by LAUREE PURCELL
Eric Brubaker is the fiddler and bass vocalist for The Steel Wheels, a nationally known roots and Americana band. He and lead singer/guitarist/banjo player Trent Wagler, standup bass player Brian Dickel and mandolin player Jay Lapp began playing acoustic bluegrass together many years before their first album, Red Wing, became a huge success in 2010. They all met while attending Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) in the early 2000s. This will be the third summer The Steel Wheels host the Red Wing Roots Music Festival at Natural Chimneys Park in Mt. Solon.
Eric, his wife Peggy, and their daughters Norah and Lydia live about five miles outside of Harrisonburg in a home Eric built himself in 2010. All of the band members are also dedicated family men with nine children between them. Eric, Trent, Brian and Jay balance performance tours all over the country with focused time at home with their wives and children.
Eric started learning to play the violin through the Suzuki method when he was just five years old. By high school, he was seeking out bluegrass jam sessions throughout the valley and performing with various bands. While classically trained, he taught himself to play in the traditional folk and bluegrass styles.
Even in college, Eric never thought about making music a career. Eric and Trent played bluegrass and sang in a choir together while attending EMU. Brian, several years older, played in a punk rock band with Trent while he was in college. Brian and Eric worked together for several years building guitars at Huss and Dalton Musical Instruments in Staunton. Jay was introduced to the others through Trent. They first met when Trent opened a show for Jay’s band at the time, which was playing a show at The Little Grill in Harrisonburg. At first, the four of them just got together for the fun of making the traditional styles of music in which they were all interested. Since they all grew up in Mennonite families, they share that heritage and identity and still have some connection with the church. This shared background not only helps them sing beautifully in four-part harmony, but also shapes their priorities and commitment to family and community.
Eric and Peggy became friends while they were both studying social work at EMU and shared an interest in bluegrass and traditional folk music. After graduating and getting married, they volunteered with AmeriCorps for a year, building homes for Habitat for Humanity near Franklin, W. Va. Eric worked for a custom homebuilder while playing local gigs on weekends. He did not become a full-time musician until he was in his 30s. The Steel Wheels first went on the road when daughter Norah was 21 months old and daughter Lydia was just 5 months old. That was quite challenging for Peggy, but having Eric away is now somewhat easier because the girls, now 7 and 5, are both in school.
“We put a ten-day cap on our tours so that we can balance time on the road with large chunks of time spent at home with our kids and wives,” says Eric. “We can enjoy performing and then recharge at home while getting excited about our next tour. I put a lot of time and energy into my role as a parent, too.” When his daughters were younger, Eric created paper chains for them with a note in each link. Knowing each link represented a day he would be away helped them understand when he would return.
Computers and mobile phones help Eric stay in touch with his family. They often send pictures to each other by smartphone. Lydia loves to dance while Norah is learning to play the violin with the help of her Suzuki teacher, Megan Tiller, at EMU. Eric helps Norah practice when he is home, and uses FaceTime and Skype to listen to her play and help her figure out new classical Suzuki pieces when he is away. Norah has just started learning the Bach Minuets. Peggy says, “We’re fortunate that we can expose our daughters to many different types of music, in addition to the typical children’s music.”
Peggy loves taking trips with Eric and the band. She works part time at Gift and Thrift to allow her the flexibility to meet the family’s needs and travel with the band when it’s possible. She grew up listening to bluegrass with her family and loves getting to know the hospitable people Eric meets on tour who have opened their homes and provided a sense of normalcy for band members while they’re away. When the band performed in Nova Scotia, Eric and Peggy brought their daughters and extended the trip with a family vacation there after the tour.
“Since we’ve all gotten married and had children at about the same time, we try to connect our music with families and to make it appeal to all ages,” says Eric. The band members frequently bring their children to the festivals and local concerts. As The Steel Wheels played at summer blue grass festivals all over the country, they decided it would be fun to organize a similar festival in the Shenandoah Valley. So three years ago, they invited the best acts they had seen in their travels to come here to expose a local audience and carry on the tradition of that music.
