The Steel Wheels
For their seventh album, Over The Trees, The Steel Wheels take a broader view of the acoustic roots music that has kept them on the road for nearly a decade. By adding a percussionist to the lineup, the Virginia-based roots band bring surprising sonic textures to these original songs, unified by messages of hope and connection.
Recorded in Maine with producer Sam Kassirer, Over The Trees draws attention to the impeccable harmonies of the four original members: Trent Wagler (guitar/banjo), Eric Brubaker (fiddle), Brian Dickel (bass), and Jay Lapp (guitars/mandolin). Kevin Garcia, who plays multiple percussion instruments, keyboard, and mallet-based instruments, formally joined the band after the 2017 release of Wild as We Came Here, which Kassirer also produced.
Garcia first bonded with the band during a nine-mile hike in Utah with little more than one water bottle between seven people. Wagler recalls, “Kevin was playing with The Duhks at the time, and musically we really hit it off, but the hike solidified his standing with the band as an easygoing companion who would stay positive and resourceful in a pinch.”
“For this record, we tried to play with a lot of options and we had time to explore in the studio,” says Wagler, the band’s primary songwriter. “What’s fun for us, having made a number of albums together, is not just settling on your first choice, or the easy choice, but instead, really pushing yourself through a number of iterations until you find something that just feels good and might take you to a new place.”
For Over The Trees, Garcia drew on his background of classical, world, rock, jazz, and experimental music, and utilized instruments which provided new sonic territory such as calabash, udu, four-mallet marimba, and bowed vibraphone. Lapp expanded his use of lush ambient effects, intricate rhythmic finger picking, and split-channel electric guitar amplification. Brubaker achieved a harmonium like effect on his fiddle solo on “Rains Come” and provided haunting wind and rustling sounds bowing parallel to his strings. Wagler played gourd banjo on “Something New” and experimented with Indian and Middle Eastern scale inflections. Dickel used creative mutes and fuzz effects to add interesting acoustic and electric bass sounds. In addition to producing, Kassirer recorded piano, mellotron, and synthesizer parts, and his creative vision brought influences of New Orleans jazz, traditional Senegalese music, and the minimalist rhythmic music of Steve Reich to the table.
“A lot of the songs on this record, like ‘Get to Work’ or ‘This Year’ or even ‘Something New,’ have this sense of a rolling mantra, a meditation if you will,” Wagler says. “I know that ‘Get To Work’ is self-talk for when I’m feeling down, when I’m feeling overwhelmed, or when I’m feeling like, ‘Ugh, what do we do this for?’”
Wagler channeled those feelings of frustration into a writing assignment, dedicating himself to finishing one song a day in January 2018. He recalls, “A number of songs came out of that – ‘Rains Come,’ ‘Under,’ ‘Get to Work,’ ‘Falling,’ and the beginnings of ‘Something New’ all started from that exercise, saying, ‘You know what? I’m a songwriter, and if I’m a songwriter, then I write songs. And so every single morning, I need to get up and write a song.’ It’s as simple as that. By the end of the month, it was very freeing.”
In “Something New,” the arrangement and lyrics both explore the constant need for the next new thing. Meanwhile, “Keep On” is told from the perspective of a deployed soldier, writing words of encouragement to his younger brother back home. The ballads “Time to Rest” and “I’ll Be Ready” stem from the emotions of asking for forgiveness as well as receiving it, while “Waiting in the Dark” portrays Wagler’s own parents as a young couple, grieving the loss of their child to a drunk driver.
“To me, it’s always been important to try to shed some sort of light and tell the stories of our more difficult and real experiences in life, because music is most accessible when it's vulnerable,” Wagler says.
The Steel Wheels’ story begins with a friendship between Wagler, Brubaker, and Dickel, who realized in their 20s that they shared something special musically, even as they all worked in other professions. They began crafting acoustic arrangements around Wagler’s songs and playing around Virginia in 2005. Although Lapp was in another band and living in northern Indiana, he recognized a chemistry from the times he jammed with the Steel Wheels on tour, and ultimately joined the lineup. Their career-launching record, Red Wing, landed in 2010.
“Once we started putting music together, we realized we had all grown up singing 4-part harmony and we just knew how to do that. So it felt like we were meant to work together. And by now it is amazing how comfortable it is,” Wagler says. “It’s interesting to hear from concert goers, as a group that has sung together for 10 years, how it feels like a brotherhood, even though we aren’t related. We have this sound that feels like home when we all sing together.”
Their striking a cappella blend is evident in “This Year,” a wistful (and sometimes funny) ode to keeping an optimistic spirit, even down to showing gratitude for the cat who is waiting for you when you finally get home.
Remarkably, the recording sessions for Over The Trees were saved by a stranger. About three miles from the Maine studio, the band encountered a snowstorm and couldn’t get their van and trailer over an icy hill. John, a nearby farmer, got a call from his daughter who saw the stuck vehicle, and he came to the rescue showing up with his tractor to give the band a boost. Later that night, he braved the treacherous conditions and appeared at the studio, just to make sure they made it after all. That welcoming gesture instantly set a positive tone for the sessions.
The release of Over The Trees coincides with the band’s Red Wing Roots Music Festival, which they have hosted and curated for seven years. The three-day event in Mt. Solon, Virginia, hosts the most sought after artists in Americana roots music, nurtures aspiring musicians through its Red Wing Academy, while giving the band a chance to joyously reconnect with musician friends and the ever-expanding Red Wing community.
“This is a bit of an experimental record at times, with new sounds and influences,” Wagler says. “We know where we come from. We are a string band from Virginia, but we are evolving with this album, and we are embracing the future.”
Blue Ridge Outdoors - “Trail Mix: The Steel Wheels Roll Out New Song ‘Under’”
Billboard - “The Steel Wheels 'Keep On' Keeping On: Video Premiere”
The Roanoke Times - “Rooster Walk brings heavy guitar action to the weekend”
Yadkin Ripple - “Stephen G. Lyons celebration to feature The Steel Wheels”