Behind The Song Lyrics: “Wagon Wheel,” Old Crow Medicine Show

For fans of folk and Americana music, the song “Wagon Wheel” is likely an all-time favorite.

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Originally, legendary songwriter Bob Dylan wrote the chorus in 1973 and then Old Crow Medicine Show frontman Ketch Secor added verses 25 years later. Old Crow’s final version of the song went platinum in April 2013 and it has nearly 70 million views on YouTube today, alone.

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,” Secor sings to open the song.

The meaning of the song lyrics, which describes a journey by a hitchhiker going south along the United States east coast—from New England to Virginia—embody the nomadic artistic sensibility. The journeyman is hoping to see his love by the end of the long road.

The track is written in A-major and the main chord pattern is A-E-F#minor-D.

But outside of the basic structure and history, what does Secor think about the song’s existence, and especially the fact that it’s done so well and is so beloved by music fans? That’s what American Songwriter asked Secor in a recent interview.

American Songwriter: You’ve talked about embodying spirits or personalities of other artists when you write a new song. An example of this is “Wagon Wheel.” Can you talk about what transpires creatively when you do this work?

Ketch Secor: The “Wagon Wheel” story is sort of different than those things. Or, I don’t know, maybe it’s not. When I was 17 and I wrote that song, everything about my learning was about Bob Dylan. It was like I was trying to get—it was like I was taking AP Bob. It was like I was trying to get a degree in Bob and the last thing you had to do was write a Bob song just like Bob would have done it. So, I mean, I wrote a bunch of songs like that when I was a kid that were re-written songs, stolen songs, or just, appropriating songs.

Now that I can approach it more methodically and less accidentally, like bumping into it, I find that embodying the kind of songs, the kind of characters, has a lot to do with having amassed that education through travel. I really understand a lot of different kinds of people. It’s like sometimes it feels like I can see the wavelengths or the sound waves of people. They got a hum to ‘em.

Right now I’m thinking a lot about this one prison. Well, it’s two prisons actually. There are two prisons here in the United States that have the highest concentration of COVID-19 per capita as anywhere on earth. They’re right here in Tennessee. And I knew about them before because I’m interested in the big house. I think it’s one of the most important places for music. One of these days I’m going to figure out how to get some music there in a big way. I think that’s one of my overarching goals here is to know that—is to put some good medicine into the prison system with good music.

Every time we wrote letters to prisoners, every time I learned another story from the Big House, I just felt more and more motivated to do something about it. So, I’ve written a lot of songs about crime. A lot of times I have fun with it and it will be tongue-in-cheek kind of songs. I’ve also written a lot of songs about people that have died. Or died in the song. I guess, you know, in the songcraft realm, I’m trying to get into the primal notions of people.

I love to follow their stories and I hope each one of these types of songs, these character songs I write, is kind of like an epitaph. I’ve done a lot of “here lies” kind of songs. To memorialize others. Whether they’re real or imagined or based on people that I think need to be liberated. So, maybe it’s the feeling that if you put somebody into a song that no part of their life ever seemed eternal, that the song might help them gain some, you know, immortality.

AS: What do you love about the medium of song?

KS: I guess it just goes back to being a kid and hearing those jingles that made you feel like being a human was the greatest thing possible. Your ear was just burning with joy and wonder.

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