Each week in God and Country Music, Nick Rynerson gives country music a chance and examines the world of Americana, folk, alt-country, and popular country music.
I’ve had a rocky relationship with popular country music over the years. I often find the culture surrounding it to be unapologetically ignorant and the landscape to be littered with really bad songs. However, there seem to be more really, really good songs in pop country than most any other popular genre. I try to approach pop country like I approach whiskey: cautiously and in small doses.
Still, one characteristic I respect about pop country is the willingness of artists and producers to rerecord and popularize great, great songwriting. Tim McGraw had a hit with Ryan Adam’s “When the Stars Go Blue” a couple of years back and the Dixie Chicks had one of their biggest hits with Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide.”
There are plenty of reasons for rampant covering of songs in pop country. This first, and most cynical, is that some pop country musicians simply aren’t very good songwriters and they need material. Sometimes you’ll see awful songwriters just funneling material from Nashville, only getting hits off of cover songs and ghostwriters.
Nevertheless, that isn’t really where the majority of great pop country covers are coming from. Ghostwriting hits for people who can’t write their own material is standard practice for mediocre pop country. But a lot of covers, or redoing of established songs, are done by musicians who don’t need the cover to succeed. Covers in pop country tend to serve as homage to great songwriting by high quality country singers.
This year, the artist formally known as Hootie (Darius Rucker) released a cover of Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel.” The song has been a pretty big hit, peaking this week at number eleven on the Billboard Country Charts. You might know the original “Wagon Wheel” as that one awesome bluegrass-ish song that gets played at weddings and bars semi-frequently.
It’s a brilliant track, actually a half-cover of an old unreleased Bob Dylan song. It captures the spirit of traveling through the American South with its subtle banjo, the scrappy mountain harmonies, and lead singers perfect Appalachian twang. Rucker’s version sands down these hillbilly edges and transforms the song into a straightforward and radio friendly track, and it’s still pretty good,.
That isn’t to say that Rucker’s version is anywhere close to bad. It’s clean, it’s pleasant, and it kind of reminds me of “Wonderwall.” What Rucker has produced is an accessible, sharp version of a great song. The whole process seems more akin to contextualization than to pilfering.
Musicians and music lovers outside of the mainstream often have the tendency to demonize the popular music business and see it at a lifeless medium (I’m often guilty of this), but Rucker has opened up great songwriting to an audience that would never have heard “Wagon Wheel” otherwise. What a great gift to the FM airwaves.
Hootie’s cover of “Wagon Wheel” is an ecumenical effort. I know Rucker is a good musician with good taste, but his audience and OCMS’s audience are way different. Rucker contextualized to popularize the central aesthetic of country music: the songwriting. Sure, it was a financial endeavor; Rucker isn’t an artistic purist but he certainly has good taste and liked “Wagon Wheel” enough to want to share it with his large pop country fan base.
I can be so proud and exclusive when it comes to musical purity. But Rucker reminds me why I need to acknowledge why contextualization is so important. Just because people don’t think like me shouldn’t lead me to exclusion and judgment.
I think of folks like Rick Warren, Tim Keller, and Henri Nouwen who smooth out their style to reach the masses, while still holding fast to the core of their message. A song like Rucker’s “Wagon Wheel” can open the door to so much fantastic music just as books like Keller’s Reason for God can open the door to so much fantastic theology. It’s a gift to have resources that can take folks places that they never thought they would go. I can bet that there is someone who is tearing through Old Crow Medicine Show’s discography today because they heard Rucker’s version of “Wagon Wheel.” And there are probably people doing the same thing with great, weighty works of spiritual gold because they were captivated by a book or article that I might dismiss as “shallow.”