Beware a quartet of young Mennonites bearing a “boomstick.”
Or “washer stick.” Or better yet, “The Gospelator.”
Actually, Trent Wagler, main singer and songwriter for Americana quartet The Steel Wheels, is a bit embarrassed by the amount of attention his group has received for the two songs they’ve written and performed accompanied only by the six-foot long wooden stick, with washers and jingle bells affixed. Wagler adapted the concept from an old gospel music tradition, finding it apt as the Wheels have a great affinity for four-part harmony singing.
“I just started playing around with it and got kind of obsessed with the idea,” Wagler told The Beat. “It’s become a crowd favorite.”
So much so that he’s had help naming it (see above).
“Black gospel and blues music has always been attractive to me,” he said, as a related form to the four-part singing all four members of the group learned growing up in the Mennonite church. That shared tradition provides a peculiar bent to the members’ other accumulated roots influences.
“I grew up in southern Indiana and there was this big bluegrass festival in our area. And my dad and his three brothers sang in a gospel quartet,” Wagler explained.
Attending college in the Shenandoah Valley of northwestern Virginia at Eastern Mennonite University allowed for heightened exposure to all of those forms for Wagler and his bandmates.
“We all got mixed up in all kinds of rock bands,” Wagler joked, “but when we met each other, we knew we were interested in making music together.”
In addition to vocals and “boomstick,” The Steel Wheels sound is driven by more traditional bluegrass and roots instrumentation — fiddle, banjo, mandolin, guitar.
The Steel wheels’ brand-new release, Lay Down, Lay Low, was borne of two solid years on the road.
“In our first formal album, Red Wing, there was a lot of innocence,” Wagler said. “This one, I would say, is not overly road-hardened, but it does show a little more of the struggle, but also where we’re looking for some hope.
“It’s kind of where we are as a band, if not as individuals,” he added, suggesting the hopefulness amid struggle could be part of a larger corporate experience. “Maybe the country is looking for hope. It’s part of all of our stories.”
Indeed, the title track, Wagler said, was inspired by the story of a friend of the band “who went to a bridge over a river in West Virginia intending to take his own life. But he turned around and went home, so it’s kind of about what got him off that bridge.
“Jay (Lapp), our mandolin player, wrote a really great melody, with a haunting beauty, for it. It seemed like a good place to start with the album. There is some connection to who we are.”
Wagler said the band had been playing some of the new songs for a few months before the record was officially released, but he’s excited to play most of the album live.
“It’s definitely a new show,” he said.
But don’t worry. It’s still likely “The Gospelator” will make an appearance.