This year’s performers will be The Steel Wheels.
See artist info below.
The Steel Wheels
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.
The band’s genesis dates back to 2004, when Trent Wagler, Brian Dickel and Eric 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. 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 full time 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, 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.
Wagler points out, “...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...‘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.
“That narrative of following your dreams and stepping against your own comfort zone was replayed for me in the lives of my parents and grandparents, and I left home, too,” he continues. “It’s hardly a unique story; we live in a transient culture, and we move for many different reasons. That’s the personal side, but I think this music also connected to the other guys in the band in that all four of us are dads now. We travel and tour; that is our livelihood, and when we’re gone we’re really gone. But when we come off the road, we’re really home. So we live with that push and pull.”
Home, family, community (further evidenced in the band’s annual Red Wing Roots Music Festival, the third edition of which will take place in July), a sense of belonging, seeking and finding, the pendulum of gains and losses—these are the Big Issues embedded into the fabric of Leave Some Things Behind, an album that promises to be as enduringly relevant for the listener as it will always remain for the dedicated artists who poured their hearts and souls into its creation.