Having spent my entire childhood in the state of Oklahoma, I consider myself somewhat of an authority on country music. By this I mean it was everywhere I went, constantly playing, and I could not escape it. I think it’s only fair, then, that I get to call it what it is: the literal worst.
Chill out, old school fans of Johnny Cash or whoever. I’m talking about new country, with its terribly-placed pop beats and aggressively misogynistic lyrics. Don’t tell me new country music is good until you’ve been locked in a retail store that plays it on a loop for six hours straight, the only occasional reprieve being that one Carrie Underwood song about a woman killing her abusive husband. (Disclaimer: we do stan the complete works of the Dixie Chicks, and Lady Antebellum, and only “Life is a Highway” by Rascal Flatts.)
All this is to say that though the country music of this century is largely painful to listen to, Old Crow Medicine Show’s (I will not deign to mention the Darius Rucker version here) masterpiece “Wagon Wheel” is not country. It is Americana. And it is possibly the best song in the world.
Let’s look at the facts. The song was co-written by folk hero Bob Dylan, who – as we know – won the actual Nobel Prize for literature. Dylan recorded the chorus in 1973, and Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor added the verses in 2004. Could I list any other song by Old Crow Medicine Show, you ask? No. But that’s not important.
“Wagon Wheel” takes me back to ninth grade, where my problematic-but-trying English teacher would play it while we worked quietly on assignments. It makes me think of the rush I got at my hometown music festival when I realized the unknown band I was listening to was covering a song I knew very well. When I hear it, I’m suddenly heading home from a long road trip in the car with my sisters, trying (and failing) to hit the harmony that’s waaay out of my vocal range.
It’s a song that everyone seems to know. When it comes on in any given setting, it is often met with both cheers and groans. To some people, I can certainly see how it would feel old and overplayed, but there’s something comforting about its familiarity given its ubiquity in pop culture. I like it so much that I will, admittedly, even settle for the version that must not be named if absolutely necessary – like if I’m singing on a karaoke system with limited variety. Sometimes you have to take what you can get.
The message of the song, too, resonates more with me now than it used to. There’s something to be said about the wistful but promising feeling of making your way from New England to North Carolina, from Chicagoland to Oklahoma. I know now what it feels like to be very far from home and find my way back – both geographically and mentally.