The Steel Wheels
Sunday March 29, 2015 @ 7:00 PM
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 rootsmusic 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.
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. The Steel Wheels’ visibility continued to increase via 2011’s Live at Goose Creek, 2012’s Lay Down, Lay Low (the IMA’s Album of the Year) and 2013’s No More Rain (the last-named containing live-off-the-floor re-recordings of pre-Red Wing material), while they spent much of their time traveling the blue highways and interstates behind these records, while Wagler found the time to build a stockpile of new songs. Leave Some Things Behind stands as the culmination of these five years of maturation and intensive roadwork. Whereas the previous albums were essentially collected snapshots of The Steel Wheels at certain points in time, the new work turns on a concept that dates back to Homer—and the Old Testament.