The Steel Wheels
An evening of Americana music
May 5, 2015 · 8:00pm
Tickets are available at the door.
The Steel Wheels
Some things come to be in their own time, of their own accord. Such has been the case with The Steel Wheels. In the beginning, it was simply a matter of four young men who’d happened to cross paths at a formative moment in each of their lives reveling in the shared experience of plucking acoustic instruments and blending their voices. But over the years, what had begun organically as a pure lark evolved into a mission: to fuse the personal with the universal, the deeply rooted past with the joys and sorrows of everyday existence.
These thematic and stylistic vectors intersect powerfully on Leave Some Things Behind (released April 13 on the band’s own Big Ring label), a deeply human, emotionally authentic work that interweaves timely songs with timeless sounds. On the album, co-produced and engineered by Ben Surratt, the four band members—lead singer/guitarist/banjo player Trent Wagler, standup bass player Brian Dickel, fiddler Eric Brubaker and mandolin player Jay Lapp—are joined on various tracks by roots- music luminary Tim O’Brien, Nashville-based singer/songwriter Sarah Siskind (who co-wrote two songs and sang on another), drummer Travis Whitmore and Hammond B3 player Ethan Ballinger.
Together, they’ve wrought a work that is musically intricate and conceptually resonant, the sounds serving the songs at every moment. Memorable original tunes like the sorrowful “Heaven Don’t Come by Here,” the anxious “End of the World Again,” the a cappella tour de force “Promised Land,” the indigenously metaphorical “Find Your Mountain,” the autobiographical “Rescue Me, Virginia” and the climactic “Every Song Is a Love Song” are bound by a plainspoken eloquence and an unforced urgency, while the dual kickers “We’ve Got a Fire” and “Warm Wool, Soft Leather” seem tailor-made for the Grand Ole Opry stage circa 1968—as if intimating some of those precious things we’ve left behind.
The band’s genesis dates back to 2004, when Wagler, Dickel and Brubaker were college students in Harrisonburg, Virginia, which sits in the Shenandoah Valley an hour’s drive from Charlottesville. “The school we met at is Eastern Mennonite University,” Wagler recalls, punctuating the reveal with a wry chuckle. “That begs the next question, which is, ‘Why in the world did you go to Eastern Mennonite University?’ One of the unique things about our band is that all four of us grew up in Mennonite families—and I hesitate to even use the word because many people who don’t have much experience with Mennonites see that as Amish, but that’s not accurate. It was more of a secular Mennonite upbringing. So that was where the three of us met, but we didn’t start the band right away.”
As undergraduates, Wagler played bass and Dickel guitar in a punk-leaning alternative band, but over time they developed an interest in acoustic music, as Trent learned flatpicking and began writing songs, while Brian studied guitar making at a school for aspiring luthiers. They began performing casual gigs as a duo, and it wasn’t long before Brubaker began playing with them, expanding the nascent group’s sound with his fiddle and bass voice, which enriched the harmonies. Once Wagler crossed paths with mandolin player Jay Lapp on the local folk circuit, the lineup was complete— although none of them realized at the time that these four like-minded friends had begun the process of becoming a going concern. After making an album together under Wagler’s name, they continued to play informally for the next half decade, while also recording a 2007 LP as Trent Wagler and the Steel Wheels. Concurrently, they worked day jobs and started families. Finally, they took the leap of faith, throwing their lots together as The Steel Wheels, a band name redolent of steam-powered railroad trains, America’s industrial age and the buggies of their Mennonite forebears. Their initial offering as a committed unit, 2010’s Red Wing, put the newly minted fulltime band on the map at the dawn of the folk-music renaissance; the LP spent 13 weeks on the Americana Music Association’s Top 40 chart, while the track “Nothing You Can’t Lose” was named Best Country Song at the Independent Music Awards.