Trail Mix | The Steel Wheels

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“We’ll have fun with the people who are here.”

Those nine words, offered me to by Jay Lapp, mandolin player for The Steel Wheels, changed my perspective on live music. Some seven years ago, on a rainy night in October, I hosted Jay and Trent Wagler, as part of our concert series here in Wise. It was a night primed for disaster. The elevator to the room where we were staging the concert was out of commission, so I had to tote the entire PA up five flights of stairs. The college campus had been decimated by swine flu and the weather was horrid, so a staggering fourteen people – nine of whom had been at dinner with me and the band – turned out for the show. I apologized to Trent and Jay repeatedly, and that’s when Jay offered me those pearls of wisdom.

And he was right. Fun we had. Trent and Jay decided to play purely acoustic – did I mention that I had already carried the PA up five flights of stairs? – surrounded by music fans who braved the rain and influenza, and what could have been an awful evening turned into a magical musical experience.

It’s fair to say that I have never not had fun when The Steel Wheels are involved. I have been following the band for years, featuring their songs on Trail Mix and chronicling their releases here on the blog and on the pages of the magazine. Without a doubt, The Steel Wheels are one of the finest bands to call Virginia home.

The Steel Wheels return this month with a brand new record, Wild As We Came Here. I recently chatted up Trent Wagler, guitarist and singer for the band, about their new release, cycling, and the band’s summer music festival.

BRO – Considering the title of the new record, is complacency even an option?

TW – No. The kind of “wilding” this record advocates is not unlike certain spiritual concepts of being in the present or in the now. But it can be applied to the way you load your dishwasher or write your congresswoman. Sometimes, we don’t recognize the importance of small actions with big hopes. For example, I think my garden changes the world.

BRO – Your fifth Red Wing festival is approaching. You have some great bands at the top of the poster, but how about recommending a band or two from lower on the bill that you are excited about?

TW – The main reason to go to a festival is to discover something new. Here are just a few to look out for. We’ve played a couple shows with Matt Forenz, who performs under the name Suitcase Junket. If you think you’ve seen enough of the one-man band craze, pry open your heart for this man. His parade of sound includes a one-of-a-kind footd rum kit and a crunchy guitar tone, with a tendency to interlace lyrics with Tuvan throat singing. He makes Tom Waits proud. Next, C.W. Stoneking is one of the artists I can’t wait to see perform. Sometimes we book people we know well and can’t wait to show our home audience, but other times we just want to see them ourselves. Stoneking has a particularly unique blues sound, both vintage and right now. What Pokey Lafarge does with his ragtime big band sound, Stoneking does with the blues. Finally, I am excited to welcome Molly Tuttle to Red Wing. Her understated singing and brilliant guitar playing is refreshing and infectious. There’s an energy in her performing that reminds me of Sarah Jarosz. It’s the air of an accomplished instrumentalist with a drive to bring songs to life, not just to play the licks she was taught.

BRO – We are featuring “Broken Mandolin” on this month’s Trail Mix. I want to get the story behind the song, but can I also tell you the title just gives me the willies?

TW – In the book All The Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, there’s a passing image of a drunk man on the street with a broken mandolin, The image really stuck with me. I interpreted it as a hopeful image. Like the guy decided to come out of his house with a broken instrument, believing he had some music he was going to coax out of it. I think the image of trying to play a broken instrument has metaphorical power we can probably all relate to if we meditate on it long enough. No instruments were harmed in the making of this song, although Jay’s electric guitar solo sounds like he’s stabbing the f-hole of the mandolin with an old Silvertone.

BRO – You and the band have a long history with cycling. Still riding? Suggestions on a favorite route to ride during my next trip to the Shenandoah Valley?

TW – We don’t have a bike tour scheduled this year, but a couple of us still ride around 5,000 miles a year. Brian and I take our bikes on tour and try to get out to see the countryside whenever time allows. If you’re coming to our town of Harrisonburg and you don’t mind climbing, I always recommend the Reddish Knob ride. It’s an epic long climb with an amazing view at the top. If you don’t want ten miles of straight climbing, any stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway is worth a roll.

BRO – You guys are into your second decade as a band. What’s your secret?

TW – I don’t know that there is one true secret. We have a lot of laughs together as a band. We’re not particularly high maintenance as a traveling group. What a lot of people don’t realize is that the bulk of time you spend as a touring band is off stage. It’s relatively easy to keep things together onstage with a lot of different people, but when you spend a lot of hours in the van, deciding on meal stops, hotels, quick load-ins, radio appearances, and dealing with illness, you need to be able to trust each other and keep it light. My bandmates are my best friends. And I trust each of them with just about anything. And that’s good, because they know just about everything about me.

The Steel Wheels are rolling through West Virginia, South Carolina, Virginia, and North Carolina in the coming weeks. You can find out more about their tour stops, the band, the Red Wing Roots Music Festival, and how you can grab a copy of the new record by visiting the band’s website.

Be sure to check out “Broken Mandolin,” from The Steel Wheels, along with tunes by Colter Wall, Lindsay Straw, The Resonant Rogues, and more on this month’s Trail Mix.

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