The Steel Wheels Embrace Change on New Album, Over the Trees

Throughout the past decade and a half, the Steel Wheels has steadily rolled along as one of Americana’s most prolific string bands. Hailing from the small Shenandoah Valley city of Harrisonburg, Va., the group delivers the earnest lyrics of singer-guitarist Trent Wagler with a collective acoustic alchemy that draws as much from the emotional resonance of gospel music as it does from the nimble chops of traditional bluegrass. On new album Over the Trees, which will be released on July 12, the band’s sonic vision—and line-up—has been tastefully expanded. 

The record, the band’s seventh overall, is the group’s first since the full-time addition of multi-instrumentalist Kevin Garcia, who adds flourishes of percussion and keyboards to the well-established wood-and-wire synchronicity of Wagler, fiddler Eric Brubaker, bassist Brian Dickel, and mandolin picker Jay Lapp. To make it, the band traveled north to Maine to work with producer Sam Kassirer, whose resume includes work with Josh Ritter and Lake Street Dive. 

Garcia’s presence is felt immediately in the opening track “Rains Come,” a stomping world-folk tune with an ominous mood that laments the impending dangers of climate change. “Road Never Ends” also casts a shadow of uncertainty through a mix of cross-cultural rhythms and atmospheric rock. “Keep On” is more optimistic, soaring via propulsive drum fills, sweeping fiddle lines, and uplifting vocal harmonies—another long-held strength of the Steel Wheels.

Lyrically this shift between darkness and light is felt through the record, which is understandably tinged with loss. Earlier this year Brubaker’s 10-year-old daughter unexpectedly passed away after a sudden illness, and, as he explained in a statement, the album “is an ode to the community that rises up to support those in need, and is dedicated to the memory of Norah Brubaker.”

That resilience in the face of strife is felt in one of the album’s strongest tracks, “Time to Rest,” which was co-written by Wagler and North Carolina-based singer-songwriter Sarah Siskind. With burden-shedding sentiment, the slow-burning ballad strongly evokes the Bob Dylan penned “I Shall Be Released,” most notably found on The Band’s classic album Music from Big Pink. Better days ahead is also the theme of the heartfelt a capella closer “This Year,” which makes a strong case for the healing power of music. In gentle vocal unison the band ends the album with hopeful grace, singing, “There is no need to worry/There will be peace this year.” 

For the seventh consecutive year the Steel Wheels will host the Red Wing Roots Music Festival at Natural Chimneys in Mt. Solon Va., from July 12-14. In addition to the band’s headlining set on Saturday night, the festival will feature performances by Mandolin Orange, Lucinda Williams, the Wood Brothers, Peter Rowan, and the Gibson Brothers.

Another string outfit from the Commonwealth still thriving through change is the Hackensaw Boys. 

Formed two decades ago, the rowdy old-time revivalists used to pack a dozen fiery pickers into a local diner in Charlottesville. As time has gone by the group has seen many iterations, with more than 20 past members, but with a rotating cast of fresh faces, the band still finds ways to continue. 

This year founding member David Sickmen is fronting a new crew as a quartet that includes multi-instrumentalist Caleb Powers, who switches between fiddle, mandolin, and banjo. Last month, the Hackensaw’s latest incarnation released a brief taste of its current sound with a solid EP, A Fireproof House of Sunshine. After undergoing surgery to remove polyps in his throat, Sickmen is in fine form, as he delivers the rustic ballad “Pass Loving Eyes” and the swinging front-porch tune “Factory Blues,” a dig at blue-collar exploitation. The closing “You Act Like My Friend” has some of the band’s familiar barn-burning swagger, shaded by a bluesy bent due to declared inspiration from Howlin’ Wolf. 

The band is spending a chunk of the summer in Europe, but gigs in its home region should be announced soon, as the group has no plans to slow down. As Sickmen recently explained, “I always thought that our story was about all the people that have come and gone from the band, but I think now the story’s more about a band that just wants to keep developing. It’s not about the past 20 years we put in, it’s more about the next 20 years we want to put in.”