Album Review: The Steel Wheels, ‘Sideways’

Virginia-based folk rockers The Steel Wheels have been making good music for nearly 2 decades. This year, they’re meditating on “resilience and survival” – the two touchstones of their new album, Sideways. (Out February 9th on Big Ring Records).

Per usual, The Steel Wheels find themselves inspired both by traditional American music (specifically string band music from Virginia) and contemporary folk, roots, and bluegrass. This time, though, the band also drew from a deep well of inspiration that we all might recognize: the forced isolation of the global Covid19 pandemic. Like most of us, the band was forced to isolate for a couple of years; they were finally able to come together in person again in 2022. Working with producer Sam Kassirer (with whom they’ve worked before), they gathered in Parsonsfield, Maine and started recording the songs on Sideways.

The title track is a standout to my ears. Of the song, lead songwriter Trent Wagler says: “[The song] has an openness that can be interpreted lots of ways. We don’t always control our emotions and feelings and that can be confusing, even into my mid-40s…I saw my daughter feeling more and more isolated and alone in the midst of the pandemic while ironically having access to unlimited ‘connection’ online.”

Wagler’s daughter also inspired the song “Baby Gone” and he says it “was written as I said goodbye to my daughter (literally my ‘baby’ girl), as she left for college. It’s trying to manage the sadness of seeing inevitable change and loss alongside the hope of future growth and positive change. The transformation of parenting is one that goes from being needed completely to understanding that many of the future adventures will have absolutely nothing to do with you. Your role as parent has fundamentally changed-as it should.”

Safe to say that the band is pushing boundaries with Sideways! Though they started as an all-acoustic group, they have slowly incorporated more electronic and produced elements into their sound. The result? An engaging and surprising mix (the percussion beats against the banjo picking is absolutely irresistible) that’s hard to resist; I found myself listening straight through the album on repeat.

Their harmonies are tight; there’s nothing over the top or overblown in this album – listen to “Yes I Know” for an example. And their technique when it comes to their instruments is, as always, top-notch. You also really get a sense of their willingness to experiment and play with instrumentation on “Hero,” a moody groove, as well as on the instrumental “Past the Breaks” which offers a capricious fiddle against a plucking banjo and some gentle percussion “claps” in the background. It’s a unique mix of sounds and rhythms all seamlessly coming together in a track that is, according to the band, “a musical representation of that moment when things begin to move quickly beyond our control…[the] steady, inevitable plodding…ends with a race toward an uncertain end.”

The band members (Trent Wagler, vocals, guitar, and banjo; Jay Lapp, guitar, mandolin, and vocals; Eric Brubaker, fiddle and vocals; Kevin Garcia, drums, percussion, and mallet keyboards, and Jeremy Darrow on bass) know what they’re doing with their voices and their instruments; working together, they share songs and stories that resonate with deeply-felt ideas – loss of control, big life changes, resilience, and moving forward even when you don’t think you can. Sideways is well-named; you’ll FEEL rocked a bit sideways after you’re done listening. And you’ll want to listen again to set yourself right. 


Sideways is available HERE


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