No More Rain, The Steel Wheels’ third album out April 16th, begins with the lyric, “I want to walk away and start over again.” The line, from Tom Waits’ “Walk Away,” fits the theme of the album, a loose retrospective from the acclaimed acoustic band. According to Trent Wagler, the band’s principal songwriter and vocalist, “These are songs we wrote and played together when we first met, some even pre-date the band’s debut. It’s been fun to hand pick and revisit some of the fan favorites and bring them back with a new energy and sound.”
Formed by four friends in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, they have enthralled their loyal fanbase with a heady brew of original soulful mountain music. Wagler’s weathered tenor is joined by bell-clear four-part harmonies inspired by a shared Mennonite heritage. Add to this Eric Brubaker’s lively and evocative fiddle, Brian Dickel’s grounded yet buoyant upright bass, and Jay Lapp’s signature mandolin style, and it’s no surprise that The Steel Wheels have burst onto the Americana scene, becoming festival favorites and selling out venues across the country.
Their breakout album, Red Wing, garnered critical praise and spent 13 weeks on the Americana Music Association’s Top 40 Chart, as well as charting second out of all independent releases in 2010. Their second album, Lay Down Lay Low, also charted on the AMA’s Top 40 Chart, with NPR Music naming “Rain in the Valley” a Song of the Day, marveling that the “heavy hymn [...] is sparse and dense all at once.”
The songs of No More Rain have been honed from years of use, and here they are whittled down to their core. Recorded over a two day period, the album gives The Steel Wheels a chance to look back on a past chapter and remember a time when they “all had other jobs and played music for the joy of it,” says Wagler.
Recorded in one room under the beams of a 19th century barn-turned-studio, the four musicians were able to “capture the feeling of the songs...the feeling of playing to and for each other,” says Lapp. The result is an approachable sound that matches the easy rapport between band members and its audience. Songs range from the plaintive “So Long,” which expresses sorrow for lost times and lost friends, to the joyous old-time gospel tune, “The Race,” which shouts “I’ve got a hope that never fails me, I’ve got a song that must be sung.”
The Steel Wheels have captured audiences with their raw energy and chemistry, having played both Merlefest and Mountain Stage - and this year; they will be performing at the heralded Stagecoach Festival. As the band thrives, so do their partnerships with local businesses, artisans, and charitable organizations. The values portrayed in their music - devotion to roots, community, and family - are a way of life for The Steel Wheels, and this is reflected in everything from production process and booking agency to merchandise and touring.
For the past three years, they have performed an annual SpokeSongs bicycle music tour, during which band members tow their instruments, equipment, and merchandise from one gig to another via bicycle and blog about their adventures.
The band’s merchandise represents a host of grassroots connections to people and businesses. Lucas Roasting Company, located just outside of Harrisonburg, created “Halfway to Heaven” coffee in honor of the band located on Afton. Blue Mountain Brewery, located on Afton Mountain in Virginia, hosted the band when they were just getting started and now distributes the “Steel Wheels ESB” across the east coast. The band’s T-shirts are made in downtown Harrisonburg, and a potter who is a childhood friend of Jay’s makes their mugs. Each business is local for the band, and each product is intimately woven into their narrative.
To cap off the theme of getting back to their roots, the band is launching the Red Wing Roots Music Festival in the Shenandoah Valley this July. The 3-day festival will include the best of today’s neo-traditional artists, and takes its name from the old tune “Red Wing”, which Wagler learned from his grandfather and brought to the band with new lyrics. The song represents a commitment to roots, but also the propensity of The Steel Wheels to propel those musical traditions forward.