It’s fall in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. That means the foliage on maple trees, birches, poplars and hickories is turning red, gold and yellow.
Trent Wagler, lead singer of the Harrisonburg-based string band, The Steel Wheels, which makes its south Louisiana debut Sunday at the Manship Theatre, loves being home for nature’s display.
The group plays more than 100 shows a year, especially at festivals in Virginia and North Carolina. Fortunately, Steel Wheels’ performance schedule, following 11 consecutive weekends of traveling in the summer and fall, has a lucky gap.
“I’m so happy for the way it fell,” Wagler said. “This is one of the best times to be in Virginia. Every day is a little different.”
Just as the Shenandoah Valley is home to the brilliant colors of fall, the region is also the natural habitat for old-time music and bluegrass.
The area’s musical heritage is respected and alive, Wagler said. “You can still go to Wednesday night picking parties. Music doesn’t need a purpose outside of itself.”
Wagler moved to Harrisonburg from Kansas in 1997 to attend Eastern Mennonite University. He and his future Steel Wheels bandmate, Brian Dickel, met at college and briefly performed in a grunge-inspired rock band. Wagler is almost embarrassed to admit it.
At school, Wagler also met Eric Brubaker, a fiddler and singer from Harrisonburg who studied classical violin and grew up hearing old-time fiddle tunes.
After college, Dickel and Brubaker worked at Huss and Dalton Guitar Company, Inc., a guitar-building company in nearby Staunton.
“Brian got steeped in old-time music,” Wagler recalled. “He picked up an upright bass somewhere and started playing at old-time jams. He realized he had a lot to learn and how nice and welcoming these folks were, even though he was butchering the songs.”
Wagler followed his own path to music, through acting gigs in folk musicals staged in nearby Lexington and hearing the music of Doc Watson, Willie Nelson and Texas singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt.
Van Zandt’s songs, especially, Wagler said, “exploded my mind in terms of the poetry and simplicity in good songs. I poured myself into that stuff.”
Jay Lapp, mandolin and guitar, completed the lineup for Steel Wheels. It’s been a fulltime touring and recording band since 2010.
“We don’t achieve anything that’s particularly straight forward and traditional,” Wagler said. “What we do comes out of all of our influences. From rock ’n’ roll, old time and string-band stuff, from growing up in the church and singing hymns and harmony.” Earlier in his musical development, Wagler was frustrated that he couldn’t pick acoustic guitar as well as, for example, North Carolina’s flat-picking master of six-strings, the late Doc Watson. He fretted, too, that Steel Wheels couldn’t replicate the performances of traditional groups more closely. Not anymore.
“Over time, you realize you’re bringing your own sound.”