without any kind of human connection? Why is the girl supposed to care about this guy if he’s that stupid and self-centered? Why are we supposed to care about this guy?
It’s not that the protagonist is an unbelievable character, but rather that it looks like no effort went into the songwriting. (At least with “Old Joe’s Place”, you know it’s supposed to be a parody.) “Wagon Wheel” is a fancy Americana Mad Lib. There seems to be a complete lack of awareness on two levels: the protagonist, and the songwriters. This lack of awareness is galling because of the selfishness inherent in being able to be that unaware of other people. It’s great that the protagonist of “Wagon Wheel” can enjoy meandering all over the place, but to disavow all human connection in celebration of some false freedom is a slap in the face to everyone else in the song, from the girlfriend to that trucker in Philly kind enough to share his pot to the other people in the old-time string band.
That Old Crow Medicine Show still appears to sing this song like it’s serious might not be a slap in the face, but it’s a headscratcher at the very least. According to Matt Dellinger’s piece on OCMS from the Oxford American in 2003, they got helping hands at every turn from people like Doc Watson, Marty Stuart, and David Rawlings — people who were established in the industry, people with influence, who could get their music in the right places.
If you’re going to play traditional folk, bluegrass, jug-band, string band, what have you, you owe your predecessors. You have to acknowledge them in one way or another. And while the band may not have intended for “Wagon Wheel” to become their signature, it’s a little ironic that a bunch of privileged boys from New England who became a part of music culture in Nashville through help from older, more established musicians get to get up on stage and sing a song about how they do whatever they want, whenever they want, and if they die, at least they’re going to die without encumbrances. If you’ve got privilege, the very least you can do is acknowledge it — and to my knowledge, Old Crow Medicine Show hasn’t yet.
On the whole, I’ll take “I Hear Them All” over “Wagon Wheel” any day. And if I’m going to listen to a song about a selfish boy chasing a girl only as long as he feels like it, whether or not she gets a say, the Avett Brothers’ “Pretty Girl from Chile” is an infinitely better option. At least in that one the girlfriend gets a word in edgewise — not to mention a name.