Home and Away

Harrisonburg’s Steel Wheels

photo by rubysky photography

A few years back the four members of the Steel Wheels had a decision to make. Through five years of touring and a series of albums, the Harrisonburg-based band had made fans around the country with its brand of acoustic Americana. They’d played at festivals and on the radio and built up a successful touring career. But in those years they had also started families—today all four are married with young children.

Thus the dilemma: Should they quit their day jobs and become full-time musicians, with all the travel and family disruption that entailed?

They weighed the good and bad, talked to their wives, their friends and colleagues. All four of the members of the Steel Wheels grew up in Mennonite households and value home and family as much as they value hard work and craftsmanship. Could playing music be an honorable business, a trade to be proud of? One worth spending months away from home?  

They decided to do it. Now, five years on and its members in their 30s, “We consider ourselves middle-class musicians,” says band founder and lead vocalist Trent Wagler. “It’s our profession, our trade, and we approach it that way.”

Not that it was an easy decision. “It was a bit terrifying,” says fiddler Eric Brubaker, “but we’ve made it work.”

That tension between going away for work and coming home is at the heart of the band’s new album, Leave Some Things Behind, out on their own record label, Big Ring. “We have built our business and our band around the idea that we have something to come home for,” Wagler says. “If you’re going to go away, you’d better do it for something that means something.”

The members of what would become the Steel Wheels met in the early 2000s at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg. All had grown up relatively secular Mennonites—not to be confused with branches of the faith that reject most modern culture—and loved and played music. After college, Wagler, a theater major, landed an acting job in Lexington. One of the shows he worked on, a musical called “Stonewall Country,” featured songs by Robin and Linda Williams, two of the founding figures in the roots-music revival. The Williamses sang of ancient themes but also of modern life, managing to be simultaneously traditional and contemporary. Wagler fell in love with the music.

In 2004, he got back in touch with former bandmate Brian Dickel, who joined him on stand-up bass. They added Brubaker on fiddle, then Jay Lapp on mandolin. Between 2004 and 2010, the group fine-tuned its sound, expanded its touring schedule and recorded albums under various names. They played songs from the roots-music canon like “Shady Grove” and “Wayfaring Stranger” alongside original tunes.

In 2010, the Steel Wheels released its first album under that name. Red Wing drew from many strands of traditional and popular music. Wagler’s vocals eschewed the high lonesome wail of traditionalists like Ralph Stanley for an audience-friendly tenor that at times took on a Bryan Adams rock ‘n’ roll rasp. The band’s instrumentation and smooth, close harmonies brought elements of gospel, blues and folk. Among the guests on Red Wing were Robin and Linda Williams.

The album was warmly received. It spent 13 weeks on the Americana Music Association’s radio charts and was among the top 100 Americana albums of 2010. The album received seven Independent Music Award nominations, winning Best Country Song, along with Best Gospel Song in the awards’ popular-vote competition.

Within a few years, the Steel Wheels were playing at major festivals, including MerleFest, in North Carolina. They appeared on the National Public Radio program “Mountain Stage.” They recorded and released their own music and now play more than 120 shows a year. And they have built a small industry around the band.

Their Mennonite heritage helped. “There are certain ethics we draw from that inform they way we tour and interact with people,” says Brubaker. “A commitment to honest living, to honest dealings, and a bit of self-reliance.”

One sign of that philosophy is its Red Wing Roots Music Festival, now in its third year at Natural Chimneys Park, not far from Harrisonburg, where the Steel Wheels are still based. Wagler says the band was inspired to create the festival by similar ones they’d played in North Carolina and Kansas—family-friendly celebrations of music, traditional arts and the community.

“We come home to one of the most beautiful spots in the United States. We realized we can create this beautiful, boutique festival right here,” says Wagler, “and bring our families to work with us.” TheSteelWheels.com

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