The Steel Wheels began with a songwriter growing tired of playing shows by himself. Trent Wagler was living in Virginia, working on the songwriting craft while being introduced to some old time music in the early 2000s.
He was slotted to open for Goldmine Pickers out of Indiana, and told the band he would be happy to have anybody get up and play on a couple of songs.
“I was working on the craft but wasn’t enjoying playing solo,” Wagler says. “Jay (Lapp) hopped up and played about every song of the opening set without having heard any of the songs. It was a really enjoyable time.”
Wagler and Lapp were immediate and intentional about working together, primarily through digital means at first to work out songs and record. College friends of Wagler, Brian Dickel and Eric Brubaker, came on board, and the band played its first gig in 2005, hit the road as The Steel Wheels in 2010, and have toured full time since. The powerhouse quartet will play its 1,000th show sometime this season.
“Record keeping was questionable in the beginning, so it could be May, could be September,” Wagler laughs. “It’s neat to look back. We’ve spent a lot of time together on road and on stage—a solid band of brothers in many ways and I think the sound reflects that.”
Wagler, who grew up in Kansas, says Viriginia influenced that sound, by way of introductions to traditional music. Catching an intimate set by the legendary Doc Watson was especially impactful. “Here’s this old guy from North Carolina, blind and sitting on a chair. He picked that guitar so smoothly and cleanly with this baritone voice that was so authentic. You never questioned if it was an act, it flowed through him in such a pure way.”
Unlike the spectacle of a rock show, filled with lights and smoke, Watson had nothing to hide behind. “It inspired me to try and pick up fiddle tunes and get into the depths of traditional music that has been around for generations,” Wagler says. “I never felt like I heard this kind of music growing up all that much, and was realizing how much of human history, of this nation’s history, is told through these songs. I wanted to try to achieve the authenticity that I saw in some of the old-timers.”
The Steel Wheels 2017 release Wild As We Came Here uses the intimacy and tones of traditional bluegrass for a foundation then adds keys and percussion, a bigger sound to reflect the band’s high-energy live set.
Wagler leads the group to Springfield, Mo., at White River Brewing’s back room May 19, a southwest Missouri area where the band hasn’t played since one of the first times they toured off the east coast. They played Bluegrass Pickin’ Time in Dixon, Mo. “It was the early days, we didn’t even have a booking agent,” Wagler says they traveled in a Volkswagen Jetta station wagon, playing and early evening set at an “extremely traditional bluegrass festival.” Indicating The Steel Wheels was still finding itself, Wagler says it was “one of those experiences you don’t really forget. We’re glad to come to Springfield now, where we have our identity very much settled.”
The band will have a pair of new live EPs—from shows in Nashville and Charlottesville, N.C.—that will take listeners back to the concert experience. “A lot of people talk about the live show being what they love about the band,” Wagler says, events cultivated out of so much time on the road together where, between long van rides, band members try to soak it all in.
“We try to get the most out of the time we’re in every town that we’re in—see cool coffee shops, record stores—so it doesn’t feel like we’re going to the next strip mall,” Wagler says. They travel with bicycles to break up the long nights with morning exercise. And in the van itself, they take in podcasts (on a recent tour they took in all of the S-Town podcast) and do a lot of reading. A bookstore in Wisconsin recently paid them (in part) with a load of books, so the van is now complete with its own mini-library. The shelves contain books from across the spectrum. Currently, Wagler himself is working through a biography of Leonard Cohen.
Though the band doesn’t listen to as much music as you’d expect, Wagler says the quiet rumble of the road is ideal for songwriting. “It’s a great way to let the mind wander and start to concoct some form of wordplay that could become a song one day.”
Frequently he will iron songs out in solitude. “[Inspiration] can happen anywhere: hotel room, backstage of a show … it’s typical for me to need a little isolation to let songs come freely and without judgement, but I’ve explored (collaborative writing) a little more in the last couple of albums, I love what comes from that.”