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Darius Rucker talks 'Wagon Wheel,' growing country music market

It's not often one musician achieves success with one of the top-selling albums of all-time and one of the best-selling country singles ever.

But for Darius Rucker, he’s achieved both – as a member of 1990s rock band Hootie & the Blowfish and as a solo country artist. While Hootie’s “Cracked Rear View,” released in 1994, has been certified 21-times platinum (ranking it near records set by Led Zeppelin and the Beatles), Rucker’s version of “Wagon Wheel” just reached eight-times platinum and now stands as one of the top five most popular country singles of all time.

The song, which he released in 2013, topped Billboard’s country charts for weeks and earned the rock and country star a Grammy Award for Best Country Solo Performance. Rucker – who called the latest news surrounding the hit “amazing” – said that despite knowing the song from his years living in and attending school in the Southeast (Rucker grew up in South Carolina and attended the University of South Carolina), he never expected he’d play it.

“Being in that scene, everybody knew ‘Wagon Wheel,’” Rucker told FOX Business. “But I never really, really thought of it as much of a country song. I just never did because [Old Crow Medicine Show’s] version’s such a cool bluegrass laid back thing. I just never thought ‘I’m going to play this someday.’”

Rucker’s decision to record the song came to him as he was watching a talent show at his daughter’s high school. The faculty band hit the stage with instruments including guitars, drums, a fiddle and banjo, he recalled, and played “Wagon Wheel” with a country feel. Rucker then contacted his producer, Frank Rogers, who was a bit skeptical about the idea of recording the tune, though it didn’t stop him.

“It was the only time I’ve probably ever said this to a producer: ‘Hey man, I’m not asking, I’m telling you … we’re gonna cut this song,’” he said. “When we put Lady Antebellum on it, I was like ‘if they ever put this out it could be a hit.’”

But the song’s history dates back about four decades from when Rucker’s version was released. Legendary singer/songwriter Bob Dylan had recorded a demo during the “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” album sessions (the same ones that yielded "Knockin' on Heaven’s Door") in 1973.

Later, the informal recording was released by bootleggers and eventually made its way to a then-17-year-old songwriter, Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show, who wrote the verses around Dylan’s chorus and turned the song into an autobiography of his journey from New Hampshire back home to North Carolina.

“His seal of approval and authenticity is the reason why the song did what it did,” Secor told FOX Business. “It’s a good song, I wrote it well, it’s got the secret Bob Dylan juju, but Darius is the reason that it has sold 8 million copies.”

As for the business side of the record, Secor shares the songwriting credit with Dylan and splits the royalties of the tune. For each physical copy of a record sold, a songwriter receives 9.1 cents in mechanical royalty payments.

“It’s been a lucrative kind of arrangement for both Bob and me,” Secor said. “We split it, so, you know, if I had written all of it I would have made a lot more bread. But it wouldn’t have been what it is without Bob.”

However, when it comes to streaming music, the numbers are drastically different, and songwriters receive fractions of a dollar per stream. “They’re gonna catch up soon, probably sooner than later,” Rucker said, regarding songwriter pay, and encouraged aspiring songwriters to keep writing. “It’s a great business … The world needs great songwriters because music is so important to everybody.”

While “Wagon Wheel” has arguably become Rucker’s signature song, he’s also scored five other No. 1 hits on Billboard’s country chart, and continues to record and hit the road worldwide, keeping active in a community of musicians that make up one of the largest genres of music.

Country was the fourth most popular genre, making up 7.4 percent of the music market and was the third most popular radio format, behind news/talk and adult contemporary, according to Nielsen’s year-end music report for 2019. “People go: ‘Why do you think country is so big?’ And I say because people still love guitar. You know, people still love electric guitar. People love the twang and the country music’s where you’re finding it and I think it’s just going to keep growing.”


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