–Published 4/16/12 in The Observer.
“Wagon Wheel” by Old Crow Medicine Show is one of those songs college students love.
The moment that distinctive introduction blares from the speakers, arms link, glasses clink and the room erupts in cheering.
In true spring break road trip style, “Wagon Wheel” played multiple times on our drive from South Bend down to South Carolina a few weeks ago.
The first time it came on, I was behind the wheel and we had just crossed the Kentucky-Tennessee state line. We had all been silent for awhile, enjoying the green and gold scenery that unfolded before us. The open road softly rose and fell as we sped at 80 miles per hour south down I-75.
The lyrics of “Wagon Wheel” filled the empty space between us, representing all the things we were thinking, but hadn’t said.
In my head, I tried to define what the song is about. On one level, the song is about freedom — having the freedom to pursue what matters most. It’s about remembering the people and places you care about after being away for a long time.
As a senior in college, this aspect of the song seems especially relevant. I’ve spent months abroad and summers away in different cities. In four years, my younger siblings have grown up, and people in my childhood neighborhood have moved out. Like the narrator, I’ve gone away to mature, and will return both different and the same.
“Wagon Wheel” is also about the beauty of simplicity — that life can be reduced to a single person, a single car and a single desire. You don’t need to know the song to relate to it — the music reflects some reality about the future we all can find truth in.
On our way back to South Bend after spring break, “Wagon Wheel” came on again while I was driving. This time, it was about 10 p.m., dark and raining, and the song had a much more sobering effect.
I realized then that the song is bittersweet, even sad. Loneliness and regret infuse the lyrics because the past still weighs him down. It’s possible that after all those years of longing, after seventeen-straight hours of driving, his vision for a new life could be shattered.
At its core, however, “Wagon Wheel” is about faith. It’s about having faith that the one you love will still be there when you come home, about having faith that you can drive straight into the unknown and everything will end up okay.
With May 20 quickly approaching, I feel like I’m speeding at 80 miles per hour towards graduation, and after that, the unknown. But before then, I hope to share a few more swaying “Wagon Wheels” at Finny’s, indulging in one of those rare moments when we all feel exactly the same thing.