Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion Preview: Trent Wagler Of The Steel Wheels Discusses Getting To Play Festivals Again, Their Upcoming Album, & More

With the 20th Anniversary of the Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion festival quickly approaching, The Steel Wheels are looking forward to once again bringing their rootsy brand of Americana to eager audiences.

Organized by the Birthplace of Country Music organization, the festival is set to take place in historic Downtown Bristol, TN/VA, from September 10th to September 12th. This three-day-long festival will host over 100 acts across 12 stages, featuring a wide variety of genres. 

Among the acts set to perform are Harrisonburg, VA, locals and regional favorites The Steel Wheels. The quintet consists of Jay Lapp (vocals, guitar), Eric Brubaker (vocals, fiddle), Trent Wagler (banjo, vocals), Kevin Garcia (drums), and the newly joined bassist Derek Kratzer.

Formed in 2005, the band began releasing a string of albums in which they effortlessly merge innovative Americana with traditional sounds stemming from the mountains of Virginia. Following their formation, the band would go on to tour extensively and play hundreds of shows and festivals. Their authentic Americana sound combined with their inspirational and uplifting lyrics make for a soulful and triumphant live experience that has garnered them a loyal, die-hard following. 

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While the 2020 pandemic thwarted any and all plans they might have had for touring, The Steel Wheels found themselves at home composing songs commissioned by their devout fans. They would go on to compile many of these songs and release them as their latest album, Everyone A Song Vol 1. These indie innovators once again infuse their traditional Americana sound with catchy hooks and infectious melodies, which will undoubtedly make for a captivating live performance.    

We had the opportunity to chat with Wagler about their upcoming appearance at the Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion festival, their latest album, and much more.

Have you felt the past 18 months has helped or hindered your creative process and artistic drive as a band? Neither?

Trent Wagler: I think we found ways to use the pandemic to grow creatively. We turned into a bit of a song factory and we all quickly learned how to self-record with whatever tools we had at home. Our band composed and recorded somewhere in the range of 60 songs since March 2020. Some of that material became the Everyone A Song album, and some of it will be the raw materials for the next studio album. 

And has the band been back in the swing of regional shows and/or light touring? If so, where?

We started playing in July 2021 with our music festival, Red Wing Roots in Mt. Solon, VA. After playing that joyful gathering, we went west for a couple weeks at the end of July. We played MT, SD, IL, MI, and IN. It had been too long. It’s hard to know if the band or the audiences were having more fun. 

Speaking of shows: you guys will be playing the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion festival next weekend. How does it feel to be playing an event of this magnitude again?

We’re thrilled to be playing Bristol again. We began playing a festival in Kansas the same weekend as Bristol some years ago, and we haven’t played Bristol in 9 or 10 years. We’ve changed a lot in that time. So has Bristol, I imagine. So has the world- geez. I am excited to perform our music for the Bristol crowd again. It’s been too long. 

Other than presumably your own set, what might you most be looking forward to about the festival weekend? Any particular artists on the bill that you’re looking forward to checking out/hanging with?

Yeah, it’ll be nice to see some friends. That’s what festivals are all about, right? We’ll look forward to seeing Yarn, Sierra Ferrell, and Town Mountain. They were all at Red Wing this year as well. It’s cool that our hometown guys, Illiterate Light, are playing (we call Harrisonburg, VA home) and it’ll be good to see Dr. Dog again. The first time I ever heard Dr. Dog was at Bristol and they really made a huge impact on me. The streets of Bristol can bring together a lot of different musical influences and sounds. I guess that’s the whole point of gathering here. It’s always been a meeting place for American music. 

Can folks expect to hear a good chunk of material from your 2020 album Everyone A Song Vol 1.? Any songs from the album you’re most excited to unleash?

Yeah, we’ll be playing some material from our new project. I am particularly fond of a sweet song called “Family Is Power” that closes out the album, but honestly it’s exciting to get to play with each other on just about any song right now. There’s still a fresh energy to playing live in real time that we’ve all missed in the past 18 months. 

Are you guys working on Everyone A Song Vol. 2 or other material? 

We are releasing Volume 2 in November. It’s pretty exciting. We wrote and recorded 45 songs for specific stories commissioned by fans during the Covid shutdowns and these two albums really give a fine representation of that unique kind of storytelling and songwriting. It’s going to be fun to be playing songs live soon that we never had a chance to play live before, since every song was created and recorded apart from one another.

What plans does the band have after Bristol and frankly, through the rest of the year? More shows lined up, recording, etc.?

With the release, we have a few dates in November and December. Ever since the initial shutdowns, it feels a little foolish to make your plans too far out in advance, but we just welcomed a new bass player (Derek Kratzer) into the band September 1, so we’re also excited to see how his contributions fit into the band on and off the road. I hope we can put together a new album in a studio sometime in the next 6 months. We have so much music we’ve made apart from one another. My main hope is we can keep making music together. 

And here’s to hoping we all do our part to give our communities a chance to stay open and able to gather in person. Our band is all vaccinated and I’m grateful to the scientific and medical communities for working so hard to make it possible to gather safely at this time. We’ve got to use the best tools we have to mitigate risks if we’re going to be able to keep having shows into the winter months and beyond. There is a lot of misinformation swirling around our communities about vaccines and please don’t take your health advice from a songwriter like me. Take it from your doctor. But please, go talk to a doctor and ask direct questions about how you can do your part in this fight. We’re all on the same team. Let the science community do what they do best so that each of us can do what we do best. That’s not a political stance. We just want to play our music.

Photo by Brian Dickel

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