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The Steel Wheels turn out for mountain music fest

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Posted: Friday, August 17, 2012 7:00 am | Updated: 3:40 pm, Tue Jan 22, 2013.

 

An incredulous question — “You wrote that song?” — made Trent Wagler laugh.

“Yeah, I wrote it,” the front man for the Steel Wheels said with certainty.

“No.”

“Yeah, I wrote it.”

The song, “Rain in the Valley,” performed a cappella by the four-member group, had been mistaken for a timeless gospel classic. The questioner hadn’t suspected the author was this young guy from Harrisonburg.

The tune is from the group’s seventh and most recent album, “Lay Down, Lay Low.” National Public Radio selected it as its Song of the Day for May 10.

“Having NPR choose it as the Song of the Day turned out to be a big deal,” Wagler said during a recent telephone interview. “Suddenly, tons of people were aware of us.

“Performing at MerleFest was a big bump for us as well. We got to play on the Cabin Stage, which is a prestigious stage there.

“The a cappella music is something we see as almost a secret weapon. Everyone in the group grew up in a church setting where a lot of singing and harmonizing was normal.

“We all took it for granted, and everybody had a solid sound. As we’ve gone on, we found it wasn’t as common as it was to all of us. It’s really neat to see how that song has gotten such a response.”

It’s a good bet the Steel Wheels will be performing “Rain in the Valley” on Saturday during the Blue Ridge Mountain Music Fest at the Evans Center in Wintergreen. The group will be performing at 1 and 4 p.m.

The Virginia Ramblers will get things going at noon Saturday, with an encore at 3 p.m. Nothin’ Fancy will entertain at 2 and 5 p.m., and Kim and Jimbo Cary and Pete and Ellen Vigour will wrap things up at 6 p.m. with Appalachian string band music.

This is the seventh edition of the annual festival, which celebrates the music indigenous to the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah Valley. The Steel Wheels have managed to meld genres of music from rock to Cajun and blues into something distinctly their own.

“Right now the word ‘Americana’ is used as a buzzword for a lot of different genres of music,” said Wagler, who handles lead vocals and much of the songwriting for the group.

“But when describing our music, we end up coming back to ‘Americana roots music.’ We fit into a pocket of old-time and traditional music that borders on bluegrass.

“But we’re not trying to sound like a bluegrass band or an old-time string band. We’re using the roots we’ve been given to create new music.”

Wagler plays guitar and, on certain songs such as “Rain in the Valley,” keeps time with an interesting instrument of his own design. It’s a walking stick embellished with bolts and washers that generate intriguing sounds when tapped or shaken.

“We joke that there’s a different name for it depending on the region we’re playing,” Wagler said of his invention. “We were on a radio show in North Carolina, and the DJ called it the Gospelator.

“When we were up in Canada, they called it something else. We call it the ‘washer stick,’ because it’s just some bolts and washers I got at a hardware store and put together as an instrument.”

The group is just as inventive with its music. Eric Brubaker sings bass and plays the fiddle. Jay Lapp plays mandolin, and Brian Dickel plays bass.

“Eric is a gentle giant who has a great sound,” Wagler said. “He’s not necessarily the flashiest fiddle player you’ve ever heard, but when he plays, he plays so tastefully that it adds something every time.

“The thing about Brian is that his playing is always solid. I’ve grown accustomed to bringing new songs to the band and laying out the chord structure and arrangement.

“Brian comes up with his part, and it’s almost always right without any further discussion.”

Lapp is a terrific mandolin player, and he recently showed he has one of the intangibles that distinguishes true entertainers.

“We all love bicycling, so when we’re on the road, we try to do as much as we can,” Wagler said. “A couple of weeks back we were playing a beautiful venue in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, called the SteelStacks.

“For the first time, we had an unfortunate cycling accident where Jay and Brian went down. Jay broke a rib and mangled his left hand.

“He showed up for the show with his left index finger so swollen it looked like a sausage. We thought there was no chance he could possibly play the mandolin.

“But he exercised it to where he could actually play, and he pulled off a great show. The people who knew he was hurt couldn’t believe what he was able to do that night.”

A good sort of disbelief likely will be reflected on faces of festivalgoers who will be hearing the Steel Wheelers for the first time. Since forming in 2005 the group has made fans from Texas to Canada.

Performing this close to home makes Saturday’s event all the more special for the Harrisonburg foursome.

“This will be our second year playing the Blue Ridge Mountain Music Fest,” Wagler said. “It’s such a beautiful setting, and every musician wants to play festivals, because they draw large audiences.

“And when we get to play a festival right in our backyard, it’s extra special. A lot of the Blue Ridge and Shenandoah Valley have worked their way into the landscape of our songwriting.

“So it’s really something to have the mountains right there when we’re singing about them.”

The seventh annual Blue Ridge Mountain Fest at the Evans Center in Wintergreen starts at noon Saturday. Performing will be Nothin’ Fancy, the Steel Wheels, the Virginia Ramblers, Kim and Jimbo Cary and Pete and Ellen Vigour. Tickets are $25, $10 for students ages 6 to 17, and free for children younger than 6. Tickets can be purchased at the venue and in advance at www.wintergreenperformingarts.org.

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