By Kristi Kates
Blissfests concise description of the four-piece band known as The Steel
Wheels is simply this: an old time medicine show with modern energy and
an Americana heart.
Americana being the operative word there, as the groups focus is on a
wide range of music that falls both smoothly and awkwardly into that
We often mistakenly get branded as a bluegrass band due to some of our
instrumentation, explains bass player, Brian Dickel, but while there are
some definite bluegrass elements there, it has more influence from
old-time, blues, gospel, folk, and singer-songwriter stylings. I guess
that is why it is so difficult to classify this music genre that is called
Americana. And that is part of the reason that we like it - because we
dont fit neatly into any one of those categories by itself, but there are
elements of all of them that we really enjoy.
The only external element that the band says theyve stuck to
consistently is keeping their music acoustic - and fitting in inspiration
from a wider range of artists than one might expect.
We all came to this music from a lot of different backgrounds and
approaches, and that shows up in the music, Dickel says. We listen to
just about anything. We have a great respect and admiration for the bands
of today, but try to do our own thing.
Some of my influences that led me to the music I write now are artists
like Townes Van Zandt, Jerry Garcia, and David Grisman, to name just a
few, singer/guitarist/banjoist Trent Wagler says.
THREE STATES OF INSPIRATION
Formed in Indiana, but now residents of Virginia, Michigan, and
Pennsylvania, The Steel Wheels have found yet another inspiration for
their own music - that being their surroundings.
There are a lot of musicians (in the Virginia area) that are just
incredible, Wagler enthuses, I feel that the Shenandoah Valley has
always had more music going on outside of the venues than many people
realize. This is especially true of acoustic music. One of the neat
cross-sections of the valley is the longstanding quiet, rooted,
traditional scene that is intersecting with new energy. That intersection
represents me - I came to the valley in college, and this music found me.
The Steel Wheels try to incorporate that.
Wagler also says that being in a beautiful part of the country very much
inspires his writing, while his bandmates find that the bands diverse
locales help keep things fresh in their music.
We call ourselves Virginia-based, but currently were living all over the
place, Dickel says, Trent and I live in Virginia, but Jay lives in Ann
Arbor, Michigan, and Oliver lives near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Although
the touring arrangements require a bit more thought, we are able to bring
a bit of our regional influences into the mix. We get to experience many
different musicians and bands that we may not know as well if we were all
from one location.
The person helping center all of their music is frontman Wagler, whom
Dickel calls the main force behind the lyrics of The Steel Wheels
His songs speak to so many different walks of life and viewpoints, which,
in my opinion, is the mark of a great writer. He is not a big fan of
spelling out a story from start to finish in a manner that you know
exactly his viewpoint on it, so it allows the listener to paint their own
picture of what is going on, Dickel says.
PEDALING FOR GREEN
Another location - well, locations - that likely inspire the band are
those that they see during their unusual Spokesongs tours. The name, of
course, is inspired by their own band name, while the tour itself was
conceived from the bandmates appreciation of - yall ready for this?
The idea for Spokesongs came out of the many bike to work events and
awareness campaigns held all over the country, Dickel explains, touring
happens to be our work, so therefore we thought why not involve ourselves
in the bike to work movement. If you note our schedule, its obviously not
practical to do this everywhere, but its a small token of awareness of
The band, who say that they make very conscience green decisions in
everything from their CD packaging to their t-shirts, consider the
Spokesongs tours - in which they literally tour by bicycle with no support
vehicles (all instruments, merchandise, microphones, clothing, etc., are
hauled by them, on their bicycles) - a natural extension of their work
toward greening the rest of their band experience.
One bicycle is an elongated bicycle by a company called Xtracycle, that
two or three instruments and other gear can fit on, Dickel says, it
tipped the scales at well over 100 pounds last year. The rest of the
riders are pulling trailers with all the gear behind them. There is a
short documentary on our website that shows how all this was done.
Dickel says that theyre planning to post many pictures and videos of this
years tour - which begins August 4, and has most of its show dates in
Michigan - as everyone wants to see the upright bass behind a bicycle.
SUMMER ON THE ROAD
Theyll also be appearing on the NPR show, Mountain Stage (due to air the
week following April 8, more info at www.mountainstage.org), and theyve
also confirmed tours to a number of Eastern, Midwestern, and Southern
states, plus two tours to Alberta, Canada.
We stay busy, Dickel chuckles.
A new album is also in the works, with the band planning recording
sessions in June, and aiming at an early 2012 release.
Any particular inspiration - Americana or otherwise - behind the new
album? Will there be a pop, rock, rap, or jazz-inspired Steel Wheels album
in the near future?
We dont necessarily follow the trends of whats happening out there,
Dickel says, if those trends intersect with what we do, thats great -
and if they dont, we are fine with that, too. Good music is good music -
it doesnt matter what the source is.
The Steel Wheels will be appearing at the Crooked Tree Arts Center in
Petoskey as part of the Blissfest Concert Series on Saturday, April 9 at 8
p.m. Tickets are available via www.blissfest.org. Check out the band at