After seven years, much of the attention leading up to the Red Wing Roots Music Festival is once again on its hosts, The Steel Wheels.
But the focus this time around is a bit different.
The Steel Wheels, whose members have organized the three-day event at Natural Chimneys Park in Mt. Solon, Virginia, since its inception in 2013, is set to drop its newest studio album, “Over the Trees,” on the first day of the festival — something the band has never done before.
“Releasing an album is already something that fans really look forward to, and so being able to do that at Red Wing has definitely added a level of excitement and anticipation,” says Michael Weaver of Black Bear Productions, which organizes the festival alongside the band.
The Steel Wheels has grown stylistically over its last two albums, 2015’s “Leave Some Things Behind” and 2017’s “Wild as We Came Here,” moving from the solely acoustic foursome of its early days into a string outfit that mixes in electric guitars and drums.
The band even added a new member in percussionist Kevin Garcia, who was brought in for the “Wild as We Came Here” tour and has since stayed on full time.
“Over the Trees” continues the band’s evolution with an incorporation of new textures and worldly flavors that accentuate the band’s intricate string arrangements and well-loved harmonies.
“There’s a lot of new sounds, a lot of fun surprises sonically, just sounds we’ve never used or played with,” says Trent Wagler, lead vocalist and primary songwriter for the Harrisonburg-based band.
A few singles have dropped ahead of the “Over the Trees’” release on sites like Billboard and The Boot, but The Steel Wheels’ fans won’t experience the album in its entirety until Red Wing.
“This [festival] was sort of a dream of ours when it started,” says Wagler. “The fact that other people have taken this dream and made it their own and it’s become a family tradition for so many people ... it really inspires us to want to bring something to that stage every single year that feels fresh, feels new.”
Before The Steel Wheels hit the Shenandoah Mountain Stage — one of five stages at this year’s festival — on Saturday, Wagler chatted about the new album.
How would you describe the overall story on “Over the Trees?”
“I think a lot of the songs on ‘Over the Trees’ do try to take a zoomed-out view of a moment in time, and for us it’s this moment. The throughline of the record is sort of envisioning the notion of flying above, a bird’s eye view of where we’re at in this moment. That goes all over the place from what could be considered some apocalyptic songs that reach into certain issues of today regarding climate change to just trying to tap into certain emotional sensibilities that I feel in this time.”
In what way did knowing you had percussion change your songwriting?
“Even in the writing of the songs, I think I was influenced by having Kevin around and knowing that there will be percussion, and that I could get with him and talk with him about the rhythmic elements of what we’re doing. It just made it feel so much more integrated so that it didn’t feel like it’s four guys on acoustic instruments and then we decided to add a drum track.”
That climate change song you mentioned is “Rains Come,” which likens today’s climate change deniers to the non-believers in the allegorical story of Noah’s Ark. Why write about this issue?
“For me, you can’t deny climate change. It’s a part of what our whole planet has to wrestle with and try to work together to figure out how we’re going to respond. In these times when you do hear there are still people who still claim that they don’t believe that climate change is real, it’s a discouraging thing. One of my ways to respond to that is to write a song about it ... because it’s the air we breathe. It’s where we are and where we’re going to continue to be.”
It make sense given that Red Wing is a partner of Virginia Tourism’s Virginia Green program.
“When you invite close to 5,000 people onto a site, and you’re talking about these lofty ideals of enjoying nature and these beautiful times together with music, but then, you use all the plastic you possibly can, and you throw it in the landfill, that’s a huge hypocrisy.
“We’re certainly, only one little part of this, but from the very beginning, we wanted the festival to be as green as it could possibly be. ... Red Wing is a three-day event, it’s relatively small compared to other festivals, but maybe that’s a little allegory for how we can think about the kind of changes we need to make as a culture.”
Most of the band is based in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Do you draw inspiration this area of Virginia?
“Yeah. You can’t help but be affected and be inspired by the beauty around the Valley. I live in Harrisonburg and ... I spend a lot of time when I’m not out on the road out on a bicycle. I like to ride around the valley, and, for me, there’s no better way to see the mountains and get a feel for the area. It has a calming effect, it has a certain rhythmic effect to just being out in nature that way. ... I’ve written so many songs that contain the word valley or have something to do with mountains. I think everybody writes from where they’re at, and for me, writing from here, it’s definitely going to find its way into the lyrics.”
With all the changes on “Over the Trees,” does this mean the end of your amazing harmonies?
“Nope. If anything, we leaned into our harmonies even more.”