He didn?t know it at the time, but Trent Wagler?s high school days at Haven put him on track to becoming part of The Steel Wheels, a four-piece acoustic band that?s gained national attention and acclaim for its original mountain music and innovative sound.
?A lot of what I learned at Haven would have been through debate and forensics,? said Wagler, who graduated from Haven High School in 1997. ?Forensics and debate allowed me to fall in love with performing.?
Now, as guitarist for The Steel Wheels, which is based in the Shenandoah Valley, Va., Wagler and the band travel across the country and appear at more than 100 shows a year. Wagler and The Steel Wheels have released nine CDs since 2004 and have also performed on national radio programs.
Red Wing, the band?s 2010 release, spent 13 weeks on the Americana Music Association?s Top 40 chart, and one track, ?Nothing You Can?t Lose,? was named Best Country Song at the Independent Music Awards. In 2012, ?Lay Down, Lay Low? was named the IMA?s Album of the Year.
While at Haven High, Wagler performed in the school?s talent shows and on stage in musical productions of ?Lil? Abner? and the ?Music Man.? In addition to forensics and debate, he also played sports and tuba in the school band.
?I?m so happy I had the opportunity to do a lot of different things,? Wagler said. ?Kids in large schools have to make a decision on what they want to do. I was lucky to have experienced football and musicals and debate. I was a bit busy.
?It was a great way to explore different parts of school and life. I played half time in the pep band in football pads, and played the second half of the game. I was allowed to do both. It was part of a special experience on growing up some place where I could do both,? Wagler added.
He also made the transition to playing guitar while in high school. Coming from a family of musicians?his father, Howard Wagler, pastor of Journey Mennonite Church, sings and plays guitar, and his grandfather played harmonica?Wagler adapted to the new instrument fairly easily. His musical tastes at the time leaned toward ?90s alternative rock and grunge bands Nirvana, Pearl Jam and early Radiohead.
?Nirvana drew kids, because there was a sense of resonating with being authentic or honest,? Wagler said. ?They didn?t dress up. It was just, ?Here?s what I do.??
When it was time for college, Wagler headed to Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., where he studied theater. He kept his hand in music but as a hobby. Although he was exposed to Appalachian music, he didn?t ?all of the sudden fall in love with acoustic or bluegrass.? That came after college when he was performing Shakespeare and music outdoors in a professional theater in Lexington, Va.
?I was cast because of my music,? Wagler said. ?In Virginia, it [music] had an Appalachian flavor. I had to learn it for the shows. Over the summer I realized I had great respect for the subtle difficulty. Old time and bluegrass music is seen as simple and easy as opposed to brilliant rock and roll starts that can do so much.
?People think of bluegrass as hillbillies. But when you sit down with flat-picking bluegrass guitarists, you realize rockers don?t have anything over Doc Watson. I got to see that kind of music when I was there?stripped down. I said, ?I?m not going to put effects on my guitar, electronics; no tricks.? That was as punk as anything I could do.
?You fine-tune your ear to know and notice differences of what a really good acoustic guitar sounds like, how the wood changes, the tone and what you can get out of it,? Wagler said.
So he dove deeper into acoustic music and reconnected with his grandfather. Together they?d play gospel music??I?ll Fly Away,? ?When the Roll is Called Up Yonder,? and ?Uncloudy Day.? The music would resurface years later when Wagler wrote different lyrics, slowed the tempo and modified a gospel song that became a The Steel Wheels song called ?Red Wing.? The band also named the three-day roots music festival it hosts each summer after Red Wing.
It took a while, though, for Wagler, standup bass player Brian Dickel, fiddler Eric Brubaker and mandolin player Jay Lapp to become The Steel Wheels on a full-time basis. Wagler, Dickel and Brubaker met college and played music together. Initially, Wagler played bass and Dickel played guitar in an alternative band with punk overtones.
They played informal gigs together, and gradually they developed an interest in acoustic music, and Wagler learned flat-picking and began writing songs. Later, he taught himself how to play claw hammer style banjo.
?As soon as I wrote songs I liked to perform them, however terrible they may have been,? Wagler said.
Brubaker was the next piece to fall into place when he began playing fiddle with them and adding his bass voice to the harmonies. And when Wagler and mandolin player Jay Lapp crossed paths on the folk circuit, the group was complete.
They started playing and recording together but still weren?t ready to make it their full-time jobs. That?s because they already had jobs and were starting families.
?We started in 2004. It took us almost six years to play full-time as a four-piece band,? Wagler said. ?From 2004 to 2010 we played on and off regionally. We had other jobs and were doing other things. It took a while to believe that this was something we could do. We never talked about being a full-time band and touring 100 days a year.
?The first four to five years, we were doing it for the love of it. Now we can do what we love and perform because we like to,? he said.
Fan reaction also helped the group gauge its viability as a working band.
?People would say, ?What?s that song? Where?s the CD? I?d like to buy it,?? Wagler recalled. ?Radio stations played it because they thought it was good.?
The band chose ?The Steel Wheels? as its name in a tip of the hat to their Mennonite ancestors who used steam engines and buggies as their modes of transportation. When it first went full time in 2010, it was ?slim pickin?s,? Wagler said, but that changed when they hired an agent. Since then, they?ve toured more than a dozen states, as well as Canada, Ireland and Northern Ireland. The band?s music is popular in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, Wagler said. International and extended tours?beyond 10 days?are difficult, though, because the band members have families.
When writing new material, Kansas sometimes seeps into his songs, Wagler said.
?There have definitely been songs for me written from a place I remember?summer time in Kansas, tractors, long roads in the fields, hot, dry, dusty air. Kansas shows up in a song,? he said. ?Thundercloud Breaks? from the ?Adrienna Valentine? album is a direct reference to Kansas.
?It was about Kansas,? Wagler said. ?I was moving from Indiana to Kansas, and one of the first memories was looking up and seeing so much sky. No trees, clouds, just complete blue. It was amazing. The sky was the thing.
?It depends on where you?re looking for beauty. That song came from saying, ?You have to look up.? The storms, clouds, sunsets have stayed with me. That song has Kansas running all the way through it. I?m continuing to rehash sounds from my youth,? he said.
As Wagler performs and tours, he continues to hone his guitar and banjo playing, and there always seems to be more to learn.
?I learned a lot from travel and seeing other people play,? he said. ?When you see other people play, it continues to be a humbling experience. It?s also inspiring. There is so much more to learn and do.?
By Fred Solis
Special from The Clarion