The third Red Wing Roots Music Festival will be July 10-12 at Natural Chimneys Park. The Steel Wheels hope to help keep traditional music alive by providing an annual event where children can return for years to listen to and even learn to play acoustic instruments. “Our dream of leaving a legacy is getting fulfilled beyond our expectations. We were filled almost to capacity last summer, and ticket sales have been great for the coming festival,” says Eric. Red Wing Roots also provides a family reunion time for band members as grandparents come to help watch the kids and enjoy the music.
He, Trent, Brian and Jay consider listening and learning from each other most important. They started out as friends with similar backgrounds and have played so much together now that they can guess what the others will do before they do it. They hope to keep their musical success sustainable by letting their audience grow organically. At first, they just played in the Harrisonburg area. Then they began performing at regional festivals and became known and appreciated in those localities.
Social media is helping fans share The Steel Wheels’ music with their friends and get even more people excited about the shows. The Steel Wheels have many music videos available on their website and on YouTube, and short clips of songs on the band’s CDs are also available on the Internet. Trent’s writing is tied to traditional forms. Whether a cappella, bluegrass, old time traditional or Appalachian, it all has a timeless feel, according to Eric. Technology is making it easy for everyone to access all styles of music.
It has taken many shows for Eric to feel comfortable on stage, but now his role there feels natural. “I enjoy the act of performing and find it to be a rewarding experience to help create something new,” says Eric. Almost all of The Steel Wheels’ music is original. Trent usually comes up with the melody and lyrics. Then Eric and the others decide how to harmonize and create their own solos.
This shared background not only helps them sing beautifully in four-part harmony but also shapes their priorities and commitment to family and community.
Eric is especially proud of the introduction to the band’s song “Find Your Mountain.” He wrote it as a fiddle tune called “Mountains Quake” and then his music idol, Tim O’Brien, wrote a twin fiddle part to complement it so they could play that introduction together for the recording. Eric continues to write fiddle tunes, arrange music and work on the business side of band performances when he is home. The band’s goal is to keep improving the quality of their CDs and shows, and that takes plenty of planning.
The Steel Wheels’ shows have an improvisational element to them and are never the same. The band often works out their songs in hotel rooms and during sound checks on stage. They say an arrangement is never truly complete until after they play it live. Nothing is written down, and the music evolves as the audience reacts to each performance. Many of the arrangements are flexible, allowing each instrumentalist to play off the others as they take turns soloing. They enjoy gathering around one microphone to sing their four-part harmonies.
On April 14th, the band released a new album entitled “Leave Some Things Behind.” It centers on the themes of leaving, journeying or “exodus.” The songs wrestle with what it means to live in a transient culture, in a fast moving age and how that affects us in our relationships. They speak to the bittersweet nature of travel, with all the excitement that provides as well as the grief or loneliness that can ensue. The album explores the notion that when we leave, even if it is for the best of reasons, we can’t help but leave some things behind.
The Steel Wheels have done four bicycle tours in which they hauled their instruments and gear by bike to each venue and did not depend on a van. “It’s a great way to experience the scenery, and we appreciate how local people open their homes to us and offer mechanical help and directions,” says Eric. Sometimes they will bring their bikes in the van and do a charity ride with fans on the morning of a festival before playing a show in the afternoon. The Red Wing Roots Music Festival has organized several bike rides, too. “It’s a cool way for us to interact with fans while building camaraderie between band members, too. There’s no separation between us as we all slog up Reddish Knob on a hot day in July.”
LAUREE STROUD PURCELL serves as an editorial consultant for Living. She and her husband Steve have two daughters.
More information on The Steel Wheels and The Red Wing Roots Music Festival can be found here:
www.thesteelwheels.com for tour dates & locations, music & merchandise
www.redwingroots.com for festival info and tickets