Old-time Americana act brings strings and harmonies to Long’s Park on July 27.
Trent Wagler has always been drawn to the bare-bones sound found in folk and bluegrass music. Growing up in Southern Indiana, music was always a part of his life. He spent his early years singing in church and eventually went on to study acting and theater.
“I grew up around bluegrass,” says Wagler. “I’ve always loved the simplicity and heart that’s behind the music. It’s very authentic.”
Wagler eventually tried his hand at songwriting in college. Following a brief solo career, he later met his fellow band mates Eric Brubaker, Brian Dickel and Jay Lapp, who make up the old-time Americana band The Steel Wheels. The quartet eventually relocated to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia – a hub of folk and bluegrass music.
Despite breaking out in the folk music scene, Wagler continues to remain humble and true to his roots. “It’s almost funny that we play in front of people,” Wagler laughs. “We’re taking this front-porch-style sound. It kind of breaks the rock and roll stereotype.”
The Steel Wheels’ natural and faithful style comes through on their latest album, No More Rain, which was released last April. Tracks range from the slow, grooving “Walk Away,” with Wagler crooning over both an acoustic guitar and banjo, to “Go Up to That Mountain” and “The Race,” which pick up the pace with the addition of the fiddle and harmonies.
Simplicity is key with the Steel Wheels. The band’s straightforward, traditionally leaning sound is reminiscent of old-time Appalachia. Best of all, the sound you hear at their show is transferred organically right to the album.
And it’s on the road where The Steel Wheels have built their fan base. This past summer, they embarked on their annual SpokeSongs tour. Unlike a conventional tour with a tour bus, the band strips down to two wheels each, traveling to shows by bicycle. Originally conceived of as a joke, the SpokeSongs tour eventually became another way for Wagler and the band to link up with fans and support the environment at the same time.
“For us, it was really inspiring and a lot of fun,” Wagler says. “It was only a handful of shows, but we really got to connect with each place we traveled through.”
While creating their organic sound and touring relentlessly, Wagler and the band have managed to give back to the community, partnering with a variety of local companies. The band has dabbled in ventures like teaming up with a local coffee roaster to produce a special “Steel Wheels” blend and working with a local artist who creates handmade Steel Wheels mugs.
“It’s pretty common for bands to sell merchandise,” says Wagler, “but we made a conscious decision to stay connected to what we were selling. For us it’s a way to feature these local arts and artists while we’re on the road.”
While bands like The Avett Brothers, The Lumineers and Mumford & Sons have put folk music in the spotlight like never before, this popularity invites the risk of it being molded and conformed to suit the needs of pop culture.
But when The Steel Wheels return to town this month, you’ll hear the twang of the acoustic guitar and the character in Wagler’s voice. And if you listen closely, you’ll hear the origins of the band. You’ll hear the artist crafting a handmade mug or the hum of four bicycles trekking across the pavement. And most of all, you’ll hear organic and beautiful music.
“We appreciate what The Avett Brothers did for the genre, but to us we’ll always have a constant audience of devoted fans,” Wagler says. “That’s what I like most about folk and bluegrass music – we’re able to experiment and not have to worry about pleasing our fans. We know they’ll be there no matter what solely for the purpose of enjoying our music.”