“Headed down south…”
It only took four years to get it done, but the Boggs Family did lay down their very own “Wagon Wheel” track. And I do feel as Mark Twain so eloquently described, “like the pin-feather pimples on a picked goose.” Because the wagon wheel rolled. My Wagon Wheel. Finally and triumphantly. An ancient proverb says, “Desire realized is sweet to the soul…” Yes, it certainly is. Last November, at the SoKnox Recording Studio in Knoxville, Tennessee, my little impromptu band and I officially recorded the classic song, “Wagon Wheel,” seeing a longtime, somewhat goofy dream come true. Yep, we were indeed a pinchin’ the biscuit.
With time booked last year as a Father’s Day gift for me by Patty and my son Jonathan, Jon (lead vocals, guitar), me (banjo, very limited background vocals; I apologize now), Patty (background vocals), daughter-in-law Torrie (background vocals), and my irrepressible then 6-year old grandson Jared (percussion, vocals) worked hard for several hours with the skillful sound engineer in the very cool studio. For all of us except Jon, I guess, it was our first experience in a real live recording studio complete with a variety of gold records on the wall…from Loretta Lynn to Led Zeppelin.
“Monday I start working with my banjo teacher for the sole purpose to learn the song “Wagon Wheel.” My son Jonathan and I are going to record it over Christmas break. I’ve already booked the recording studio.”
That was almost four years ago. Life happened and it just didn’t get done. I lost the recording studio time and didn’t learn “Wagon Wheel.” Another ancient proverb says, “Delayed hope makes the heart sick, but fulfilled desire is the tree of life.” For some reason, my heart was sick over not pulling this off. So learn “Wagon Wheel” I did, eventually, and even added a bit of semi-arthritic finger-picking to my novice banjo repertoire.
“…like a wagon wheel?”
Jane Addams once said, “I dreamed night after night that everyone in the world was dead excepting myself, and that upon me rested the responsibility of making a wagon wheel.” I had no such dramatic dream. In fact, the last dream I remember involved three cartoony seahorses. One red, one green, and one yellow. Wait. There was one more recent dream involving my drone, a mountain made of brown and white polished stones, a guy, and three tacos. Go ahead. Analyze me. But back to Jane. While I did ponder the possibility that my banjo might actually be deadly to its hearers, upon me did somehow rest the responsibility of making a wagon wheel. My first experience with the “Wagon Wheel” song was when I heard my son Jon play it in a gig at the “Blue Room Cafe” in Highland, Indiana. That was more than ten years ago. I loved the melody and lyrics–fun and upbeat, not quite country or bluegrass or folk. And I could relate to the song’s message.
The song itself has an interesting history. Bob Dylan wrote a piece of it….the chorus and melody, and called it, “Rock Me Mama,” for the movie “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” in 1973. But in true Dylan style, the lyrics were very mumbled and the song was never completed let alone officially released. Then some 25 years later, Ketch Secor of the band “Old Crow Medicine Show” got a hold of a bootleg recording and wrote verses to go with the chorus. Wikipedia says, “Secor’s contribution was rescuing and popularizing the song that Dylan had apparently abandoned.” Dylan and Secor share authorship of the song though they’ve never met. Current country star Darius Rucker recently covered it for another boom in popularity.
For me, the song has the magic of being played by my son when I first heard it. I love to share in his world of music and it’s a blast to creatively collaborate with him on any project. I’d never heard of Old Crow Medicine Show then. Yet Patty and I just went to an Old Crow Medicine Show concert in Chicago a few days ago. Progress. I think. A hard to categorize band, called “sweet” by Patty, and “with feral energy” by Jon. Maybe alternative country? Certainly a blast to hear and watch. In their concert encore, they did indeed play their classic, “Wagon Wheel.” Ketch Secor also shared the song’s history. More goosebumps for me, and a man-tear or two. That song is now partly mine. Hearing Old Crow Medicine Show perform it in person put a nice exclamation point on it all for me and prompted me to tell this story. For son Jonathan, a true musician, well, let’s ask him. Jon?
Jonathan Boggs: “In his celebrated book Air Guitar, Dave Hickey quotes Lou Reed on the subject of music performance: “The thing you learn is that popular music is easy. The song will play itself. So all you need to do is make it sing a little, make it human, and not fuck it up.”
Reed’s insight is that a pop song has a life of its own and doing a rendition of a song is not about “putting yourself out there,” it’s about respecting the life of the song. Knoxville’s live music bars had already posted “No Wagon Wheel” opposite their stages when my dad asked me to join him in recording a version of the song; and it had been maybe 12 years since I was excited enough about the song to perform it with my friends Jared and Viv. So I was on the fast track to doing what Lou Reed said you don’t do.
Once we got in the studio two things happened: 1) Little Jared asked if he and I could be in the same room during the recording—which took all three of us, Dad, Jared, and me out of the graphite foam booths and into a common area with big rug, lots of sunlight, and a mobile PA. 2) Then Dad asked Patty if she would sing, which inspired me to ask Torrie if she would sing, and before any of us knew it, we were standing in a circle smiling nervously at each other, Dad with his banjo on a high stool, Jared on the floor with egg crate, bongos, and tambourine, and Patty, Torrie and me all standing. It might have been during the warm up or somewhere mid-way through the first take, but all the normal thoughts triggered by nerves, self-consciousness, and vanity got interrupted by a new, unexpected fact: everybody singing. It didn’t sound good or anything, but it was definitely unanimous. Even Torrie was singing.
