The Steel Wheels, hailing from the hills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, are an evolved string band widely praised for their four-part harmonies over fresh, modern tones made on traditional acoustic instruments.
Trent Wagler (guitar, banjo, lead vocals), Brian Dickel (bass, background vocals), Jay Lapp (guitar, background vocals), Eric Brubaker (fiddle, triangle, background vocals), and Kevin Garcia (percussion, melodica), cut their teeth on the festival tour circuit. When their mapped out plans crumbled in their laps in March, the quintet pioneered a new approach and began taking orders from fans. The pandemic onset and travel restrictions found The Steel Wheels dispersed among spanning pockets of the country. To close in on the gap during isolation, they began the “Distance Together” project.
The commissions ranged from covers of Lizzo, Bruce Springsteen, and Billie Eilish to more intimate requests for “made-to-order” tunes for loved ones as musical greetings. The band gathered stories from fans to commemorate milestones spent apart, like birthdays, weddings, retirements, and even lives and set them to song.
Wielding the imaginative, empathetic craft of their resident songwriter, Trent Wagler, the band then recorded their parts in their makeshift studios. Once completed, they sent audio and video files on to the next Steel Wheel in line. With over 15 years of musical partnership, their intuition allowed them to arrange the pieces in real-time. Mixed and mastered by the band’s own Kevin Garcia, the songs took shape and lives of their own.
“Maybe I was dreaming of being an essential worker,” says Wagler about the project becoming their upcoming 2020 album, Everyone A Song, Vol. 1.
“It made me ask the question: what’s essential about music? It’s the connection. The understanding. The beauty and magic of melodies that transcend us with the words that say, ‘You there, I see you, and you see me, and doesn’t it feel good to not be alone in the world?’ That’s what art has to offer. Especially right now. And planting real stories right in the middle of it kind of pushed aside any other pretense or distraction about being cool or whatever.”
This project has been further documented in an accompanying podcast, We Made You a Song. Each episode dives into the creation of a single song on the album, serving as an in-depth audio liner note. Wagler interviews the band and each piece’s actual subjects to give a rare glimpse into the creative process and what it means for someone to have their experience set to music.
Today, The Steel Wheels premiere their second single, “My Name Is Sharon,” from Everyone A Song, Vol. 1, due out November 20.
The song opens the album and dates back to the band’s inception. During a soundcheck at a festival in Tennessee, they noticed a young woman sitting up front, singing along to their lyrics. At that point, The Steel Wheels had not ventured out of Virginia often enough to assume a fan had come to see them out-of-state.
“That young woman singing along was Sharon,” recalls Wagler. “She introduced herself after the show, telling us she traveled from Massachusetts to meet us. We later learned that it was an even bigger deal she journeyed so far because she had a rare seizure disorder. So things we all consider regular parts of being an adult were especially tricky for Sharon.”
Her mother, Donna, commissioned the song. Sharon tragically passed a few years ago, related to her disorder, and music from her favorite band became a priority. Emails from Donna and Sharon’s best friends inspired Wagler as he memorialized one of their first fans’ lives.
“I took those notions they shared of who she was and wrote a song about a woman who was by all accounts, a beautiful spirit,” he says. “Even though she had this disease, she refused to let it become her identity. A daredevil, Sharon didn’t have time to beat around the bush and did not let caution keep her from living a full, inspirational life.”
Because of her untimely passing, the song held weight as a tribute tune. Wagler was anxious to hand the final product back to Sharon’s mother, hoping the band could capture the essence of her daughter’s legacy. On the accompanying podcast released October 20, Donna reacts to the first listen to the song and lyrics with pure joy and appreciation.
“It was a fun process,” says Wagler. “To not only be gifted a story but to try to live in that story and tell it with depth was a unique undertaking that challenged us in the right direction. Donna wanted a tribute to Sharon’s beautiful life, not dwelling on death as something that defines her memory. Based on their reaction, I think this song captured her living spirit quite well.”
Similarly, The Steel Wheels do not want their album to dwell on the context of the pandemic looming over the album. Yet, Every One A Song Vol. 1 would not exist without the virus.
“Nobody asked us to sing a Covid Song,” the artist laughs. “There’s this notion that, like we’re all sitting and waiting, that you do find in different parts of these songs. But I was really glad that we didn’t just end up writing about the pandemic per se. Instead, it was about people and their lives and the things that we all go through. But it’s in the setting of this pandemic, necessarily, because that’s that’s authentic to the moment.”
Sifting through the material to consolidate a tracklist was an undertaking for the band who had grown close to each narrative. For this reason, the album title is open-ended, as “Vol. 1.” During the process, the band attempted to remove the story from the song to listen for attention-grabbing sonic moments that don’t require full background knowledge to digest in a meaningful way.
There is a Woody Guthrie poster in Wagler’s office that reads: “I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work.”
He believes this is the mission statement for a songwriter. It hangs there as a reminder of this role and translated well as the album artwork. This project-turned-album distilled that principle down in a new dynamic way, delivering stories of shared humanity in a moment of separation and polarization. As Guthrie did the Dust Bowl Ballads, The Steel Wheels feel the project became a bit of an oral history project, telling stories of a struggle that point to a time in history.
“It’s overwhelmingly earnest in a cynical world right now that I can very much be a part of,” he admits. “I feel a little bit nervous about that aspect of being so hard on our sleeve. At the same time, that’s the part of it that I hope for and want. And I think there was a leveling that happened for all of us through Covid. Bringing us back, peeling away some of those layers of cool that we try to guard ourselves with, it continues to be that kind of time where we all are constantly taking stock of what’s important and where we want to go from here.”
Listen to the emotive single premiere, “My Name Is Sharon” ahead of The Steel Wheels upcoming project due November 20, here.