All the buzz about The Steel Wheels is most definitely warranted. They have been selling out venues up and down, and back and forth this land of ours. The band has also been asked to play at some of the most prestigious festivals around: Merlefest, Moab Folk Festival, Kerrville Folk Festival, Ann Arbor Folk Festival, Stagecoach and the Fayetteville Roots Festival. Their music caught the ears of the good people at National Public Radio and they dubbed their sound as “Americana, made by hand.”
The band calls the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia home. This incredibly talented four-piece string band manages to transport their audiences by playing some of the most natural and organic music ever heard. They take their traditional music that is so close to their souls and magically transform it into something that is as compelling and relevant as anything I’ve ever heard.
Check out the band’s website and catch some of the special magic of The Steel Wheels by watching this fabulous video of “Red Wing.” Another spectacular video for “Rain” gives you another taste of the band’s music.
- How long have The Steel Wheels been playing together?
- We first played a show together in 2005, but we truly formed The Steel Wheels in 2010 and have been touring since then.
- Were you directly inspired by any particular musicians whom we may or may not know?
- Some you may know: Gillian Welch, Townes Van Zandt, Grisman and Garcia, The Band
- Some you may not: Mennonite Hymnal, Henry Wagler
- Your style is described as Americana. How do you define that term?
- I think we’re best described as Classic Americana or Americana Roots/String Band music. We borrow from the early styles of U.S. music. That’s mountain music, blues, old-time, ballads, a little Cajun and Irish influence all seen through our 21st century lens.
- What is it about your music that gives it its unique flavor?
- We pay tribute to the aforementioned styles, but we’re writing from our own experience. We’re not a “period” band. The best music you can listen to is true to itself and its performers. We strive to be as authentic as possible and hopefully that works for people.
- It’s interesting and quite exciting that you have developed relationships with other independent type business people to sell coffee, beer, and those absolutely stunning mugs! Was this a brainchild of the band or did the individual entrepreneurs approach you because they were fans of your music and felt that it would be a good way to reach a demographic who would be interested in their products?
- These partnerships all developed naturally out of relationships we’ve made as a band. In most cases we were friends with the businesses first. Then, we saw and loved their products and wanted to partner with them to promote their work as well as ours. The mugs, for example, are made by a lifelong friend of Jay Lapp, our mandolin player.
- Just like we want our music to sound and feel authentic, we prefer to keep our partnerships with business owners we really know and believe in.
- Tell us about the Red Wing Festival. How did that come about?
- We have spent the last 4 years touring the country seeing some of the best bands in the world. We wanted to bring some of what we’ve seen to our home: the Shenandoah Valley of VA. We also knew if we were successful we could build a reason for more of our friends and fans to come to our home and join us every year for a celebration of music at the festival.
- When you play a show, you get the chance to construct an evening of music and all the artistic choices surrounding that evening, but when you create a festival it gives you a bigger palette to communicate who you are and what you’re about. The different musicians and activities included are a certain kind of artistic statement.
- What’s your favorite thing about festival season?
- We get to see great music and collaborate with other musicians.
- Have you toured outside the United States at all? If so, what is the audience’s reaction to your music?
- So far we’ve spent a good amount of time in Canada. The audiences up there have been amazing. We’ve talked about Europe and Australia, but nothing has come of it yet.
- If you had any words of wisdom to impart to aspiring musicians, what would they be?
- Play anywhere and everywhere you can. Music is music. On the porch, on the street, or on a stage. And put your heart in it, or your wasting everyone’s time.
Louise Mosrie’s transformation into a musician with a keen sense of Southern culture is intriguing since, as she says below, she resisted being part of that very same culture for many years. She has stories to tell and songs to sing. Louise’s songs are thoughtful — the type of songs that stay with you long after you’ve heard them. These are the type of songs that meander around your brain and nestle down deep inside your heart. These are songs that need to be sung and need to be heard. Spread the word!
To learn a lot more about Louise and her music, visit her website. Here’s a video of her haunting song, “Leave Your Gun.”
- You’ve cited your influences as Nanci Griffith, Alison Krauss, and Lucinda Williams. What have you learned about yourself and your music by listening to their music?
- I don’t know that I’ve learned anything about myself through them, but I have certainly learned a lot FROM them. I learned about phrasing and using visuals in lyrics from Nanci. I learned about simplicity and passion from Lucinda and Alison is a lesson in vocal perfection — that I’ll never reach — but she’s an inspiration!
- Do you remember the first time you sat down to write a song? Was it a keeper?
- Yes I do. No it was not . . . not even close.
- Along those lines, what kind of gigs did you play when you first started playing live?
- I played open mics, bookstores, coffeehouses . . . anywhere they didn’t throw me out.
- How would you describe the Nashville music scene? Is there an inordinate number of songwriters per square mile down there or is that a myth?
