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The Steel Wheels find hope, order with 'Sideways'

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Courtesy photo

The Steel Wheels' Trent Wagler says that his band's new album, "Sideways," was inspired by a number of things, including watching his children grow up and the power he feels music has.

Folk-rock outfit The Steel Wheels kicks off its summer tour with a date at Wave in Wichita on Wednesday, May 22.

The veteran outfit from Virginia stays in the area with two other regional gigs in the coming week, visiting Emporia's Granada Theater on Tuesday, May 28, and taking the stage at Knucklehead's in Kansas City, Missouri, on Wednesday, May 29.

The current run of activity comes in support of the band's latest release, "Sideways," which was released in February via Big Ring Records. The record serves as a meditation on the passage of time and resilience in the face of adversity, something the group has faced its share of in recent years.

In 2019, fiddle player and vocalist Eric Brubaker's young daughter passed away after a sudden illness. Then, the group was faced with a period in which it waited through the COVID-19 pandemic to return to regular touring activity.

Lead vocalist, primary songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Trent Wagler explains that the material on "Sideways" began during his time off the road during 2020 as he reflected on his life as a parent. With a stepson who recently graduated from college and a daughter who is now on her way to university life, he reflected on the way they and others were navigating life.

"Watching people in very formative years trying to reach out into society and find themselves while detaching from their family of origin [gave me a lot to think about]," he said. "Being 15 or 16 years old and trying to figure out who you are in the midst of the pandemic would be difficult.

"Being a parent is an interesting journey, and I feel like sometimes I'm a step or two behind in realizing [what's going on]. I think the long arc of it is giving up control and believing and hoping that you've given [your children] the tools they need to fly out of the nest."

He points to the song "Hero" on "Sideways" as an example of reflections he had in this process.

"That was influenced by me battling some of the old tapes in my head [about] the way a real man is supposed to be in approaching life in general and specifically thinking about how I could best be supportive to my kids, my family," he said. "Maybe this hero metaphor is flawed in a number of ways [and I wondered] how I was going to rewrite that for myself and what I could learn."

Asked whether his time away from a regular cycle of touring caused him to reflect on his career as a musician and the uncertain nature of the music industry, he said, "Those questions don't stop. My career as a musician was one thing, but I think it was just on the pile of loads of things that there were to question. There were questions about the health and wellbeing of my own family that took precedence at the time. But I think that, as a band we did handle the pandemic time in a way that was really valuable for all of us."

Although only two members live close to each other, they were able to continue with recording projects, collecting fan stories in a project they named "Distance Together." This resulted in two albums, "Everyone a Song, Vol. 1" (2020) and "Everyone a Song Vol. 2" (2021). They also launched a podcast, "We Made You a Song," which chronicled the process across two seasons.

"We kept our creative souls together," Wagler said. "I don't remember feeling this huge existential crisis for myself as a musician. We found ways to make work that felt meaningful and felt like it still connected to an audience."

When the band was able to return to the road, there were new challenges for Wagler and his bandmates.

"There are times when it feels like things are still askew," he said. "There are still a lot of those anxieties and questions that are present to a certain extent. But being a musician is not normally a super secure place to be!"

Wagler adds that although there were challenges for him and his family during the pandemic, the chance to connect with them for an extended period of time did yield some positives.

"We were a bit of a broken record with our kids," he said. "We'd talk about how we could be experiencing two things at the same time. Yes, it's terrible that all these things are shut down, but we also get this time together that we wouldn't otherwise have.

"Some days it was awesome and incredible to have the connections we were having. But the next day or even within the same day, it could be absolutely exhausting or frustrating."

He added, "That's the nuance that I hope to infuse in the songs. I'm often trying to bring that sense of paradox into a song because I feel like that's the life that I'm seeing. Hopefully, music can put to some kind of order … all of this kind of chaos that can sometimes have us feel so unmoored."

Jedd Beaudoin is host/producer of the nationally syndicated program Strange Currency. He has also served as an arts reporter, a producer of A Musical Life and a founding member of the KMUW Movie Club. As a music journalist, his work has appeared in Pop Matters, Vox, No Depression and Keyboard Magazine.