"No other band has sold out a show this far in advance," says Truman Parmele, the owner of Ashland Coffee and Tea. "I haven't seen anything like this in four and a half years."
He's referring to the Steel Wheels, the four-piece Americana band that, early in November, sold out its Dec. 7 date in Ashland. That led to the venue's adding a 9:45 p.m. show to the 8 p.m. performance. This kind of thing has been happening more and more often for the Harrisonburg-based quartet, which recently returned to the East Coast after an extended tour of Canada and the American Southwest.
"We've got some great momentum going right now," says singer and songwriter Trent Wagler, who leads the group. He's in part referring to the strong show of support the band got from the Independent Music Awards in June, which named the band's "Lay Down, Lay Low" as best Americana album of the year and "Rain in the Valley" as best a cappella song. "The growth in our audience has been nice and sustainable," he says. "I've seen other bands spark and then fizzle. We've been able to avoid that."
Wagler's twangy and tough tenor is the centerpiece of the Steel Wheels' infectious sound, but he's supported by some of the best players in American roots music who also happen to sing exceptionally well. He met two of them, fiddle player Eric Brubaker and bassist Brian Dickel, while attending Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg. Mandolin player Jay Lapp was a later addition but all of the band members share a background in the Mennonite Church. "We really lucked out," Wagler says. "We didn't audition for singers but a lot of Mennonite churches don't use instruments so we all grew up singing. I was singing harmony by the time I was 8 or 9."
Wagler also attributes a shared Mennonite background for keeping the band together through the trials of touring and growing popularity. "There's a sense of humility that is taught and a belief that the community is bigger than any one person," Wagler says. These tenets carry over into the music. "When Eric and Jay play solos, it's not a hot-licks competition. They pay great attention to what the other is playing. They're both thinking, 'How can I complement that?"
In his songwriting, Wagler borrows liberally from Biblical themes, but faith doesn't define the band's music. "It irks me when people say we're a gospel band," Wagler says. "I'm happy to write in that tradition but I have my own thoughts both in the tradition and out of it. Particularly in black gospel music, the ideas are universal, promoting freedom or equality. Even with the one straight gospel song we do, 'Working on a Building,' the message is about working together to build a better society. That's an idea anybody can swallow; you don't have to believe any one way."
The Steel Wheels do more than sing about building a better society: They integrate their values into everything they do. For the past three years, in an effort to promote sustainability, they've embarked on an annual SpokeSongs tour in which the band uses bicycles to travel between gigs, towing their instruments and gear with them. They've supported their community through partnerships with many businesses and artisans in the Shenandoah Valley, resulting in a beer named in their honor by Afton's Blue Mountain Brewery, and a dark roast coffee blend created for them by Harrisonburg's Lucas Roasting Co.
The past year marked the most ambitious of these efforts: The band organized the first Red Wing Roots Music Festival, which brought thousands of people to Natural Chimneys Regional Park in Mount Solon. The second festival isn't until July, Wagler says, but plans are underway. "We are working on the festival's line-up and planning to announce it the first weekend in December when we're in Ashland," he says. The announcement provides the band's fans yet another reason to snatch up the few remaining tickets for its local appearance. S
Tickets remain for the Steel Wheels' 9:45 p.m. show on Dec. 7 at Ashland Coffee and Tea, 100 N. Railroad Ave. in Ashland. Tickets and information online at ashlandcoffeeandtea.com or by calling 798-1702.