At times, they sound like an old-time string band, straight out of a 1930s Appalachian barn dance. At other times, they sound like a high-brow mix of twangy alt-country and folk rock. As one writer put it, the Steel Wheels might be one of those acoustic bands that defies description.
"Attempting to compare them with anyone is an injustice," John Walker wrote of the band in Americana Roots magazine. "After one listen you can hear that they stand very well on their own perch."
Around since 2008, the Steel Wheels, which will perform two shows today at the Riverhawk Music Festival, are considered one of the most watch-worthy bands in the alternative folk music realm.
Lead singer, guitarist and songwriter Trent Wagler, who grew up listening to a variety of musical styles, explained that he and fellow bandmates follow a simple formula: Keep the sound honest, intense and real.
"We take traditional music, start there and end up with something original," Wagler told writer Kelli Ponstein. "We play original Americana music that truly is pulling out the deep roots of the blues, old gospel music and Irish tunes, but we definitely spin it, play with it and twist it into our own new style."
Based in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, the Steel Wheels grew out of the successful relationship of Wagler and multi-instrumentalist Jay Lapp. The two musicians crossed paths in Harrisonburg, Va., about 130 miles northwest of Richmond, where Wagler had been a solo performer for almost a decade.
Lapp and Wagler performed primarily as a duo for two years in small pubs and at house concerts before deciding to add upright bass player Brian Dickel and fiddler Eric Brubaker to complete the band.
"For me, having a full band with four-part harmonies opened up the experience of being a musician," Wagler told Ponstein. "It's that chemistry, that love of finding common musical ground that makes it still so exciting to me."
The Steel Wheels performs at 5:30 and 7:30 p.m. today at the festival, which takes place at the Sertoma Youth Ranch. Among the other performers: the Fred Eaglesmith Traveling Show; Paul Cebar and Tomorrow Sound; Ray Bonneville; Mark Johnson and Emory Lester; Passerine; Tony Furtado Band; Harper and Midwest Kind; the Waybacks; the Wiyos; Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen.
Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or [email protected]