For many musicians, nightspot owners and a certain stripe of music fan, "Wagon Wheel" is the "Freebird" of today. People request it often, and lots of bands don't particularly care to play it anymore, because they are sick of it.
The problem with such a song is that it is so catchy, it was bound to eventually bubble up into the mainstream. What started as the shell of a Bob Dylan movie soundtrack song was, once discovered by the members of Old Crow Medicine, completed and turned into a bluegrass hit.
Darius Rucker, who plays Roanoke Civic Center on Saturday, heard the song almost a decade ago and had no thoughts at all about covering it.
"I never really thought about it as a country song, because theirs is such a old-time string-band bluegrass version," Rucker said in a phone conversation on Tuesday. "No one can ever do it as well as Old Crow. They just had it perfect."
But one day, as he was in the audience at his daughter's high school talent show, he heard the school's faculty and staff band play "Wagon Wheel" with drums and slide guitar in the mix.
"I was like, oh my goodness," Rucker said. "I’ve never heard this song this way. They were doing such a country version of it.
"I’m sitting there and I text my producer [that] I’d love to cut that 'Wagon Wheel' song."
They brought in Lady Antebellum to sing harmonies on it.
"I really thought, man we’ve really done something different with the song," he said. "And it was a big hit for me."
Nowadays, a lot of people think it's a Darius Rucker song. He certainly knows better, though he kind of made it his own, in that Nashville. Tenn., way. We asked Rucker about the song's enduring appeal.
"I think the real appeal to it is the melody is so great," he said. "It has what you want from a classic. When somebody plays 'Freebird,' you don’t not sing. 'If I leave here..' everybody's singing that when it starts.
"That’s what 'Wagon Wheel' has. It makes you want to sing along, makes you want to get up and dance. That’s what it’s all about. And that’s why it’s a classic."
Check the videos embedded and linked above for a history of the song, from Dylan's rough outline to Rucker's gussied-up Nashville version. I swore it sounded like there was auto-tune going on, but he said that was absolutely not the case. He said that he understood, though, and thinks it was the combination of his voice with Lady A on choruses that give the vocals that sound.