When you hear of a band from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia armed with fiddle and banjo with an affinity for bluegrass, there’s an assumption that its members grew up steeped in mountain music. But for rising Americana act the Steel Wheels, playing Neighborhood Theatre Friday, that old-time roots music and bluegrass wasn’t a part of childhood.
Singer/guitarist and banjo player Trent Wagler and bassist Brian Dickel played alternative rock in college, but all four members grew up in Mennonite households – where the harmony singing that punctuates much of Steel Wheels’ sound was a fixture.
“Traditionally, a lot of churches would not have had a piano (until) my parent’s generation. Before that there was definitely no organ. It was a very well-held and passed-down tradition of four-part-harmony singing,” says Wagler, whose soulful lead vocals combine with the band’s balance of inventive contemporary and traditional playing to give Steel Wheels more of a new-grass sound.
Wagler found the same raw authenticity in roots music that first drew him to rock.
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“There’s an underlying emotion that’s there that’s more important than musicianship. Especially in punk rock. No matter what music you’re into, you want that authenticity,” says Wagler, who found roots music through jam bands and specifically the Jerry Garcia/David Grisman collaborations, which led him to Doc Watson in 2002.
“To see this man toward the end of his life, blind from birth and able to sit down with very little amplification, no rock ’n’ roll lighting ... it absolutely was amazing,” says Wagler, who moved from Watson to songwriters Gillian Welch, Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark and eventually bluegrass originators like Bill Monroe.
Steel Wheels’ new album, “Leave Some Things Behind,” centers on themes of moving, traveling, searching and finding.
“Stories and songs (emerged that were) built around that theme of going and moving … leaving things behind because you’re trying to get somewhere or away from something,” Wagler says. “That theme came to us honestly as touring musicians, but it’s also a theme we see around us in a culture of transient people.”
While his grandparents and parents may have moved away from more traditional Mennonite or Amish communities, the ideals and traditions they held onto still weave their way into Steel Wheels’ songs.
The Amish take care of each other, he says; in times of tragedy, for instance, neighbors make meals for victims’ families and help the community rebuild.
“Some of that sensibility can be found in the music we write and the music we’re drawn to,” he says. “The personality of our band is impacted by our tradition of wanting to come together and make sure our community is taken care of, and hope our music is one small part of bringing people together.”
Courtney’s blog: cltsoundbites.blogspot.com
The Steel Wheels
WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday.
WHERE: Neighborhood Theatre, 511 E. 36th St.
DETAILS: 704-942-7997; www.neighborhoodtheatre.com.