Old Crow Medicine Show gets lots of mileage out of 'Wagon Wheel'
This show is sold out.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Even if you've never heard of Old Crow Medicine Show, you've undoubtedly heard the band's biggest hit if you've been out at a bar. Ever.
"Wagon Wheel" might be considered this generation's "Free Bird." Its four basic chords make it popular at open mic nights, even for new players still learning their way around a guitar.
And though it's safe to say the song has become a staple at every gig the band plays, for front man Ketch Secor, none of that diminishes the song.
"Oh, it never gets old," he said, in a phone interview from his Nashville home. "Four aces in the hand never gets old. It's an honor to have a song like that in our catalog."
Secor and his fiddle, harmonica, guitar and banjo-wielding band mates will bring "Wagon Wheel" and the rest of their old-time music with a rock 'n' roll attitude to the Clay Center for a sold-out show Friday.
Despite its popularity, until recently, "Wagon Wheel" had mostly escaped radio airplay since its release on the band's major label debut, "O.C.M.S.," in 2004.
That is until Darius Rucker, of Hootie & the Blowfish fame, released his version of the song, making it a Top 40 hit earlier this year.
"Since Darius put it out, country music had to take notice of a band with three banjos," Secor said.
To say Secor wrote "Wagon Wheel" is only partly right. Secor actually finished a sketch of a song Bob Dylan wrote while working on the 1973 western "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid."
Secor's longtime bandmate, Critter Fuqua, got hold of a bootleg copy.
"Bob sang the chorus and mumbled a couple lyrics," Secor recalls. "It just stuck in my mind."
Secor, then a teenager, finished it, adding three verses to Dylan's chorus.
He remembers discussing the song with Dylan's son, Jakob, also a musician.
"I said I was 17 when I finished it, and he said, 'That makes sense. No one in their 30s would have the audacity to finish a Dylan song.'"
To this day, Secor hasn't met the man he shares writing credits with, although he recently sent the folk legend a platinum album when Rucker's version became a hit.
"Wagon Wheel" was also the favorite of First Lt. Leevi Barnard, whose story is told on the band's latest album, "Carry Me Back."
According to an NPR story, Barnard, 28, of North Carolina, was killed three weeks into his first oversees tour with the U.S. Army when a bomb exploded in a Baghdad market. Barnard used to make everyone who rode in his car listen to "Wagon Wheel." His family played it during his funeral service.
Listening to the NPR story, Secor said he realized how much he would have liked Leevi, who friends and family described as a skilled ginseng hunter and country boy.
Secor and the band met Barnard's family at a show near his hometown.
"It really made the song come full circle," he said. "They liked it. His daddy said Leevi probably still liked 'Wagon Wheel' the best."
The band has always had an interest in soldiers and veterans, Secor said. They know many and meet others on the road. People tell the band its music has been a sort of solace both for soldiers going into battle and their families waiting back home.
That's a big responsibility, he said.
At the same time, "I want to stop the wars -- every one of them," Secor said. "So there's a dual edge to the saber of an Old Crow war song."
The past few years have been a time of transition for Old Crow.
Fuqua, a founding member of the band, is back after taking five years off for addiction treatment and college. Willie Watson left to pursue a solo career.
"You can't always stay the same forever ... " Secor said. "As much as it changed us to go through the break up with Will, it was tempered by the rejoining of Critter and now Corey Younts."
"We're so glad to finally have a West Virginian in the band," Secor said. "That boy is West by God. He's always doing something that's so purely West Virginian."
Take for instance McCoy's tales of living in a woodshed and trailer with his cousin, or the time he played music on the top of a surfaced-mined mountain or shot his neighbor's dog.
"You can only get tales like that from a West Virginian," Secor said.
McCoy isn't Old Crow's only connection to the Mountain State. Secor was 15 or 16 when he studied music at the Augusta Heritage Center of Davis & Elkins College. Augusta left such an impression on Secor that when it came time to find a replacement band member, the school's teachers were the first place he looked.
"I looked at Augusta and saw Chance. He was the only fiddler player that wasn't 60 and bearded," Secor said. "He got the gig because I knew that anyone who worked at Augusta knew all about old-time music."
Reach Lori Kersey at email@example.com or 304-348-1240.