Staying underground: Steel Wheels’ roots rock festival grows its musical identity

Trent Wagler (second from left) of The Steel Wheels and Jeremiah Jenkins of Black Bear Productions co-founded the Red Wing Roots Festival three years ago. This year’s lineup features highly regarded talent such as Punch Brothers, Robert Earl Keen and The Wood Brothers. Publicity Photo Trent Wagler (second from left) of The Steel Wheels and Jeremiah Jenkins of Black Bear Productions co-founded the Red Wing Roots Festival three years ago. This year’s lineup features highly regarded talent such as Punch Brothers, Robert Earl Keen and The Wood Brothers. Publicity Photo

Trent Wagler is a storyteller. The Steel Wheels front man tells stories when he’s writing songs. He tells stories when he’s on stage. And he tells a ripping story about the genesis of the Red Wing Roots Festival.

Wagler says he and his three bandmates, standup bass player Brian Dickel, fiddler Eric Brubaker and mandolin player Jay Lapp, had been traveling to music festivals for years. On top of all the great tunes and camaraderie they saw on the road, they started to realize these events could really bring together a community. The best ones—like Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion in southwest Virginia and MerleFest in Wilkesboro, North Carolina—are all about togetherness. Each of them, Wagler says, seemed to bring a sense of pride to their own little corner of the country.

As Wagler gets to the peak of the story, the part where he says the fest his band hosts in Natural Chimneys Park just outside Harrisonburg brings together the community there, he gets modest.

“MerleFest was the first one that really impacted me, seeing how it was bigger than a one weekend music experience,” he says. “And while we didn’t have the audacity to think, ‘That’s what we’re going to do,’ we kept coming home and saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could bring some of our favorite musicians who maybe don’t have an audience here to people in the valley?’”

Whatever the genesis, when the Red Wing Roots Festival runs its third installment from July 10 to 12, it’ll be with a solid lineup of roots music stars and local standouts playing to a devoted group of about 3,500 fans.

No, the festival is never going to be as big as, say, Arrington’s growing Lockn’—the festival grounds have a natural border that will never allow the accommodation of more than about 4,000. But Wagler and co-founder Jeremiah Jenkins say that’s exactly how they want it.

“We are not trying to scale up,” Jenkins, who founded Harrisonburg’s Black Bear Productions, says. “We want to be good neighbors, and we want to provide a festival that people can rely on being comfortable, safe, clean, enjoyable, easy to access and good for all ages.”

Make no mistake, neither Jenkins nor Wagler wants to allow the size of the grounds or the size of their egos to keep them from landing big names in bluegrass, folk and beyond. While The Steel Wheels are the host band and technically the headliners, they’ve made a habit of inviting acts with much wider name recognition than themselves.

In past years, it’s been The Devil Makes Three, Trampled By Turtles, Del McCoury Band and Sam Bush. This year, mandolin master Chris Thile’s Punch Brothers will take the stage, as well as gritty Texas songwriter Robert Earl Keen, warbly blues-country trio The Wood Brothers and edgy Americana songstresses Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan on the I’m With Her tour.

The host Steel Wheels will of course do its part, playing a gospel set and a kids set along with their headliner jam on Saturday night and a collaboration free-for-all to close the festival out on Sunday that will feature any number of musicians.

“We consider ourselves the headliner, but we’re not deluded enough to think we’re a bigger name than some of these bands,” Wagler said. “It’s unique because it is our festival, and people know our name in this area, but yeah, some of these artists are really exciting.”

How unique the festival is might be a matter of contention. Artist-led musical weekends continue to pop up all around the country—Wilco just completed its Solid Sound festival in Massachusetts, and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver is preparing to kick off his first ever Eaux Claires festival on July 17. Locally, the Red Wing concept closely aligns with The Festy Experience, founded and hosted by The Infamous Stringdusters.

Then there are the festival add-ons, the additional experiences Red Wing Roots will offer on top of the music: Thoughtfully sourced food, local craft beer, workshops, kids activities and outdoor adventures. This is the same direction most festivals that draw fans to campgrounds for multiple days are going.

But Red Wing does offer a couple of unique riffs on the theme that are sure to make it worth driving an hour from Charlottesville. The outdoor activities are extensive, with nearly onsite mountain biking and hiking trails, nearby fishing and caverns and even a festival grounds swimming pool. As for the workshops, don’t miss the guitar roundtable reconciling the styles of jazz virtuoso Stephane Wrembel and progressive bluegrass guru John Stickley.

Still, at the end of the day, it’s all about the music, Wagler says. On top of the headliners, Jon Russell of The Head and the Heart, Shook Twins, Spirit Family Reunion, U.K. import I Draw Slow and Staunton stars The Judy Chops are sure to play roots-rockin’ sets.

“I think it’s an exciting thing to be a part of creating a Virginia musical identity. We want to create an experience where musicians want to come back,” Wagler said. “I am keenly aware that a music festival can bring people of different minds together. We want to do something that celebrates people’s sameness, and music is a great way to do that.”

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