After that, the details didn’t matter much. We played Wagon Wheel. And we didn’t “fuck it up.”
Thanks, Jon! I couldn’t agree more. We did play it and we didn’t uh…mess it up…thanks to you! Okay, I’ve waited long enough. Of course I have to include our song here. It’s easily the craziest version of “Wagon Wheel” you’ll ever experience. My banjo is marginal, and I don’t think I would impress my distant cousin banjo legend Dock Boggs, but little Jared’s robust vocals will make you smile for sure. Wait til he belts out the lyric, “Johnson City, Tennessee!” So crank up the volume. Four years in the making.
Desire realized is sweet to the soul.
We recorded “Wagon Wheel” last November, appropriately in Tennessee and I couldn’t have been prouder. Then we got to do an unexpected extra-fun encore. During my wedding reception last December, Jon, Jared, and I picked up another Boggs boy, my son Brad (guitar and vocals), and joined our excellent reception musicians (and good sports) Eric Lambert and Ben Benedict for a raucous rendition of “Wagon Wheel.” Eric and Ben are professional musicians, former members of the Chicago-based bluegrass band, Henhouse Prowlers.
So sweet to have set a goal, albeit a crazy one, and finally reach it even four years later. Thanks, Patty. Thank you, Jon & Torrie. Thanks, Brad. And thank you, Master Jared! Next up, I think I’d like to record “Dead Skunk.” Find on iTunes…you’ll dig it.
“I pick a banjo now…”
Oh, the ‘”pin-feather pimples on a picked goose…” thing. It’s from a quote about the banjo by Mark Twain. I urge you to take a moment. Waller in it for a spell. It’s a guaranteed free smile. “The piano may do for love-sick girls who lace themselves to skeletons, and lunch on chalk, pickles and slate pencils. But give me the banjo. Gottschalk compared to Sam Pride or Charley Rhoades, is as a Dashaway cocktail to a hot whisky punch. When you want genuine music — music that will come right home to you like a bad quarter, suffuse your system like strychnine whisky, go right through you like Brandreth’s pills, ramify your whole constitution like the measles, and break out on your hide like the pin-feather pimples on a picked goose, — when you want all this, just smash your piano, and invoke the glory-beaming banjo!”
Mark Twain, “Enthusiastic Eloquence,” San Francisco Dramatic Chronicle, 23 June 1865.
Though I don’t think “I was born to be a fiddler in an old-time string band,” and “my baby doesn’t play the guitar,” I do indeed “pick a banjo now.” I still find comfort in its happy sound (especially when every once in a while I actually hit the right notes).
All in all, recording “Wagon Wheel” was a fulfilling moment, a clear example of having a vision, refusing to give up, and working to finally see it realized. Yet most important to me was the love involved. Every step of the way featured acts of love and sacrifice given on my behalf, right down to little Jared agreeing to one last take in the studio (okay, so I bribed him…it’s what granddads do). Though our little recording is certainly not headed for the Grand Ole Opry, or Mamaw’s Backwoods Country Roadhouse and Filling Station either, for that matter, I was in the midst of those who truly love and support me. And together we created something that didn’t exist before. Patty, Jon, Torrie, Jared, and Brad showed their love for me by joining with me in the accomplishment of my little dream, indeed, actually making it possible. We did it, y’all!
“But I ain’t a turnin’ back to livin’ that old life no more…”
The song, “Wagon Wheel” is about love, you know, about a flawed man who has been away and is on a path back to love. Yes. I have been on that path. It has been a dark road at times, and I have “prayed to God I see headlights” on a regular basis. Over the years since I first heard Jon play “Wagon Wheel,” my flaws have certainly been in the forefront. I had indeed been living A Scripted Life that had to change. “But I ain’t a turnin’ back to livin’ that old life no more.” Today, though I don’t deserve it, I am forgiven, I am loved, and I am indeed blessed. “And if I die in Raleigh (or Schaumburg, or Elmhurst, or Galena, or Lahaina, or Knoxville, or Sarnia, or Schererville, or Kansas City, or wherever), at least I will die free.”
“I’ll pick me a bouquet of dogwood flowers…”
You know, come to think of it, in that same blog from 2013, I mentioned that I planned to take boxing lessons. After four years, I’ve finally taped up my hands and donned the gloves. Boxing lessons underway. Just as sweet, but a jab-jab-cross-move-uppercut-uppercut-block combination into the heavy bag is a lot more exhausting than plucking my banjo. My membership in the Title Boxing Club is another story for another day. It is good to set goals and reach them. For now, I think “I’ll pick me a bouquet of dogwood flowers.”
We cut “Wagon Wheel.” I listen to it often and smile broadly if not chuckle out loud every time. And now, uh, how does “Dead Skunk” go again? Oh yeah. “Crossin’ the highway, late last night, he shoulda looked left and he shoulda looked right; he didn’t see the station wagon car, the skunk got squashed, and there you are! You got yer dead skunk in the middle of the road…”