Welcome The Steel Wheels to JHMF 6, and Welcome Back to Bean Blossom, Trent Wagler!
Folks, we live in the age of rapid communication and transportation. The world isn’t that big anymore. Thanks to Cyber Space, our planet has become small.
You can go anywhere in the world from your laptop, desktop, cell phone. Now, thanks to YouTube, you can upload your performance and be a star. Man, there are a whole bunch of really talented people coming out of the woodwork these days. Maybe it’s always been that way. Before this ease of communication, who knew? Festival rosters have no problem lining up forty, fifty, hundreds of really good entertainers. The music industry is still in control of the big bucks, and “success” for “stars”, but in the big picture, the stars come out every night and they do shine. That’s what we are about- our John Hartford Memorial Festival family. We are not the Big Dipper, rather, we are just on the fringe of the Milky Way, out of the mainstream. For JHMF VI, 2016, we have brought back familiar faces and we have new acts. We are tickled to present for the first time ever to the Bill Monroe Music Park, and the John Hartford Memorial Festival, The Steel Wheels, who have changed and are continuing to change the way most folks perceive Roots music.
The Steel Wheels are Brian Dickel on bass and vocals, Eric Brubaker on fiddle and vocals, Jay Lapp on bass and vocals, and on guitar, banjo, lead vocals and chief songwriter, we welcome lead singer Trent Wagler, back home to Bean Blossom! Trent lived in Bean Blossom until he was 10. More on that a little further down the page.
I first heard The Steel Wheels at the Walnut Valley Festival, Winfield, Kansas, several years ago. About 30 years ago, another one of our JHMF headliners, Sam Bush, rocked the established bluegrass community, in the wake of John Hartford, to become the King of Newgrass, the father of Newgrass Revival. ( 1971-1989). We watched and listened in awe as Newgrass Revival packed the grandstands for eleven years, and rocked like nobody else. Their shows were always the Friday and Saturday night closer. Thousands packed that Kansas prairie fairgrounds Grandstand and rodeo arena to watch Sam Bush (appearing this year!), Bela Fleck, Pat Flynn and John Cowan work pure acoustic alchemy. It was lightning. It was magic. When it ended, it was over. Just like that.
For 20 years, no one pulled it off like Newgrass Revival. Walnut Valley festival folks still talk about that magic, that energy, that newgrass virtuosity. Enter the Steel Wheels. Several years ago, the Steel Wheels rolled into Winfield. One performance was all it took. The Steel Wheels have brought back the magic to the masses since 2012, and will be back in 2016. They’ve effectively given the Walnut Valley Fest folks what they’ve been missing for 20 years. These four incredible musicians, hailing from Virginia, have an uncanny and unique chemistry and the ability to share this energy from the stage, to the audience. Their songwriting is pure and original, uplifting, sobering and timely. Their musicianship and stage presence are second to none. They are a unit. The energy they bring to the stage and emit to the audience is reminiscent of the Newgrass Revival of old. Not the same, but just as real and blood pumping. This is no comparative assumption. It’s a reminder that now and then, along comes a rare phenomenon in music.
“"These men don't rely on clichés, but they do have their feet steady in the firmament of sophisticated folk music. Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams would be proud of their word play, their ambitious colorful language in their story... The Steel Wheels should be enjoyed because they sound like no one else in roots music."-No Depression
The Steel Wheels’ name brings to mind the Iron Age, the age of great big train wheels chugging across the nation, opening it up to progress. Well, these Steel Wheels, are not those steel wheels. These Steel Wheels are bicycle wheels. These young men were friends before they ever started a band together, and they are bicyclists. In 2012, they launched “Lay Down Lay Low” literally hitting the streets on a 600 mile, 10 show, 11 day bicycle tour while also carrying all their gear. Not just your typical bike touring gear either. They packed their instruments, even Brian’s upright bass along with all their personal things. This tour started in Ann Arbor, Michigan and made it’s way to the west side of Michigan, onto Chicago before finishing up in Indiana. This is a video of the August 2011 Spokesongs Tour. The video is underscored by "Nola's First Dance", a tune written by Jay Lapp and recorded on the Steel Wheels' new record. Video by Neil Bontrager.
The Steel Wheels, riding the momentum of their ground breaking last release, “Leave Some Things Behind”, will be performing in a special two hour set on the Hartford Stage, Thursday night only. The Steel Wheels are an anomaly, one of the rare groups that form, bond and grow into a band of musicians with the gift. The Steel Wheels experience combines virtuosity with ease on their instruments, sibling-like harmonies, fresh and original songwriting and an ability to transfer these vibes from their recordings to the deepest recesses of your mind. Your noggin will reverberate.
The songs, chiefly written by the band, musically cover the range of genres that make up Americana/Roots music. The lyrics are fresh and original in that they do not follow the “mold”, the “formula” that is generally pushed on the ears of listeners. The lyrics come to their hearts from their life experiences and ideals, then from their hearts to our ears. This album is a journey into the collective spirit of these four travelers, these friends. We are blessed to have access to this music. I’ve always wanted to be a fly on the wall when this chemistry is working. I asked Brian about their process.
“Trent is the primary songwriter and all lyrical content (other than occasional input on changes) is his although he's done a few co-writes lately with outside songwriters. Jay and Eric occasionally will have an instrumental melody or something that either stays an instrumental and/or Trent works some lyrics onto them. After the basic structure of the song is there, we all work on arrangements and ideas to further the song. We arrange pretty easily although it may take a while to find something we like. It's pretty tension free as arrangement sessions are more like brainstorming and throwing out ideas left and right and seeing what sticks. You can't get too attached to an idea at that stage:) We've been playing together for nearly 11 years so it comes pretty naturally now.”