- The Nashville music scene is diverse. Everyone who doesn’t live here thinks it’s all country, but there’s a rock scene, folk scene, jazz scene, gospel scene and Americana scene but it’s all songwriting all the time. Yes, there are thousands of writers here. It’s very inspiring.
- I understand that you’ve been part of a southern rock band called Hirum Hickum. Is the band still playing? And are you talking about Lynryd Skynyrd / Marshall Tucker kind of southern rock? I have to giggle a little bit about this since your bio talks about how your move from Delaware to Tennessee was culture shock and you tried to distance yourself from everything southern. What brought about the drastic turnaround?
- The Hirum Hickum Project is not together right now. It was a great little group of folks focused on songwriting. The guys wrote the music. I wrote the lyrics. It was fun, but our lives just got too busy to keep getting together regularly. We were southern rock with folky lyrics.
- Regarding the return to my roots, moving to the south even as a kid was kind of a shock. My parents are British and we moved to the country in middle Tennessee when I was 7. I couldn’t understand what my 3rd grade teacher was saying because his accent was so thick. Plus, I was living in a tiny town attending a tinier school and the food was weird to me. I had never eaten white beans and cornbread let alone turnip greens cooked to gray submission in vinegar. There were many days when I just refused to eat! Now I love white beans and cornbread (but not turnip greens. . .). All the kids in the school were related to each other (no kidding). I just felt completely out of place and I didn’t want to be southern, so I spent most of my youth pushing against the culture I was living in. But in 2004, I moved back to Nashville from Knoxville and started writing with bluegrass and country writers and discovered that I really did appreciate the southern culture and I finally “got it.” I was “writing what I knew about” which is something I had always heard in songwriting seminars and soon found that I had a lot to say and celebrate about the South. It felt like I had come full circle, which is why that album was titled Home
- What’s your creative process like? What makes for a good song?
- My creative process starts with an inspired “zing” — which might be a line or phrase that I, or someone else says in conversation and it’s like a little electrical current hits me and I know there’s something there to investigate for a song. Then I might walk around trying to come up with a chorus or a melody in my head without my guitar. I try to work on it without the guitar as long as I can so that it sings easily. BUT, I have also just grabbed my guitar and just started playing on an idea, so who knows? Songs and how they come are magic and mysterious to me. I try not to think about it too much. Don’t want to jinx it.
- A good song (to me) has clear, emotionally authentic, inspired lyrics that when combined with a beautiful, singable, crafted melody moves a listener to laugh or cry or both. It’s a spiritual connection to the heart. As Rich Warren of WFMT says, “I want your song to change my life”. I agree! If a song isn’t moving or emotional, then it’s not a good song in my opinion.
- I understand that you’re working on a new CD with Cliff Eberhardt. How would you describe the CD? How is it different or similar to your last CD, Home?
- The new CD (which will be titled Lay It Down), is a very spare production-wise acoustic collection of songs. Cliff chose the songs and arranged them for simplicity and emotional impact. He is brilliant at that! We wanted to make a record that was all about the songs and capturing a performance and not so much about genre. Home was very Americana and I used banjo, mando and dobro throughout. Lay It Down sounds considerably less produced than Home as well as less Americana — no drums, no pedal steel, no banjo. Anna Uptain plays mandolin on one song, but other than that and my guitar, Cliff plays everything on the album. Interestingly, it was harder to make a record that is super simple than to make one with lots of overdubs. . . . I guess because each choice you make seems so stark when you’re not using a lot of instrumentation. I’m very excited about the project and proud of the work we did. It will be out by end of summer/early Fall.
- You have some blog postings about your experiences with synchronicity and the lessons that such experiences offer you. Do you find that if you are open to the universe, that there are more avenues for you to saunter down? Has this mindful way of living influence your songcraft at all?
- Yes absolutely. When I read Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, it changed my life. The basic idea is to be present and not resist what is. It’s amazing how much we resist what is all day long. It creates so much anxiety! So, if I’m not resisting or judging, I’m open to song ideas and present enough to catch them. If I’m saying “yes” to the present moment, I’m more in touch with my emotions and can become the “observer” and write from there. It also helps with letting go of the outcome and stepping away from my ego. I have no control over who hears my songs and what happens to them. I just try to write the best songs I can and let the chips fall where they may.
Mark Erelli is a native Bay Stater who makes us all so proud of calling him one of our very own. His thoughtful and provocative songwriting resonates with soul and dignity. If they gave a folk poet laureate award, he would most certainly be a winner. Hands down. Mark’s musical history has captured a little bit of rockabilly, a dash of bluegrass, and a big ole heaping of folk. I can’t help but think that Woody Guthrie, Roy Orbison, Jimmie Rodgers, and Sam Cooke would love his songs.
Learn more about Mark on his website. Here’s a video of a song called “Volunteers” that packs some power. Give it a watch. And here’s another video because one just isn’t enough!
- You’re a man who wears many hats: songwriter, solo musician, sideman, producer. Which of those roles comes the easiest and which one is the most challenging?
