My journey with the Wagon Wheel song

How the Wagon Wheel song went from punch-line to a special moment between myself and my grandmother

The Wagon Wheel song, is a modern campfire classic and one of my favorite songs to perform live. Just a handful of chords, and some verses about being a traveling musician and missing a lover. Yes! The chorus is attributed to Bob Dylan, and Old Crowe Medicine Show filled out the verses. About ten years ago it got another push when Darius Rucker revived it as part of his solo-country career.

I first encountered the Wagon Wheel song while Brooke and I spent our summers in Alaska. At one of our countless campfire jams with fellow musicians, an actor friend claimed to be a novice on guitar, sheepishly admitting he only knew one song. And there it was, the first time I heard Wagon Wheel, clunked out next to the Nenana River on an endless Alaskan day/night.

The next summer, I joined up with several bluegrass bands as a bass player, and quickly learned how many of them considered Wagon Wheel to be overplayed to the point of exhaustion. The summer bluegrass season was populated with seasonal workers like me, many of them raft guides or cooks. The Wagon Wheel song was controversial. They hated it. Audiences loved it. I turned this tension into one of my favorite monologues in my shows:

“I used to play road-houses in Alaska. If you play enough road-houses, you learn two things.

  1. There are some songs, if you play them, you get your ass kicked.
  2. There are some songs, if you don’t play them…you get your ass kicked”

Then I start the Wagon Wheel song, and the audience laughs, and I let them decide if it’s number 1 or number 2.

Since that first summer in Alaska, I’ve learned how to play the Wagon Wheel song on guitar, bass, and piano. I can do it any key. I can play a harmonica solo on it (but only in the key of G), and I’ve translated it to a reggae feel. It’s usually a highlight of my shows, sometimes the opener, sometimes the closer.

About a year ago, I visited my grandmother Mary in Cleveland. At the time, Mary was 101 years old, and had no instruments nearby. At 101, she’d lost nearly all of her short-term memory, and anyone around her had to frequently explain their identity. I was there with my parents, my cousin David, and my aunt Phyllis, and after several minutes of explaining who we were, I decided to break the tension with a song. With my guitar I’d brought all the way from Kansas City, just to have ready for this moment, I chose the Wagon Wheel song to play for my grandma. Once I began, I saw her face, with a look of utter serenity and calm. As I clunked out the chords on her patio, she needed no explanation of who I was or what was happening. She got to chill and listen to live music. She had peace. And I had peace. And I’m grateful for the Wagon Wheel song for bringing my grandmother and I together in the last years of her life.

Mary always adored music, and my children practice on the same piano she used to own in Cleveland. My Aunt Phyllis coordinated moving that piano from Mary’s former home on Parker Drive to our home in Kansas City. It’s an old piano, but it sees plenty of action. And here we find music, transcending generations, and linking the present to the past. Music, you are like a wagon wheel. You can rock me any way you feel.

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