Friday, January 31, 2014

Why "Wagon Wheel" deserves the Grammy

A few days ago the song "Wagon Wheel" won a Grammy.  I'm here to say that no other song has deserved a Grammy more in the past several decades, at least.   It's not because it is the best song that has been written in the last 30 years, even though it is and always has been a great song.  But there is no other song that has traveled such an amazing path throughout its lifetime as this one.  It is the Indiana Jones of songs, traveling though the past and present, through all walks of societal and economic sub-strata of American life.  From the top musical pantheon to a lowly street musician; from Mexico to London to the dirt roads of Watauga County, NC and the bedazzled belt buckles of Music City, USA; from the in-the-know Americana underground to the trodden low-hanging-fruit of paparazzi proportions in the American zeitgeist--"Wagon Wheel" has touched them all.

Forget for a moment the reality of the Grammy Awards, which mostly recognizes people who turn music into industrial algorithms for mass consumption and mass profits.  Instead, imagine the ideological nugget that wants to recognize something great, something special, and something beautiful. The partial-life, death, and rebirth of "Wagon Wheel" is the antithesis of such deserved recognition.

The song began this journey as an out-take of the soundtrack to the 1973 movie, "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid."   It only survived because some bootleggers realized it was a hidden gem from Dylan that had never been recorded or performed.  The chorus was fully realized, but the lyrics are unintelligible.  Here it is:

After decades in the bootleggers' underground, one of the guys from Old Crow Medicine Show found a copy while visiting London and brought it back to Ketch Secor, fiddler and singer of Old Crow, who then wrote the verses. 

I first met the guys from Old Crow Medicine Show in Boone, NC when they were the house band for Tweetsie Railroad, a minor tourist attraction in the mountains of NC.  They were all living together, with their pet pig, in a house in rural Watauga County and were on the verge of being fired for the rank smell of unwashed clothes.  It was around the same time they got an offer to come to Nashville and appear on the Grand Ole Opry, where their career took off.   (A friend of mine says that they were not able to take their pig, so they killed it and ate it.  This may or may not be true.)

The track "Wagon Wheel" was the last song on their debut album, and was quickly picked up as a highlight.  A lot of people probably heard it for the first time from Gillian Welch and David Rawlings (Rawlings was producer of their album) when they would encore with it.   As the album spread through the old-time/bluegrass/Americana music scene, people started playing it more often.   For many years it was nothing more than a really great song.

Here's Old Crow's version, with its 22 million views on YouTube.  

Then there was a shift, and we all noticed it.  If you had a fiddle or banjo onstage people who appeared to have no interest in old-time fiddle music started coming up and asking for the "Rock Me Mama" song.  To this day I still have no idea how it made that leap from underground Americana to popular culture, but it did. 

The song that started as a bootleggers out-take from 1973 went to London, came back to the NC mountains, consumed the old-time/bluegrass scene, and then became a #1 country hit and #15 Billboard Hot 100 hit in 2013 deserves a Grammy.  It deserves a life-time achievement award of the highest magnitude.

The frustration you see from musicians being asked to play the song is never about it being a bad song.  The frustration comes from two sources, one of which is that the song is just way overplayed.  The other, less noticeable, issue is that old-time and bluegrass deserve better than to be boiled down to one song.  Those genres of music are lush with history and virtuosic beauty which can take a lifetime to master. They deserve more effort by the listener than to just be aware of a single song. 

All that aside, "Wagon Wheel" is a beautiful song with an amazing history.  I will steal a line from one of my most influential music teachers, Dr. Unsworth, when he spoke of special songs: "It's a great song.  Don't you wish you had written it?"