On “Rescue Me, Virginia” off of The Steel Wheel’s latest album, Leave Some Things Behind, Trent Wagler croons, "It makes a difference where you go, it makes you different where you go." For a band that tours up to 150 days a year, the sense of home that The Steel Wheels have garnished lies in both the permanent state of the Shenandoah Valley in the Blue Ridge and the perpetual motion of the road. The band has recorded albums throughout the country, but for Leave Some Things Behind, they decided to bring the music back to where they started.
“Where we live has an effect on how we interact with the world around us and the relationships we form,” said fiddler Eric Brubaker. “We travel a lot, but our lifelines that sustain us are our families and communities back home, so it was great to have resources in our hometown to help us bring this project to life.”
Leave Some Things Behind was recorded at Blue Sprocket Sound in Harrisonburg and two music videos for the album were filmed by local production company Lurid Pictures. Engineer Ben Surratt was brought in from Nashville to help with the album who, coincidentally, was born and raised in the Valley. “We came home in the Shenandoah Valley, taking in the green, taking in the beautiful mountains and the trees, and holed up and wrote songs,” said Wagler. “After having that experience of writing and arranging and producing and creating this album, we wanted to walk outside of this little fortress we’ve sort of created for ourselves and say ‘Here’s what we came up with.’”
The origin of The Steel Wheels stems from modest roots, centered on that Harrisonburg mainstay for food and culture, The Little Grill Collective. Wagler was playing solo acoustic pieces as a college student in 2004, focusing on creating an emotional response using as little material as possible. “It was about stripping things down and saying ‘You know what? This is as punk rock as you can get: Just me and a guitar,’” he recalls.
Wagler began casually playing with standup bass player Brian Dickel at open mics at The Little Grill, jamming on a stage that was host to the early sounds of groups like The Hackensaw Boys and Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show. Eric Brubaker soon joined the fold, as did mandolin player Jay Lapp. It wasn’t for another five years that the band recorded their first album, Red Wing, under the moniker of The Steel Wheels. The album would spend 13 weeks on the Americana Music Association’s Top 40 chart with the single “Nothing You Can’t Lose” taking home the prize of Best Country Song at the Independent Music Awards.
With the avalanche of success and the realization of a career as touring musicians, The Steel Wheels decided to forgo a move to an urban hub of bluegrass and Americana music, opting instead to keep their roots in the Shenandoah Valley. “It's pretty humbling to walk into a Nashville bar and hear the most amazing guitar player you've never heard of playing for tips to a handful of people,” said Dickel. “And I would miss the mountains way too much to ever want to move out of the area.” Wagler agrees, stating, “The style of music we play is very much in the vein of mountain music. The Appalachian style, kind of old-time string band music, is a big influence. The current identity that our band has is informed by being in the Blue Ridge.”
That identity, and the thirst for community, helped to inspire the genesis of The Red Wing Roots Music Festival, now going into its third year at Natural Chimneys Park in Mount Solon. The festival brings three days of music, food, drink, and art to the Shenandoah Valley. This year features 36 performers, from local favorites The Judy Chops and Shenandoah Alley to national acts like Punch Brothers and Robert Earl Keen. “Part of the identity of a festival like this is keeping it small and not letting it get too big,” said Wagler. “We like the idea of creating a place where we can play our music and get our friends and fans to hang out for a weekend, but also getting to build a musical experience that’s larger than just us. We get to bring in artists that we love and that influence us, and the different sounds that we think everybody should be listening to.”
The Red Wings Roots Music Festival marries a traditional festival experience with a family-friendly atmosphere, with Wagler citing Floydfest as one of the band’s inspirations behind Red Wing. Along with the musical performances, Red Wing offers a beer garden, morning yoga sessions, group bike rides, and local food and artisan vendors. Harrisonburg’s Larkin Arts also provides daily art activities for children.
“We have always been intentional in partnering with craftsmen and artists to make unique products for us to sell at our shows and online,” said Brubaker. “We have tried to carry this notion through to our festival by focusing on local food, local beverages, and local music. We want to be a part of a movement toward valuing community and local businesses.”
The journey of The Steel Wheels, from impromptu sets at the Little Grill to venues like NPR’s Mountain Stage, has led the band down a path of self-exploration and constant travel. But As “Rescue Me, Virginia” closes out, Wagler recalls the places he has been in contrast to the Valley where he will always be. “In all the miles that I’ve traveled, it’s good to finally find myself at home.”