The Steel Wheels – brand new record in hand– head to MerleFest for the first time this week.

The last time we chatted with Trent Wagler, he and mandolinist Jay Lapp had just wrapped up a multi-day bike tour that had them pedaling from Staunton to Roanoke and Lynchburg and up to Wintergreen. Pretty heady – and hilly – territory for two guys, two bikes, and a bunch of stringed instruments. Since then, Wagler, Lapp, along with Brian Dickel and Eric Brubaker, their mates in The Steel Wheels, have made bike touring a regular part of their calendar. You won’t see them on bikes this week, though, as the band heads down to Wilkesboro, North Carolina, for its first appearance at MerleFest. We caught up with Trent to chat about the new record, biking, and playing Doc Watson’s big party.

BRO – When we last chatted, you and Jay had just finished your first bike tour. You still spending a lot of time on the bike?

TW – Oh, yeah.  We have actually done two more bike tours since we talked. Jay and I did another duo tour through Michigan, and last year we did a full band bike tour for the first time. We even had three other riders join us, partly for fun and partly for the extra mechanical skills. We added more bikes to the mix, which added more possibilities for misuse. It’s been a consistent thing now since that first bike tour.

BRO – Are you learning anything? Are the tours getting easier?

TW – The more people we had, the more fun it was. That is something we definitely learned. There was something very special about those first two tours that Jay and I did; you are really isolated out there and really banking on this one other guy for support and energy. That’s special. But when you add more people to the mix, at least with the people we added – I mean, I am sure you could find some real sour apples who would make the thing a real drag – but we just had such a fun time with all the other riders. We also learned from the first year to the second and third that Michigan is a whole lot flatter than Virginia.

BRO – Any future rides?

TW – We want to keep cycling a part of what we do. As we start here in 2012, we’ve booked out in advance so far that we don’t think we can do a bike tour like we have done in recent years. Instead, we are looking at organizing some one day biking events around festivals or particular venues we are playing. We’ve got a bike ride we are going to lead at the Fayetteville Roots Festival in Arkansas, and we are playing at a festival called the Space Race Rumpus, which is all about cycling, in West Virginia. We are hoping to add a few more. It will be a little different, but we always have our bikes in the van. It’s one of those things that help keep us sane on the road.

BRO – In the liner notes, you dedicate your new record, Lay Down, Lay Low, to “the good struggle.” Can you elaborate on that?

TW – The idea of the good struggle came out of a discussion with a good friend of ours about what this record was all about.  I hit on this idea that we were all getting to the point in life where we are sorting out the long standing dreams we had when we were kids while struggling with the reality of having kids of our own and whatever it is that we think is a sensible dose of reality. In the midst of that, we are trying to find hope and joy in a life that sometimes feels like it is pulling you down. The phrase “the good struggle” came out of that. In the end, it describes everyone, from the parent who is trying to figure out how to feed a child healthy food when the kid wants to eat McDonalds every day to the person who is struggling to get up every day because of a mental health issue to the person who is working to build a home from logs he cut from his own land. It also came from a friend who actually inspired the song “Lay Down, Lay Low,” who certainly has struggled more than many of us could fathom. He was ready to take his life – ready to jump off a bridge – and he told me that story and what it was that brought him off that bridge, how he got back in his truck and drove home to begin that long journey back to a place where he felt safe and secure. That was the impetus for us to coalesce around, but the album has a lot of lightness with that darkness, and we tried to paint a canvas around this notion of a struggle that is a hopeful one.

BRO – We are featuring “Spider Wings” on this month’s Trail Mix. Can you give me some background on this tune?

TW – I had some friends who were premiering the documentary Coal Country – a well done film about mountaintop removal – in Charlottesville and they asked me about a week before the premiere to write a song and then perform it before the showing of the film. And I didn’t get it done. But I had another song that I knew from before and I used it and made it work. Then, the following week, “Spider Wings,” started to bubble up inside of me. That’s where it came from – from thinking about issues related to mountaintop removal.

BRO – You guys will be making your first appearance at MerleFest this week. What does it mean to you and the band to be playing at the granddaddy of Americana music festivals?

TW – It means a lot. Any band that ever picks up a fiddle or mandolin or banjo, at some point – whether they think will play it in a year or two or in ten years – thinks about playing MerleFest. After a while it sort of became a monkey on our back. We’d be playing in North Carolina and a fan would come up and say, “You know, you guys would be great at MerleFest!  Have you ever heard of MerleFest?” And we knew we had to play it. And now it just feels perfect – we have the new album out, and I feel we are ready to play MerleFest. Honestly, three or four years ago, when we were just getting started, I don’t think we could have showcased what we do as well. But now we are meeting MerleFest at the right time. It is going to be a perfect experience from top to bottom and we are honored to be there.

The Steel Wheels will be hitting the stage at MerleFest on Thursday and Friday. If you are down there, make sure to catch them and, if you have a bike handy, maybe join them for a spin.