This weekend (July 12-14) is the Red Wing Roots Music Festival, celebrating roots music with artists like Lucinda Williams, The Wood Brothers, and Tim O’Brien. The festival is organized by Virginia’s The Steel Wheels - they headline the event every year.
They’re releasing their new album the day the festival starts called Over The Trees. Trent Wagler from the band recently stopped by the WMRA studios to speak with Chris Boros who asked him to describe how the festival has changed since it started seven years ago.
WMRA: How has the festival changed since it started?
Trent Wagler: It’s like a world of difference. The first year is of course extremely memorable because everything was new. The anxiety in Camp Redwing was high because you’re selling people a dream, an idea that hadn’t been realized yet and you weren’t sure whether people were going to jump onboard. And also it was young and new and we were looking to not lose a bunch of money. I remember the day we opened the gates for the first Friday, and we were like “we need trash cans.” I just remember somebody running to a box store and getting some cardboard trash receptacles because were like “oh no, we don’t have them.” So certain things like that during the first year, that were the feeling from behind the curtain. This year we’ve added more campsites and then another new small stage. We said from the very beginning that we had a vision of starting this festival in this location and we don’t want to overdo it. We know there is something beautiful about this space. I’m excited to see how this year’s changes will affect the festival.
WMRA: It must be awesome to be in a band successful enough that you can put on your own festival. Not too many bands can do that.
TW: It’s been a dream. I credit a lot of other people for facilitating us to even really take this endeavor and go for it. We had a friend in our camp named Ben and I remember he was one of the first people who said “you guys can do this, there’s no reason you couldn’t, don’t think this is too big of an idea or there’s too many other festivals, you really could do it.” And I think him planting that seed for us, we just kept gnawing away at it and again we met up with the perfect partners who were looking to do an event. So it takes so many perfect storms to really make it happen the way it has. I do think the band has a role in it but the partners to produce the festival, the perfect location, maybe even the timing, we just stumbled into a community looking for something that maybe they didn’t even know they were looking for, but it’s been amazing to see people who maybe this isn’t their favorite kind of music but they’ve just sort of grabbed hold of this and their family comes every year and they say “this is out festival.” And I think seeing that has been all the more inspiring for the band to keep coming back and doing it.
WMRA: And on top of the festival, the first day of the festival you have a new record coming out.
TW: We really put it all together this year, this is the first time we’ve done this. But we looked at it and we said “why not partner the biggest show and weekend of our year with the biggest event of our year which is releasing this record and see what happens, see if we love it, we hate it, but it’s exciting and I think it is fun because Red Wing is always a big party and that’s kind of what you’re hoping for when you put all of yourself into a project like we do with the new album. It’s exciting to show up on Friday and just drop that record.
TW: We played around with a lot of new sounds. You know, The Steel Wheels have evolved in a number of ways over the years. But I think one of the biggest changes has come in a personnel change that we had in the last couple years when we invited Kevin Garcia to come on the road with us as a drummer and percussionist and a keyboard player. And so he came it and it was amazing at helping us put an album up on stage. But then he became a member of the band. Very quickly we realized he was an old soul and a brother in many ways. And he’s become a part of the band so this has been the first album we’ve ever done with Kevin as a full time member of the band and so we knew that meant drums and percussion were going to be integral to the sounds. Coming from a more Appalachian music string band kind of influenced group of musicians we had never done a record where we started certain songs with drums and maybe a banjo and we’ve never done that. It’s almost always been four acoustic musicians sitting around in a circle and then if we’re going to do drums we’d be like “maybe drums would add something to this.” We had so many situation that way where it was, yeah we started with a gourd banjo and drums on one of the songs. And Jay has been exploring over the years on more electric guitar sounds so there’s a lot more ambient landscapes that are in this record and Brian, our bass player, played electric bass than ever before. I think we really let it all hang out.
TW: We tried to remain in the moment of the recording process rather than thinking “how are we going to do this live.” We didn’t want to limit ourselves in any of those ways and that got us to some really fun places. We played around with this little synthesizer that the producer had and it found its way onto a song called “Get to Work.” We came together in the pre-production with forty songs so we had this broad canvas that we could look at and focus in on and sort of say what’s the thru line in these songs and what makes the best and most compelling statement as a recording? And so when we broke it down to these eleven songs, some of the ones that found their way to the top ended up being these … like the song “Get to Work” for example is much more of a kind of rolling mantra of a song. “Wake up in the morning and get to work” just kept hitting me as you know what, I can’t control that or this, all I can really do is what I’m set here to do right now and what is my work right now. And if I get up and get right to it, just get to work, there’s going to be something good that can come out of that. So even if I can’t see how it fits into the larger picture, at least I can do that and feel some sense of control and some sense of achievement through just getting to work. And I think there are previous albums where I wouldn’t have even let that song be one of the songs on the album. That doesn’t pass some litmus test of profundity or “would Leonard Cohen put a song like that on his album?” So there was something about this, when I say experimental, we sort of played with allowing things to be a little lighter and not be so precious with every moment. We had some fun and I hope that comes through.
WMRA: When you’re on stage at Red Wing and it’s the Steel Wheels set, and you look out into the crowd and there are thousands of people listening to music you’ve written, what’s that like?
TW: It’s transcendent. I think every year we go through that moment where you’ve got a sea of people, a lot of them are mouthing the words or singing along, and I tend to think in that moment that this is a lot larger than me or us. That’s what goes through my mind. All of the work that it took to curate and make this moment happen – every part of this festival and that goes to the sound people and that goes to the people who brought in the stage and it goes to the people who designed the logos and the people who volunteered their time to put up fencing. All of that has created this sense of responsibility. I want to perform with the best of most heartfelt energy that I possibly can in this moment to give as much of what you’re feeling from the crowd back to them. I think that is so much of what the performer/audience relationship is, this symbiotic exchange where they’re giving you all of this energy and you try to give it back the best you can and it just keeps feeding off of each other.