Listening to a new Steel Wheels album is a bit like reconnecting with a beloved friend. At once familiar and invigorating, it’s an experience marked by laughter, tears, reflection, and empathy. Talk inevitably drifts toward shared acquaintances, bittersweet memories, and new glories. The music, much like a good conversation, flows freely.
The last couple of years have been particularly fruitful for the Steel Wheels. The release of 2010’s Red Wing brought the the band acclaim, awards, and greater prominence in the Americana scene. 2011’s concert recording Live at Goose Creek illustrated the quartet’s versatility and appeal as a touring act. The Steel Wheels’ new album Lay Down, Lay Low is a worthy successor, showcasing the band’s sharp lyrics, distinct melodies, and nimble instrumentation.
Playing a mix of country, folk, gospel, and blues, the Steel Wheels often craft songs that can comfortably co-exist alongside the classics. The Virginia-based act refers to its sound as American roots music. However, people should resist the urge to label the Steel Wheels as an old-timey music group. While lead vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Trent Wagler, multi-instrumentalist Jay Lapp, bassist Brian Dickel, and fiddler Eric Brubaker are musicians steeped in tradition, they are as much a product of the present as the past. (Listeners should also note the vital contributions of Oliver Craven, who toured with the band in 2011, to Lay Down, Lay Low.)
For the Steel Wheels, the importance of honoring one’s roots is not simply an act based in nostalgia; it’s an active exploration of how history shapes the future. The Cajun-inspired opening number “Breaking Like the Sun” expresses how an old melody can still tug at the soul. “This is where you started and this is where you’ll end,” Wagler declares. Similarly, the distressed witness in ”Indian Trail” cannot escape his memories, albeit due to far more tragic circumstances. He’s haunted by the “three shots fired” along the scenic route and notes that “Every story that I tell/Leads me back to the Indian trail.”
That perspective of history’s lasting impact makes it possible for the band to offer appreciation for the present. At the heart of the record lies a yearning for home and family, particularly in the midst of adversity. The weary traveller in the elegant ballad “Halfway to Heaven” longs to rejoin his significant other, noting that on his journey home he’s “halfway to heaven…[and]all the way in love.” The song celebrates the trials that bind the couple together in addition to their mutual adoration.
Grace is found in the stormy moments of life. The narrator of the plaintive title track realizes with surprise “We make miracles every moment of every day.” Penned about a real-life friend of the Steel Wheels who contemplated suicide but ultimately changed his mind, the chorus gently swells and urges listeners to re-discover their own humanity amid chaos. Scorching a capella number “Rain in the Valley,” which presents the Steel Wheels with an opportunity to display their tight harmonies, is a potent call to salvation.
Perhaps most importantly, Lay Down, Lay Low manages to build on the momentum of the band’s past albums while hinting at even better records to come. Fans may be tempted to echo the Steel Wheels’ own words (featured in the persistent affirmation “Andrea”) back at them: “You write the next chapter/that’s a book I want to read.” Or, in this case, songs they want to hear.