The song is musically a simple folk song based on acoustic guitar, but accompanied by drums and strings. The lyrics, which literally interpreted describe a dead skunk in the middle of a busy road and the smell it produces for pedestrians, have often been seen as an attack on then-president Richard M. Nixon. Wainwright himself has never confirmed or denied this claim, but has said the song was an accident written in fifteen minutes.Although the single was released in November 1972, it was not until well into 1973 that it caught on with radio stations, and its number 16 peak on the Billboard Hot 100 chart was not reached until May 1973. It was the only record to chart for Wainwright.

The song has been played every Friday near 9 am, on Top 40 radio station KRRY ("Y101") in Quincy, Illinois, since 1985. Y101 disc jockeys Dennis Oliver and Jeffrey Dorsey claim the two have played "Dead Skunk" more than any other radio station in the United States