Founding member Trent Wagler’s band The Steel Wheels is now a widely recognized name in Americana music circles. The band tours year-round and has even launched its own music festival. But all of that has come after nearly a decade of toil and struggle and figuring out ways to be in the right place at the right time.
Wagler says that some of his band’s current success was sewn in its early years when no one was paying much attention and questions such as “Why are we playing this 10 p.m. slot in Richmond, Virginia when we all have to get to work the next day at 7 am?" were more common.
It was a slow build for the group, one that required the members to offer each other their utmost support.
“We weren’t the big deal anywhere," Wagler says. "We were playing for small audiences and we were playing gigs where, you look back and say, ‘Man, why did we ever even set foot in that place? It was terrible.’ That kind of thing can tear your band apart because everybody’s disappointed and/or getting frustrated. Or it can kind of band you together. Because, in that room, if nobody else is listening to you, the only person you have to lean on is the other guy.”
The group has come to handle its business affairs well and boasts, among other endeavors, its own label. Current Steel Wheels recordings show how much the band has grown over the years.
“When we first made a CD it was, like, ‘OK, we know somebody who can record this for almost nothing. We know that we can mix it ourselves, but it was just a level above recording something on Garage Band and duplicating it on your home computer,” Wagler says.
One thing Wagler mentions again and again is timing and how his band has been fortunate to come along at a time when acoustic-driven music is widely embraced. Timing is, after all, one of the essential elements of the music business and certainly always has been.
“Bill Monroe is credited as being the father of bluegrass music and Hank Williams is credited as being the father of country music," Wagler says. "It’s interesting to think about how their careers also coincide with the dawn of radio and the dawn of some of the machines in Music City and some of the machines in the music world that were just getting going.
"In a way, they are a product of timing. As true to and authentic to some traditions Bill Monroe was, if he had come alone 20 years earlier there’s no way that his name and bluegrass music would have become the big deal it was.”
Talent is only one part of the equation that makes a band interesting. Personality, presentation, and dedication all factor in and Wagler knows this all too well.
“Being able to write a song? There is some talent there and some natural kind of ability and the way you see the world and are able to articulate that, sure. But it’s work," Wagler says. "You’ve got to get yourself outside the idea that a ‘real’ songwriter is going to go into a room and magic’s going to happen. There’s a lot of practice and a lot of failure and a lot of, just, time.”
The Steel Wheels remains a band concerned about more than its own legacy, however. In 2013, after two years of discussion and planning, the group launched its own music festival, The Red Wing Roots Music Festival, which takes place in July in Solon, Virginia. The inspiration came in part because Virginia, a kind of cradle for the brand of music the band plays, was one of the places in the country that didn’t have its own festival celebrating its own musical heritage.
“Right here in our town, in the Shenandoah Valley, we didn’t have a festival that was really promoting and really highlighting some of the talent that we’re seeing in all of these other places," Wagler says.
"It was kind of a legacy of wanting to really creating something you feel is going to last and also kind of investing in the future of these kids coming to these festivals.”
The Steels Wheels perform at the Bartlett Arboretum in Belle Plaine on Sunday afternoon.