With a sound sitting comfortably between Old Crow Medicine Show and newer forms of bluegrass, The Steel Wheels of Harrisonburg, VA provide a unique listening experience. Comprised of four guys with backgrounds ranging from Mennonite Gospel quartets to concert bands and orchestras, the members of this group (Trent Wagler, Jay Lapp, Eric Brubaker, and Brian Dickel) are joined by Oliver Craven to create a distinctive sound. Their most recent album, Lay Down Lay Low, which will be released on March 6, is a collection of twelve all-original songs written by band members Wagler and Lapp.
On this, their fourth album as a group, The Steel Wheels have included a wide array of material. While all of their songs are rooted in traditional music of some sort, they seem to draw from every aspect of American music. Fast-paced bluegrassy instrumentals like Lapp’s tune Fridley’s Gap, lay alongside powerful-sounding harmonies and Gospel influences on Rain in the Valley. Hints of blues and jazz show up throughout the album, making several songs feel soulful and smooth. Spider Wings is extremely interesting, with a percussive rhythm that at times sounds almost like a rap beat. Other songs are more subdued, featuring clawhammer banjo, peaceful melodies and a bowed bass line. Despite the wide array of approaches, Lay Down Lay Low is still a cohesive album; the Wheels make jazzy beats fit in right beside mandolin-led instrumentals.
Fans may recognize this group from one of their three Spokesongs jaunts, in which they toured Virginia, Michigan, and Illinois on bicycle. They have logged over 1000 miles so far, riding from town to town with all their supplies, merchandise, and gear on their bikes – including Dickel’s upright bass. According to Wagler, they aren’t doing anything out of the ordinary – just commuting to their jobs via bicycle like any other working person might do. Through these tours, the band hopes to raise awareness of the bicycle as a viable method of transportation. This past year, they were even sponsored by a variety of companies ranging from Clif Bar to Fretwell Bass and Acoustic Instruments.
With their previous album, Red Wing, receiving multiple honors in 2010, including reaching number 15 on the Americana Music Association radio charts and being named one of the top 100 Americana albums of the year, The Steel Wheels are well-situated to find even more success with Lay Down Lay Low. Their highly-individualized sound, and the strength of their original tunes, could bring them into the spotlight in 2012.
For more information on The Steel Wheels, visit them online.