“Wagon Wheel”: Raiding Bob Dylan’s Wastebasket

old crow rucker

“Wagon Wheel” is a song with a very interesting story. It doesn’t sound like a typical 21st century country song. But it’s the kind of song 21st century country artists love to cover because it’s the kind modern country songwriters have so much trouble coming up with. Which is to say, it comes from a more instinctive place, taking the express track from the writer’s gut without that stop at the brain for mental market-testing.

whiskey river wagon wheel

“Wagon Wheel” sounds like the work of one of the great folk songwriters of the 20th century, say a Woody Guthrie or a Stephen Foster…because it is in fact the work of one of the great folk songwriters of the 20th century–at least in part. I direct you to Wikipedia for the story:

(The following reprinted from Wikipedia)

“Wagon Wheel” is a song originally sketched by Bob Dylan and later completed by Old Crow Medicine Show. Old Crow Medicine Show’s version was certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America in November 2011.

“Wagon Wheel” is composed of two different parts. The chorus and melody for the song comes from a demo recorded by Bob Dylan during the Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid sessions. Although never officially released, the Dylan song was released on a bootleg and is usually named after the chorus and its refrain of “Rock Me Mama.” Although Dylan left the song an unfinished sketch, Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show wrote verses for the song around Dylan’s original chorus. Secor’s additional lyrics transformed “Rock Me Mama” into “Wagon Wheel.” Secor has stated the song is partially autobiographical. The song has become extremely popular since its inclusion on Old Crow Medicine Show’s major label debut, O.C.M.S. in 2004, although the song appeared in earlier form on the now out of print “Troubles Up and Down the Road” EP in 2001. Dylan’s song is often credited to “A. Crudup.”, and the official publishing information is Dylan/Secor.

Old Crow Medicine Show: “Wagon Wheel” (2004)

Dan Milliken, reviewing the song for Country Universe, gave it an A+ rating, calling it “one of country music’s all-time great sing-alongs”.

The song has since been covered by numerous artists, including: Darius Rucker, Chad Brownlee, The Menzingers, Nash Street, Great American Taxi, Against Me!, Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers, Chris Pureka, David McMillin, Jeremy McComb, Matt Andersen, Mumford & Sons, Bodega, Little Feat, Donegal X-Press, Pat Buzzard of Saving Jane, Little Big Town, and Samjack Boys. (Note: there are lots more versions besides.)

Darius Rucker joined Old Crow Medicine Show at the Grand Ole Opry July 6, 2012, “for a special rendition of ‘Wagon Wheel.’” The fans “went crazy over Rucker’s cover of the Old Crow Medicine Show hit,” setting the stage for his tweeted announcement: “Secret out after @opry perf. I recorded a version of ‘Wagon Wheel’ for my new record & @ladyantebellum sings on track.” The new album, True Believers, is his third solo project on Capitol Records. Rucker’s cover is the album’s second single.

Darius Rucker: “Wagon Wheel” (2012)

The song did not at first appeal to Rucker. “Somebody had played ‘Wagon Wheel’ for me years ago,” he says. “It was one of those things that I didn’t really get.” When the faculty band from his daughter’s high school performed it, though, it had a different effect. Relating the story . .

“So, I’m at my daughter’s high school talent show, and I’m sitting in the audience with my family. We were watching my daughter, and the faculty band gets up. It’s just the faculty from her school, and they play ‘Wagon Wheel.’ I’m sitting in the audience, and they get to the middle of the chorus, and I turned to my wife, and I go, ‘I’ve got to cut this song.’ I’m serious. This all happened in three-and-a-half minutes, four minutes, while they’re playing the song.”

Story Behind The Song: Rod Stewart–You’re in my Heart

rod 

Rod Stewart: “You’re In My Heart (The Final Acclaim)” (1977)

Listen here: http://grooveshark.com/#!/s/You+re+In+My+Heart+The+Final+Acclaim/3L3RKi?src=5

It seems Rod Stewart and his girlfriend du jour had conflicting ideas about the inspiration behind his 1977 hit. The following is reprinted from Tim Morse’s Classic Rock Stories:

Britt Ekland: We went out to dinner with Billy Gaff and a bunch of friends one night to St. Germaine’s, one of the poshest restaurants in Los Angeles. In the middle of the meal, Rod leaned over to me and whispered, “I’ve written a song for you”… No one took any notice as Rod softly sang the words into my ear. My eyes filled with tears. It was the loveliest song I had ever heard.

Rod Stewart: It wasn’t totally about Britt. The first verse could have been about Liz Treadwell. It could have been about anybody I met in that period–and there were a lot of them. It’s a very confused song in a way. It’s about a lot more than just women, it’s also about my love of soccer. That’s why my two favorite teams are mentioned at the end. The chorus is about Scotland. So it ends up being about three women, two football teams, and a country. And the line “You’ll be my breath should I grow old”–I think that must have been about my mum and dad.

