The Steel Wheels,
The TVD First Date

“The first music I heard was on vinyl. But I don’t really remember my parents playing the Mamas and the Papas or Peter, Paul, and Mary records that were in their collection. The earliest records I listened to were the Alvin and the Chipmunks Christmas and a comedy record from the Smothers Brothers. That Chipmunks’ record is really dreadful to listen to, so I guess my family had a lot of tolerance for children doing their thing, but I can’t claim an early bonding with the vinyl medium for its warm tone and a cosmic centering over great music early on.”

“Of course I moved through tapes and CDs and into the digital age with the consumers’ ease of a baby bird. “I’ll take whatever you give me, mass media Mommy.” It wasn’t until I started touring and making music of my own that I really listened to and got interested in vinyl.

I remember playing Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion in 2008 or 2009 and seeing Dr. Dog for the first time. I was blown away by their performance and went directly over to the merchandise to find something to take home with me. And it just clicked. They had CDs and vinyl, but I was going to buy their record.

Now, I had an old record player and a collection of thrift store vinyl up until that time which I had curated to some success. Living in Virginia, you could find Doc Watson or Norman Blake records for some fine early flatpicking guitar. There was the “borrowed” stash of Beatles’ records from somebody’s dad’s collection that I’d spin with some frequency. Aretha, Dylan, John Denver, Pink Floyd, Stevie Wonder. Classics. Important music.

But Dr. Dog just put out NEW music on vinyl. And something about it excited me. The older medium with the newest songs. It was a revelation. The record was called We All Belong and I still go back to it when I need a shot in the arm. After that, I started only buying new music on vinyl.

Around that time we also started putting our own music out on vinyl. Lay Down, Lay Low was our first such project. I think I really listen closely to all music. But I REALLY listen closely to our music when we’re recording a new album. I know every slight out of time hit that we choose to keep (for the feel of it). I know the fade out of the last harmonies on the last chorus. By the time we’ve done the overdubs, and the first mixes, and the masters, I have listened to it TOO MUCH.

There is no music that I have saturated myself in more than an album I’m working on. I suspect this is pretty common amongst musicians. So, the first time I got the test pressings to listen to our music on vinyl, I could really hear what vinyl does. I could really note the difference the medium makes to the music. And I don’t have much to add to the mountain of descriptors and comments on that topic, except to say, I like it. I like our music on vinyl. People talk about warmth. There’s technical aspects to the actual frequencies present on digital vs. analogue, but I just want to leave it there. Music feels good on vinyl.

A few years ago, we were playing Mountain Stage in Charleston, WV and we shared the night with Lake Street Dive, among others. Down the road, I picked up their new record, Bad Self-Portraits. They are a brilliant group of musicians, able to destroy on their given instruments, but with real easy pop sensibilities. I’m not sure why they’re not the biggest stars on the planet, but whatever. The record sounded great, with solid songs, arrangements, and as is their signature: top-notch performances. The record package is polished in concept, sound, and look.

Fast forward to last spring, The Steel Wheels were playing a few shows with Josh Ritter and his band. We hit it off with his keyboard player, Sam Kassirer, who happened to also produce some records. Among his credits, is that same Lake Street Dive album. After that tour, we started planning to record with Sam for our newest album, Wild As We Came Here.

In my town, Harrisonburg, VA the record store is called Wonder Records. Wonder is actually a Skate Shop that opened a few years back to cater to the skater kids. I was never a skater kid, but I love the counterculture that goes along with skateboards. Elliot, who owns the skate shop, started stocking records. It turns out he had access to old record store stock that used to be the only outlet for music in town.

Slowly, he’s also added record players, instruments, and any quirky sort of sound equipment you can think of. This is one of my favorite stores in the universe. It’s the local record store. And I’ve acquired great titles there. But I love the post-modern record store nature of it. I bought my current turntable there as well as some great old blues records there. But I’ve also purchased a hollow-body electric guitar and low-wattage tube amp there. It’s such a fun and dangerous place.

I love the tangible collection of records. Today it has become a real history of performers and performances that are a part of me. Artists like Whitehorse or Gregory Alan Isakov, and Rachel Ries that I have met and enjoyed playing alongside on the road sit next to Tom Waits’ newest album (an artist I deeply admire).

I also like handpicking out albums for my kids. My daughter loves Punch Brothers’ newest album, and my step-son was grateful to get a classic album by Queen. It’s not The Chipmunks, but I hope these are the beginnings of their own collection, a sonic stand-in for the photo album, marking and memorializing their days in musical emotion.”
Trent Wagler

The Steel Wheels’ Wild As We Came Here arrives in stores on May 5.

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