I have one more Nashville-related story, and then I swear I’ll stop. (You didn’t think I could squeeze 5 blog posts out of one 4-day trip, didja? Consider yourself lucky that I ran out of disposable daylight hours before I could visit the Ryman Auditorium and Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.) To be honest, though, the events described in the paragraphs below could have taken place anywhere, not just in Music City, and that’s more or less the point I’ll be making.
You often hear people say that there will never be another Beatles, or another Rolling Stones. Of course these claims are correct in the literal sense, but I think they’re also accurate in a more general way; it’s hard to imagine a group having that sort of massive cultural impact now that the musical landscape is so fragmented. I often wonder if any of bands that I adore now will be considered by my hypothetical grandchildren as part of some unified musical canon, or if the diffusion of listeners’ attention across a multitude of sub-genres means that there will be several different canons, each with its own revered membership. It’s a depressing thought in some ways, one that makes this Gen-Y’er feel like his favorite bands aren’t quite as important as they ought to be (or that they might have been 50 or 60 years ago).
But guess what? My glass-half-empty, future-phobic ranting ends there, because I believe, with every fiber in my being, that songs are as important as they ever have been, and that their import isn’t going anywhere. Even if my kids’ kids’ kids’ kids don’t know who the hell Journey was, I bet they’ll still be fist-pumping like idiots to “Don’t Stop Believing” at some dive-y lunar bar in 2162. That’s because truly great, canon-worthy songs transcend genres, nations, races, ages, even the people who wrote and performed them — they become a part of us. And I’m not speaking figuratively; they literally become part of our physiology by reorganizing the neural pathways in our brains to make singing along with the lyrics easier (this would be creepy if it wasn’t so awesome). So why do I bring this up now? Because events that took place in Nashville lead to me believe Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel” is one of these transcendent songs.
So a group of us got all gussied up on the Thursday night of my long weekend in Music City and headed to Broadway, Nashville’s neon-drenched, honky-tonk-lined main drag. Let me just say that if plumber’s butt is your cup of tea (hey, I don’t judge), I highly recommend a stroll down Broadway. The nearly uniform, front-of-house location of the bars’ stages means that the string of store fronts are occupied by one eye-level-aligned drummer’s butt after another. It’s a strange and silly image, but it really was astonishing, even inspiring. So much live music was happening at once, and packed so closely together. I didn’t get a big enough sample to learn if it’s the norm, but the group we watched for most of the night played almost all covers (as a side note, that stereotype about guitar players in Nashville being amazing is 100% true). Even though I watched intently and sang along with embarrassing enthusiasm, their party-friendly set list was almost entirely forgettable; I seriously can’t remember a single song they played, except for one: “Wagon Wheel.”
I’ve been in love with “Wagon Wheel” since the moment I first heard it at Bonnaroo in 2005. In the years since that first encounter, when the song pulled me by my ears over to Old Crow Medicine Show’s small but overcrowded tent, I’ve played it numerous times on my iPod, burned it onto mix CDs for friends, heard it covered by a zillion other bands, read about its origins (the chorus was borrowed from an unfinished Bob Dylan song), watched Old Crow play it in person another few times… and somehow, after all that, I’m not sick of it. Not even a little.
I don’t think I’ll ever tire of “Wagon Wheel,” in part because I feel a sense of pride when I hear it, having gone to great lengths to get the word out about it in my corner of the world. For two years after I graduated from college, I played it every single Thursday night at Curbside Cafe in Richmond, VA (sometimes twice in a night, at the request of enthusiastic and/or forgetful drunks), taking care to mention Old Crow’s name before each rendition. It became an ironclad tradition. And by the end of those two years, it seemed like the whole bar was singing along, certainly more so than the first time we played it. I don’t doubt that many of these people had discovered “Wagon Wheel” on their own, but it really did feel like the song had grown one set of roots in that bar. So when I’m singing along with another cover band’s version in another city, it feels like a natural extension of the same organic matter — an organism that’s been growing bigger and stronger with each passing year.
But barfly popularity does not a transcendent song make. Wedding receptions, on the other hand, are a different story. Whether you’re in Nashville, New York, Norfolk or Newport Beach, wedding reception bands are, by and large, a known quantity, set-list-wise. Lead off with some Motown and work your way forward to contemporary (but not too contemporary) hits. The band I saw a few weekends ago at my friend’s wedding did just that, sticking to the tried-and-true, with few deviations (the bass player using his instrument to lead a mid-song round of limbo was one notable wrinkle). But my ears perked up when, out of the blue, I heard the unmistakable, A-E-F#m-D progression that marks the beginning of “Wagon Wheel.”
The moment I heard these chords, it clicked. This is a song that deserves to be played at wedding receptions. Sure, it was extra appropriate for this one; the lyrics mention the state in which this particular wedding was being held, and Nashville has been Old Crow’s home base since 2000. Hell, the couple may have even made a special request for “Wagon Wheel” (their first kiss was shared at one of those Curbside nights in Richmond). Regardless, it felt completely natural coming from the hands of these buttoned-up, professional wedding entertainers. This strikes me as clear evidence of its transcendent quality. When a song sounds just as natural between “What A Wonderful World” and “I Want You Back” at a wedding reception as it does between “Badfish” and “Burn One Down” at a bar, I believe it’s destined for some serious 2162 fist-pumping.
All that said, I suspect I’m working with some heavy personal and regional biases here, so I’d love to hear from some of you about whether the song is a singalong in your neck of the woods. For those of you who haven’t heard it yet, have a listen below and see what you think — I hope you get as much enjoyment out of it as I have. If you do, click here to buy O.C.M.S., the album on which it appears.