Generally, bluegrass is thought to encompass everything from Bill Monroe and Alison Krauss to David Grisman, Old Time Medicine Show and the Punch Brothers. For bluegrass purists, however, bluegrass is a very distinct thing, with strict rules, roles and instrumentation.
Here in California, where progressive bluegrass has been a fixture for many decades, we may be a bit looser about putting the bluegrass label on bands. But in Virginia—which is in the heart of bluegrass country and home to fast-rising roots outfit the Steel Wheels—if you call yourself a bluegrass band, you damn well better be playing bluegrass.
“We spent the first five or six years of our band really resisting the word bluegrass,” says Steel Wheels frontman and songwriter Trent Wagler. “We knew that in Virginia, we couldn’t bill ourselves as bluegrass because you’ve got some serious traditionalists that are saying, ‘Wait a minute, these guys aren’t playing anything that Bill Monroe played, or Earl Scruggs played, and that’s bluegrass.’”
Wagler explains that melding different roots styles “doesn’t speak to certain traditional ways of thinking” and that this tension between the “hippies and some of the old-school, straight-up bluegrass people” is nothing new. Sam Bush and the early newgrass artists faced it, as do young acts coming up now.
For the Steel Wheels, this intersection of old and new is where the band is right at home. The members of the four-piece draw heavily from bluegrass and old-time styles, while staying rooted in who they are as artists influenced by a number of sounds and styles, including rock ’n’ roll, blues, soul, and old gospel music.
“When we’re making our music, we’re not trying to stay in a box,” says Wagler, “and we’re not trying to limit ourselves. That’s what I love about music—it’s such a strange bag of influence.” He adds that for the Steel Wheels, that bag of influence goes into traditional old time and bluegrass music, but it “certainly doesn’t stay there.”
The music of the Steel Wheels is tight and driving, with lovely, layered harmonies and catchy hooks. It’s also gritty and soulful, which gives the band a depth and texture that is sometimes lost when things are too polished. That’s not to say these guys slack—in fact, anything but. They’re top-notch players, they just lean toward the real rather than the perfect, and over the years that approach has served them well as the band has gone from casual shows to touring almost full-time since 2010.
“Playing live and recording with the same guys for five or six years, you can’t help but get really tight,” says Wagler, explaining that a few years ago they had a fill-in fiddle player and, despite the fact that he was an excellent musician, it just wasn’t the same. “The four of us have put an imprint on each other when it comes to these songs. When any of us are pulled out of that imprint, it really feels strange and different.”
The band members’ familiarity with each other goes beyond just music. They all grew up in Mennonite communities and Wagler says that their shared background comes through in the band’s approach to making music.
“The big things that Mennonites hold dear … is an ethic of some aspect of simple living and community,” says Wagler. “Another piece is a certain amount of nonviolence and non-participation in war. These have informed a number of things in me. Therefore, it’s going to come out in lyrical content and how I see the world.”
Wagler points to the competitive nature of bluegrass, with its flashy licks and songs being more about a great picker than the feel of the tune. For the members of the Steel Wheels, this is the opposite of what they do. For them, says Wagler, a song is “not a vehicle for a bunch of licks,” but about collectively creating something. He wonders if that ethos and the no-drama sensibility of the members isn’t at the heart of the band’s successes, both on-stage and off.
“The on-stage stuff is not even half the battle,” he says. “There’s much more to keeping a band together than that. We are really good friends offstage and that really helps us create a strong harmony in all senses of the word.”
The Steel Wheels will perform at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 6 at Don Quixote’s, 6275 Hwy. 9, Felton. $15. 335-2800.