Trent Wagler said, about this album, “We had more songs for this record than ever before, and that caused us to ask, ‘How does all this stuff fit together, and what’s it about? A theme emerged, which I’d been somewhat conscious of as I was writing—the Exodus theme. I don’t want to overstate the biblical aspect, but those biblical metaphors are big metaphors in our lives regardless of the institutions they come from. I was fascinated by the notion of going away from home to look for something. But the further we go toward something, the further we’re inevitably going away from something else, meaning those ideals come at a cost, sometimes small and mundane, sometimes huge. You see the theme running through the album, overtly in ‘Promised Land,’ hopefully in ‘Rescue Me, Virginia,’ and existentially in ‘Heaven Don’t Come by Here,’ which opens with the image of an unmarked grave. And ‘End of the World Again’ is about the things you leave behind when you leave home, and in following what you’re seeking, not knowing whether there’s gonna be anything left when you come back.”
This fresh and innovative group collaboration really sounds natural and at ease. Here’s the official video of “End Of The World Again”.
The album title comes from these lyrics.
I recently interviewed Trent Wagler about the band and about Trent returning to Bean, and his first appearance at the Bill Monroe Music Park. Trent was born and raised in Bean Blossom, and has a lot of family still in the area. In fact the porch portion of the following Red Wing video was recorded right down the road from the festival grounds (just up Miller's Hill...another older Steel Wheels song) on Trent's grandfather's porch.
Ernie-Were you born in Brown Co., or somewhere else in Indiana?
Trent-I was born in Bean Blossom and lived about 2 miles from the festival site until I was 10 years old. I went to Helmsburg Elementary from Kindergarten through 5th grade.
E-I see "Wagler Farms" trucks pretty often around Bean, did you grow up on a farm?
T-Yep. My dad was a partner with two of his brothers and my grandfather when I was young. It was the only dairy farm in the county, I believe, but yes, we were farmers.
E-Do you go back for visits?
T-I used to come back every year before my grandparents passed away a few years ago. I still have a lot of family right there, and it's always a treat to be in Brown County.
E-Do you come from a musical family?
T-My dad and three of his brothers sang in a gospel quartet ever since I can remember. They rehearsed every Monday evening at the Bean Blossom Mennonite Church and the kids just ran around and got into all kinds of trouble. My mom and some of the women counterparts created a women's quartet, and all of us kids sang, so it was just a part of growing up a Wagler.
E-Have you attended some of the festivals at Bill Monroe Park?
T-Unfortunately no. Because of some of the strictly held religious beliefs from my grandparents, we all grew up with a bit of a negative connotation about the festival. I was never old enough to really think twice about it. But we could hear the banjos and harmonies ringing through the trees right into our backyard when I was a kid. I'm sure I heard Earl Scruggs and Bill Monroe without realizing it.
E-What does it mean to you, to return to Bean Blossom and perform at this park. A lot of bluegrassers consider it hallowed ground.
T-It's special for me, but for different reasons. I'm glad to be able to come back to my hometown and do what I do everywhere else. I'm glad that some of my relatives who haven't really participated in a great event right next door will have a reason to check it out for themselves and hopefully enjoy the experience.
E-A couple of years ago, I talked to you down in Arkansas, you all had just posted a video of the band, in a small car, singing "First Girl I Loved", by John Hartford. Knocked my socks off. Was John Hartford an influence for any or all of you?
T-Hartford is still an influence. I think part of what makes him so important is his originality and his refusal to let any powers of the world take away his very singular and important voice and style. His songwriting is wacky and poignant. His playing is off kilter and precise. He's a gem.
E-I'm sure I could find the answer to this in some of your previous interviews but, I'm always amazed when a band comes together that melds in the ways you all do. It is rare. Now you have a successful festival, the Redwing Festival, named for a song you wrote that was on the 2010 album by the same name. How in the world did you all discover each other?
T-We were friends first. Not musicians first. I think that orientation to our band and music will continue to benefit us. We met in our college years and took a slow approach to making the band. We played our first show together in 2005, but then took about 5 years to get everything together to become the full-time touring band we are today.
E-I'd like to know how you approach collaboration as writers and arrangers.
T-We used to almost always write in our own little solitary bubbles and then come out when we've got something we want to share with each other. Once the band decides we want to work on it, we mostly create arrangements and parts that fit the band, but the song is pretty much finished when it gets to the band's ears. Lately, we've been pushing ourselves to do more writing together and it's been a real treat. I think it takes more confidence to be vulnerable with each other enough to allow someone to see into your ideas when they're incomplete or cheesy, not refined. But by allowing people in at that point and allowing the bad ideas to inspire the really good ideas have helped us come to some cool new sounds and songs. Over the winter, Eric, Jay and I got together in a WV cabin and really worked on some completely new ideas together, trying to brainstorm and write from silence to final creation. I think it's worth continuing to explore, even though the isolated one writer approach sometimes seems more efficient.
E-Do you consider this life-style hard work?
T-It's harder than many people think. But every work you do has benefits and drawbacks. I'm not one to complain.
E-How much of a year is spent on the road?
T-120 days or so. We try to balance home and road. It's important to me to be a part of a community as much as possible.
E-Looking far forward, what do you hope to have accomplished in your life as songwriting musician?
T-I hope the songs we leave behind touch people and speak to them in their own lives. If it becomes a part of their stories and important in the midst of struggle or joy, I'm happy.
"First Girl I Loved" written by John Hartford
For more about The Steel Wheels, visit http://www.thesteelwheels.com