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The Steel Wheels & Blue Ridge Mountains Host the Richest Red Wing Roots Music Festival Yet

Photo by Soula Pefkaros Photography

Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah Valley are fortunate to have Trent Wagler and The Steel Wheels band, not to mention Eastern Mennonite University that initially brought the band members here as students, not to mention the influence on the band of Doc Watson as a musician and someone who cared enough to create a musical legacy for his own region and that of his brother Merle in North Carolina.

Perhaps the biggest evidence of that good fortune is the Red Wing Roots Music Festival about to begin its fourth glorious season July 8-10 in Natural Chimneys Regional Park and Campground, neighboring Mount Solon, very near Harrisonburg, and about an hour from Charlottesville, VA.

Headliners this year include Dawes, Naomi Shelton and her Gospel Queens, Shovels & Rope, (Steve Martin’s) Steep Canyon Rangers (without Martin), The Lone Bellow, Amy Helm (Levon’s daughter and former member of Olabelle), Mipso, Aoife O'Donovan, and Dom Flemons (co-founder with Rhiannon Giddens of Carolina Chocolate Drops), with a total of 41 artists and bands altogether.

At least six are returning, while around eight are from the broader region, including Charlottesville. The rest are new and come from throughout the country. Typically, still more musicians the caliber of The David Wax Museum join in later in the festival for the annual Tribute performance (last year to Hank Williams) and the Gospel performance on Sunday morning.

(Note for readers from Hampton Roads, VA, where I’m from: At least three National artists like The Black Lillies, have played Jim Morrison’s house concert series in Norfolk, and others played such venues as the Norva, Portsmouth Pavilion, and the recent Norfolk Folk Festival.)

Thanks to Trent and his bandmates’ investment in the area, we all have Red Wing, a cultural legacy that only gets better, goes deeper, and adds annually if not daily to the region’s importance. Trent, who sings lead and plays guitar and banjo, is joined in The Steel Wheels by standup bass player Brian Dickel, fiddler Eric Brubaker, and mandolin player Jay Lapp.

I asked Trent what’s distinct about Red Wing Roots Music Festival, now that such festivals have proliferated. Trent chuckled (about the proliferation, something they didn’t anticipate) and said that for them it was “a matter of giving a name after a long-term impact on the community and the people in the community, playing in a situation – singing, being part of the music, in a way we – or they – wouldn’t perhaps have otherwise.

We could do it locally – for our family or friends – bringing it out within our families – giving ourselves some chance to perform in our own area. We began to dream about it.”

But, they didn’t stop there. They thought their motives had value to do beyond only the regional. They would have to learn as they went, Trent remembered. They had two friends, Jeremiah Jenkins and Michael Weaver, who had started Black Bear Productions, who the band thought could “build the perfect meaning” of what they began to want to do, and had the ability to do it.

Together, they joined in learning as they could while still having impact, Wagler told me. And there was success. “Thankfully, even in our early stages, we managed to get Del McCoury, as well as Sam Bush and Preservation Hall Jazz Band. It was a big venture. It was an adventure. We needed a production team. We, as a board, took risks. We were selling a dream. You had to ‘go along with what you thought the dream would look like.’”

They began to have more confidence, leading to audience from Charlottesville, Richmond, Roanoke, and D.C. They’d talk about Red Wing at each of their shows. The crowds began to come from long distances and bring friends they felt it was time to expose to The Steel Wheels, and the audience continued to grow.

How about Red Wing? Where did the name come from? Short answer: Trent’s grandfather. Wagler, in his 20’s, spent time with him, listening to him play his harmonica. Wagler had already been listening to and being influenced by Doc Watson and Townes Van Zandt. And then, his grandad had “a ton of these old tunes. It was a beautiful time for me to experience these, and they were new to me,” he said, … “but not to the family,” he added.

And, I was standing there. Dust was flying through the air.

Like days before when we believed in things we couldn’t see.

Oh, my red wing, take me softly

to my home now, to my family.

(Red Wing, trad., as recorded by The Steel Wheels)

As I wrote in No Depression about the 2015 Red Wing Festival: One magical thing several thousands of us believed in but couldn’t see was the music, flowing across the “music meadow” and rolling up the towering natural stone chimneys bordering it. Chimneys lit during the evening concerts in dark-shattering shades of red, yellow, and blue. Hank Williams came here once, and on three July days at the Red Wing Roots Music Festival, so did a range of some forty bands and performers from as far away as Ireland. Like the red wing in the song above, they brought us festival goers home.

“Red Wing in particular,” Wagler told me, “was music I/we could connect to. I wrote some lyrics to it. Then, we recorded it with Robin and Linda Williams, playing it not in the traditional way that’s its lineage exactly, but also looking ahead, drawing on a lot of different musics but also naming it and paying tribute to where it came from.”