Story Behind The Song: Nilsson’s ‘Without You’

Nilsson Schmilsson

Nilsson: “Without You” (1971)

 

Harry Nilsson’s recording of “Without You” is what a masterpiece sounds like. It won a Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal in 1973, and the song has since become a standard, having been recorded and sung by literally hundreds of artists, including Mariah Carey, Ill Divo and Frank Sinatra. Not bad for a song that began as an afterthought.

As retold by Joey Molland in the documentary Badfinger, the Liverpool band had recorded eleven songs for their (1970) No Dice album and were looking for one more. Tom Evan had written part of a song, the now-familiar chorus of “I can’t live, if living is without you…” but Evan hadn’t written verses for it. Pete Ham had written a verse, “I can’t forget this evening and your face as you were leaving…” that was lyrically compatible. So the two unfinished songs were put in the same key and joined together to form “Without You”. Seeing the song as a mere album track and not a potential single, they recorded a fairly basic guitar version, as lip-synched here:

Harry Nilsson heard the song and obviously either he or his producer Richard Perry saw the potential for something much bigger in it. Again according to Molland’s recounting, Badfinger were recording “a couple years later” (what must have actually been their next album, Straight Up) when Nilsson, who was using another room of the same studio to record the Nilsson Schmilsson album, came into their control room. He introduced himself, saying something like “I’m Harry Nilsson.  I believe you guys are Badfinger”, and invited them down the hall to hear a mix he’d just finished. The band was blown away by the powerful arrangement of Nilsson’s cover version. It’s a jaw-dropping vocal performance and one of the greatest pop recordings of its era.

badfinger

Badfinger is one of those bands, like Nilsson himself, who wrote or recorded music everyone knows, but relatively few seem to know who actually did it. Counting “Without You”, which became a classic thanks to Nilsson’s amazing version, along with “No Matter What” and “Day After Day” it is this writer’s opinion that Badfinger were responsible for writing three of the greatest pop songs of the 1970’s

“No Matter What”

“Day After Day”

Despite this band’s promise and obvious songwriting talent, the business wasn’t kind to them. Bad breaks and bad management (including the embezzlement of much of their money) eventually led to despondency. Pete Ham and Tom Evan, the two writers of “Without You” both committed suicide, Ham in 1975 and Evan in 1983.

Story Behind The Song: The Mamas and the Papas–I Saw Her Again

The Mamas And The Papas: “I Saw Her Again” (1966)

mac mamas

Marital infidelity is tragic. But when it happens to great songwriters, it’s damn catchy to listen to.

A decade before Fleetwood Mac’s critically wounded marital relationships spilled blood on the tracks of the classic Rumours album, The Mamas And The Papas similarly spun gold from domestic strife. John Phillips’ “Go Where You Wanna Go” and Lindsey Buckingham’s “Go Your Own Way” are like two sides of the same coin lyrically, as well as the work of two songwriters brave enough to let the world sing along to their State Of The Marriage addresses. But “I Saw Her Again” is where things really get twisted.

As a piece of pop music “I Saw Her Again” (a #5 hit in 1966) is pure brilliance. John Phillips (pictured above looking displeased about being at the wrong end of the tub) was one of very few who could rival what Brian Wilson did in terms of layering vocal parts. Even if you’ve heard this song a thousand times, a fresh listen with special attention to the complexity of the vocal arrangement can be a revelation. Also, as was the case with much 60’s pop, some cool stereo panning effects were used. If you’re able to listen to the song through only the left speaker, then a second time using only the right, you’ll have two totally different listening experiences.

As for the twisted part, the song arose from an affair between Phillips’ wife (and bandmate) Michelle and Denny Doherty, the lead singer of the song–an affair which caused such tensions within the group it even let to Michelle’s temporary expulsion from it. Although Doherty has a co-writing credit on the song, the extent of his input is unclear and may have only been on the musical side. Essentially the song was John’s retribution against Doherty for the affair. One might imagine a tense vibe in the room when the song was recorded, to say nothing of Michelle and Denny’s discomfort at having to sing the song in public every night. It seems John Phillips’s creativity wasn’t limited to the recording studio. “I Saw Her Again” is the best case on record of songwriting as revenge.

Of additional interest is Doherty’s famous false entrance on the last chorus of the song. If you listen just after the 2:40 mark you’ll hear him come in prematurely with the words “I Saw Her…”. Producer Lou Adler, on hearing the playback, loved the way the mistake sounded and left it in. The side-to-side stereo panning of the first and second “I Saw Her” helped make it sound more like an intentional part of the song’s arrangement (more studio genius). But to one discerning listener named Paul McCartney the lyric’s accidental nature was obvious. “No one is that clever”, he’s reported to have said.

Great song. Great arrangement. And a miscue that’s a hook unto itself–a little sonic icing on the cake.

Apparently others artists liked the way it sounded too. Listen to Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Darling Be Home Soon” (1967) for John Sebastian’s little homage to Doherty’s false start:

…and to Kenny Loggins’ less successful attempt at the same kind of thing on his 1980 hit “I’m Alright”:

Oh, and John and Michelle eventually divorced. And now, as Paul Harvey used to say, you know the rest of the story.

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