“Few groups have come as far in such a short period of time as The Steel Wheels…”
NPR’s Mountain Stage
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Simultaneously familiar and fresh, the Steel Wheels bring a singular energy to every note they play and sparkling craft to each song. This potent combination, paired with a robust tour calendar, have made the veteran band hands-down favorites of fans and peers alike. From their base in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, TSW have played the most prestigious festivals, listening rooms, and clubs in the world, cementing a reputation as one of the top independent bands on the scene today.
With their 2020 release, Everyone A Song, Vol. 1, The Steel Wheels demonstrate the humanizing power of honest storytelling, setting the personal experiences of their supporters to song.
What started as a ruined touring season turned into a time of great creativity, as the band devised a new model of writing and recording. With the 5 members isolated from each other and their listeners, they quickly shifted from veteran touring outfit to home recording gurus. Songwriter and lead singer Trent Wagler conceived of a project entitled Distance Together, an avenue for fans of the band to commission works and send musical greetings to their loved ones. The initiative sparked a surprisingly impactful and intimate songwriting process, with Wagler setting the personal stories of fans to song and verse. Songs were written for individuals, friends, and families, many specific to a time and place. Some have been commissioned for weddings and anniversaries, or to commemorate a lost loved one or the completion of a life's work.
In "My Name is Sharon", Wagler was tasked with memorializing a young woman and friend of the band, lost at the age of 35. The resulting song remembers details of Sharon's life, in all it's profundity and mundanity, and demonstrates the power of remembrance held in saying someone's name.
Album ender “Family is Power” follows the matriarch of a large family, as she looks back on her long life and the family she loves, now spread across the country. “She’s gonna see the truth in me, in the golden hour. Come to the table one and all, Family is Power.” In “The Healer,” buoyant banjo and fiddle lines drive the story of a magnetic personality who, after a lifetime of work and service is denied the opportunity to say goodbye to colleagues in the midst of the pandemic. “Water and Sky”, a tribute to John Prine in its simplicity and depth, paints pictures of a dreamy Kansas landscape, and the strong personalities who hold witness to the ebb and flow of life.
The Steel Wheels have always been fiercely independent, releasing albums under their own label, with recording locations varying from a Virginia cabin, to a rural Maine studio to various home studios. Now spread across 3 states with many miles between, The Steel Wheels have invented an entirely new way of collaborating. Fortunately two of the members, multi-instrumentalist Jay Lapp and percussionist Kevin Garcia were already skilled audio engineers with home studios at the ready. Others, such as fiddle player Eric Brubaker, who had to scrounge together a few mics from the touring van and an old laptop, learning the ropes of digital audio recording on the fly.
According to Brubaker, "Process has a great deal to do with the outcome of a creative undertaking. Some of the pressure is off when you are just at home, instead of at an expensive studio, so you might take some risks that you wouldn’t usually. Also, we were working at a pretty fast pace, so you just had to trust your first instinct and not overthink it.”
During the first few months of the pandemic and cessation of all touring, The Steel Wheels recorded over 60 songs in their isolated studios. Some covers, some new editions of their own songs, and some newly penned, the creations generally started with Wagler recording a single instrument and vocals. The tracks were emailed to Garcia, who layered in a backbone of percussion. Next in line was usually Brian Dickel who rounded out the rhythm section with upright and electric bass parts.
Part by part, the songs were arranged and recorded, often with little discussion as to who was providing which part, or even what instruments should be included. The band relied on their years of musical camaraderie and intuition to imagine the whole, adding their voices while being careful to leave room for the next in line. The process yielded some exciting new sounds, from the neo soul vocals and punchy bass lines of “Florida Girl” to the second line swagger of Garcia’s drums on “The Man Who Holds Up the World."
The Steel Wheels have been a band marked by their road tested friendship and desire to build community. 2020 would have marked their 8th year as hosts and curators of their Red Wing Roots Music Festival. Always a high-water mark of the year, the 3 day festival brings together thousands of fans and friends every July to sing and sweat together in the Virginia sun.
Everyone A Song, Vol. 1 was born out of a desire to close the distance created in the midst of the Covid-19 shutdown. “Maybe I was dreaming of being an essential worker,” says Wagler. “It made me ask the question: what’s essential about music? It’s the connection. The understanding. The beauty and magic of melodies that transcend us with the words that say, ‘You there, I see you, and you see me, and doesn’t it feel good to not be alone in the world?’ That’s what art has to offer. Especially right now. And planting real stories right in the middle of it kind of pushed aside any other pretense or distraction about being cool or whatever.”
This project has been further documented in an accompanying podcast, We Made You a Song. Each episode dives into the creation of a single song on the album, serving as an in-depth audio liner note. Wagler interviews the band as well as the actual subjects of each song to give a rare glimpse into the creative process, and what it means for someone to have their experience distilled into melody and rhyme.