One of those traditional musics is that of Bean Blossom, IN, where Wagler, as in Trent, Farms trucks can still be seen on those lonesome roads where Bill Monroe called home and had regular concerts at his ancient white wood barn where I saw (Indiana native that I am) Monroe, among other times, in an unforgettable, close-up Sunday afternoon show with Roy Acuff and Ernest Tubb near the wood-fired heat stove in the middle of the room. I had taken with me a couple of much-traveled musicians, Dobro Dick Dillof and (now passed) Fiddlin’ Red, whom I’d just met in Indianapolis, where I lived at the time.

Bean Blossom is also where Trent was born, and his grandad died, and the famed Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival takes place (for 50 years now). It was where the Waglers attended the Mennonite Church world-famous for its sign reading “Strangers Expected” and where Trent and his dad sang harmony on its stage, a church Trent said was too Amish in its conservatism to accept the nearby Bean Blossom festival with its occasional hippies. The Steel Wheels recently returned from playing the John Hartford Memorial Bluegrass Festival in Bean Blossom.

Our conversation moved from history to content as I tried to ease into an observation that, for all of its pluses, Red Wing struck me as having had a shortage of minority performers, especially notable given the importance of the African American to so-called “roots” music in America. I quickly said that I in no way suspected this was intentional.

Wagler, just as quickly, agreed, saying that this was one of their most important objectives, to even that field and not to become known as a “white” festival. And I, just as quickly, added that I had been delighted to see that this year’s roster compared to last year’s featured diversity in much greater evidence, especially African Americans.

Trent agreed. He mentioned in particular Don Flemons, as noted earlier the co-founder with Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. “I love that guy,” Wagler noted, “he has such a great sense of history!” Wagler was even more excited about Naomi Shelton, of Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens, as she represented, he said, greater difference from the nature of roots gospel music previously in evidence at the Sunday morning gospel session already presented on the Southern Stage.

Wagler pointed out that they began the festival with Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and he thought they were one of the first Virginia venues to do so. He noted how difficult it is to put schedules together and how they try to balance other aspects as well, such as not having too many bands representing bluegrass for example, a reason they had not had Steep Canyon Rangers before this.

It’s kind of fun in a way, he said, seeing how they all fit together within one program, all the while keeping their numbers in line. The fact that Red Wing sets a maximum of 4,000 attendees is, in itself, one of the factors that draws me and my wife to their festival.

It does somewhat limit “huge” artists, but again “if we can return the favor, we will maybe bring artists back, possibly at higher fees.

It builds culture and community. We’re able to treat the artists well. We now have a reputation; that gets around, applying both to those on long trips and those artists from the region. We – and they – love playing for this crowd. And, we get local underwriters, very strong ones.

By and by, our crowds are really great people. Some listen to every note. Some are with their kids dancing. Some are in the beer garden.” Wagler says they’ve been able to create possibility in a culture.

I told him how effective, thorough, and friendly their volunteers (with only one or two exceptions) are. I’ve developed a disability, or combo of them, that puts to a test if and how much one might get the care and support of volunteers. At Red Wing, the answer is a loud Yes! And, quite a bit.

“You can’t force or train them to have that extra,” Wagler said. “When we’re assured of their kindness, we know that perhaps we’ve formed a village. Mike Weaver has a lot to do with that; he’s everywhere and tends to set a tone.

We’ve seen a part of the transition to “village” through our daughter who is in The Steel Wheels Fiddle Workshop." This program, which was in full swing the week when I spoke with Trent, had more than doubled this year to over 60 and culminates with a public concert at the festival.

The model here, in spirit and perhaps even more fully realized in product, is MerleFest, where, Trent remembers, Doc Watson would actually play with the kids in the workshop. “Kids are the future,” Wagler said, “some of these kids are building and examining a joy in a family setting. It’s a really amazing experience that grows a little more at the end of each year. Much more than just sets of music, it’s a project for music in the culture.”

I mentioned that I’d attended a workshop in guitar for adults at Red Wing last year and wondered if more of these were in the offing. Wagler said this is an important area they hope to expand in the future.

Red Wing is one of the most family friendly environments I’ve experienced, which Trent said is another goal and source of pride for the festival’s planners and organizers.

I pulled to a close our conversation, this interview, as I knew he was on his way to pick his daughter up from another summer camp to take her to the Fiddle Workshop. I closed the conversation on a local and personal note, shamelessly asking Trent if they were familiar with a favorite of mine, the Charlottesville band, Sons of Bill, rapidly making itself known internationally, and if the Sons (the boys as proud mother Barb calls them) might wind up in Red Wing.

Wagler said they were very much aware of them and could extend an invitation in the future, noting with obvious pleasure that they had scheduled for this year Gallatin Canyon, a band that he understood features the other son of Bill Wilson, Luke. I confirmed as much, also with pleasure, and closed my local pitching by asking Trent if he’d heard of The Will Overman Band. Will is a newer Charlottesville talent with a just-released first complete album.

The answer was yes, with a smile that was tangible over the phone waves. It’s clear that The Steel Wheels and their partners, Black Bear Productions, have a richly talented region as well as a whole world of exciting musicians to explore for their four lively mountain stages in the future ahead.