Some songs are hits for a week or two topping the billboard charts and making albums go platinum. But sometimes a song hits and the folklore surrounding the song is almost as important as the song itself.
As a really little kid I remember being enraptured with Don McClean’s American Pie. It was long, cool and singable. It was a song you could request anyone to sing and they'd glady comply.
Music in an important thread in the history of Johnson City. Bristol, 25 minutes down the road, is considered the big bang of country music. After the Bristol sessions in 1927 people combed the mountains of this region looking for the next Carter Family. In 1928 and 1929 the Johnson City sessions were recorded and put Johnson City on the musical map.
Music is Tennessee's biggest export.
Memphis has the blues; Nashville is the official, international home of country music. Bristol, as it should, makes a big show of its role in the birthplace of country music.
That doesn’t leave a lot of room for Johnson City, even though there is still a lot of great stuff happening here; The Barefoot Movement, Amythyst Kiah and the Bluegrass, Old Time and Country music program at ETSU all come to mind. A recent write-up in the NY Times talks about the region and all of the places you can hear music today.
Today, Wagon Wheel is the song you hear being performed by every singer songwriter. Wagon Wheel is the iconic song of the late 2000s and 2010s and of course, this infectious song mentions our little mountain town.
There’s a lot of great music happening in this region. Perhaps that’s the reason Johnson City gets a mention (even if the path from Pennsylvania to Raleigh doesn’t make much sense). No matter the version you prefer, it’s certainly cool our little city is mentioned in one of the most famous songs of our generation.
Wagon Wheel origins
I'm not sure why Old Crow Medicine show decided to mention Johnson City in the song, but when doing research on Johnson City for a client, I found a photo of the demolition of a "popular restaurant" named Wagon Wheel in Johnson City.
Wagon wheels are often emblematic of travel, generally through rural areas. We think of people packing up everything they have, loading it on a wagon and searching for a better life. Maybe you think of Oregon Trail or The Grapes of Wrath (though the characters in The Grapes of Wrath *technically* had a car).
I made a little sticker of a wagon wheel to celebrate Johnson City whether you love the pioneering spirit the wagon wheel is emblematic of, if you remember the restaurant, if you proudly sing Johnson City, Tennessee whenever the Wagon Wheel song comes on or for those of us who have chosen to settle in this town.
You may visit the store to purchase a sticker and if you're interested in the long history of the song, check out these links:
- Wagon Wheel on Wikipedia
- How Bob Dylan co-wrote Darius Rucker’s Wagon Wheel 40 years ago
- So the story behind that Wagon Wheel song is kinda cray…
And a few versions of the song:
The original. Bob Dylan’s Rock Me Mama.
Johnson City Stickers
If you like the Wagon Wheel sticker, check out the Buffalo Mountain Sticker.
NOTE: This is pretty obvious, but to be clear: I am, in no way, affiliated with Old Crow Medicine Show, Darius Rucker, Nathan Carter or Bob Dylan and I obtain absolutely no ownership of any copyright related to the song. Wagon Wheels are emblematic of movement, pioneers, settling and all sorts of lovely things. The artwork on the sticker is my artwork and is not tied to any entity that has any copyright related to the song, or anything else.