Going from “weekend warriors” to full-time musicians happened at some undefinable point in the last couple of years for members of the Virginia-based band The Steel Wheels.
The group that’s known as a bluegrass ensemble everywhere but in the traditional bluegrass State of Virginia, was started sometime in 2005.
By 2009, banjo player/vocalist Trent Wagler and his fellow musicians who (in the purist parlance of Virginians) play Americana, roots music, were still holding down day-jobs. Wagler’s was working as a prevention/education co-ordinator at a sex assault centre.
This 9-to-5 grind created touring limitations — so did the logistics of having mandolin/guitar player, Jay Lapp, living an eight-hour drive away in Michigan, and playing in a second band there.
Then 2010 happened. “It was a big year for us,” recalled Wagler, who comes from an Amish/Mennonite background and started out singing hymns in church.
The Steel Wheels released its breakout album, Red Wing. It produced the song Nothing You Can’t Lose, which won Best Country Song and Most Popular Song from the Independent Music Awards. Red Wing was also ranked No. 2 of all independent releases on Americana Music Association charts for 2010.
Lapp decided to quit his other band and move to Virginia to focus on playing with The Steel Wheels. And this put self-induced pressure on other band members to make the move pay-off for him, recalled Wagler.
“It was a big vote of confidence in us, so Brian (Dickel, the bassist) quit his (day) job, and I cut back to part-time hours on my job. We all decided to see how far this could go . . .
“It went pretty far,” admitted Wagler, who noted the band is now touring full-time, with the latest swing into Alberta including a performance Thursday at The Hideout, south of Red Deer in Gasoline Alley.
He believes something caught fire when The Steel Wheels performed at the International Folk Alliance Conference.
Music critics were suddenly paying attention, comparing the band to the Old Crow Medicine Show, the Avett Brothers, and The Legendary Shack Shakers. “In truth, attempting to compare (The Steel Wheels) to anyone is an injustice, since after one listen you hear that they stand very well on their own perch, an Americana Roots reviewer wrote.
Critics and fans are now awaiting the release of The Steel Wheels’ next album in March. The title track of the upcoming Lay Down, Lay Low CD is a dark song based on a friend’s troubled past.
Wagler said his friend, Keith, suffered “an abusive childhood, within a religious context.”
The emotional trauma peaked when Keith was in his late 20s, with children of his own. He told Wagler that suicidal thoughts were triggered by a visit to the New River Gorge Bridge, a tall steel arch structure near Feyetteville, West Virginia.
“It was his kids that made him back off . . . He thought about what they would grow up thinking and feeling and dealing with, if he jumped,” said Wagler, who noted his friend has since began telling his story to help others survive abuse.
The Steel Wheels spend so much time on the road, the “struggle to build something beautiful” in the midst of so much transition has also inspired a few tunes on the album, said Wagler, “We’re trying to find the lighter side of that,” he added — and the effort has spawned some joyous tracks.
Among them is Breaking Like the Sun, which took on a Cajun flavour after members of The Steel Wheels — including fiddle player Eric Brubaker — spent a week performing with a Cajun band.
“We had such a party with them, I doubt that we meant to do it, but it just turned out that way.”
For more information about the 9 p.m. show, please call 403-348-5309.