- Of all the hats I wear, the two most important and rewarding are, of course, father and husband. My diverse musical career is simply what I can manage after my marriage and my family. Each of my musical hats comes with its own unique set of rewards and challenges, but the biggest challenge of all is just switching my brain between them all the time. Even the role I’ve inhabited the longest, singing and playing my own songs, can be difficult to just drop back into if I’ve been preoccupied with sideman work or producing. The easy part was finally realizing that I should just go with wherever the energy seems to be organically flowing, rather than trying to conform to some notion of what I ought to be doing.
- You went to graduate school to study evolutionary biology. What were your aspirations at that time? Did you intend to teach or do research?
- My aspirations in graduate school were to finish my program and then try my hand at making music for a living. I loved my scientific work and I’m still daily amazed at the natural world, but I had this nagging sense that I would end up a bitter old man if I never had the courage to give music my best shot. But both my parents are teachers, so in an alternate universe I’m probably the cool biology professor at a New England liberal arts college, wearing the same flannel shirt every day and showing up at campus open mics to jam on Neil Young songs with the students.
- Was there a pivotal moment when you could no longer quell the desire to pursue music?
- The thing about science is that it is infinite — every answer leads to more questions. You will certainly never hear anyone tell you your work is finished, so I realized that after I got my degree I was going to have to be the one to give myself permission to play music. I already had a record deal lined up by the time I finished my program, and the day after I defended my thesis I went down to the Kerrville Festival in TX and won the New Folk contest, so I took those developments as omens that I was making the right decision at the right time.
- You were one of the first artists signed to Signature Sounds in the late 1990s. In a way, your career matured much as that prestigious label did. Do you recall getting the news that you’d been selected to join Signature Sounds?
- Signature was holding a late night open jam in a hotel room a music conference, and I was so shy I had to literally be dragged into the room by a friend and made to share my songs. It went well enough that I was invited to go record some demos at Signature Sounds’ studio. After that, the label head Jim Olsen began checking out my live shows locally. I still remember the time he showed up with his wife at my gig, a couple days after she’d given birth to twins, and surprised me even more by offering me a deal after the show. We ended up making a lot of great records together, and though I’m not officially on the label anymore, I still count Jim as one of my best friends in the business.
- Tell us about your work with Barnstar! How did that come about?
- My involvement with Barnstar! evolved out my friendship with Zack Hickman, who in addition to leading that band has also produced my two most recent solo records. He saw something in me that he thought would dovetail with Barnstar! and I’m glad he did. I can’t pick really fast, so bluegrass had always felt like it was beyond my realm of expertise. But it turns out I can sing really high, so I guess I’m halfway qualified to be in the band! I found the outfit so energizing that not long after we did our first gig I started writing songs with that particular group in mind. We’re just finishing up our second record now, which will hopefully be released this fall.
- Your collaboration with Jeffrey Foucault has been a constant for many year and was capped by the release of Seven Curses. Did you bond over murder ballads? Any thoughts about doing a sequel?
- Jeffrey and I bonded over a mutual love of Chris Smither, who we’d both grown up listening to in high schools a thousand miles apart (I’m from Massachusetts, he’s from Wisconsin). I was always the only young kid at a lot of Smither’s coffeehouse shows here in the Boston area, so when I met this other guy my own age who had as deep an attachment to the music it was a real revelation. I guess I’m glad I met him when I did, because if we’d met any earlier we probably would’ve just quit school and formed a band. Each of our voices is distinctive on its own, but together we have a deeply intuitive blend. We’re guys, so we’re not naturally inclined to spend a lot of time talking or mapping out who sings which notes when we play together — we just do it. We teamed up again recently on a track for a Chris Smither tribute record and all the magic was still there, so I hope we’ll get together for another project at some point.
- How did you and Lori McKenna first meet and what was it like producing her last CD?
- Lori and I were first introduced to each other by Matt Smith at Club Passim, but we got to know each other a little better when we both lost the same songwriting contest, maybe 17 or 18 years ago. All these years later, she is like my musical big sister . . . I just can’t imagine my life in music without her. Producing her Massachusetts record was big for me; I had never helmed that sort of production before so her confidence in me was both gratifying and a bit terrifying. I’m really proud how that record showcases her talents. We just recently finished up another record together, just the two of us with acoustic guitars playing live in the studio for two days, which was completely different than our approach to Massachusetts. Even though we’ve known each other awhile I am grateful we still feel like we are breaking new musical ground together.
- Give us the scoop about your forthcoming CD. How would you describe it? Anything different that we can look forward to?
- I wish I was ready to start talking about the new record. I’m nearly done with the artistic part, the recording and mixing, all the stuff that really lights my creative fires. I am trying to enjoy that creative honeymoon as long as I can before the next phase of the project kicks in. I know I’ll have to do the promotional stuff soon, and figuring out how to talk about the record so folks are motivated to listen to it is important, but honestly that’s my least favorite thing to do. I will say I’ve been toiling on it almost entirely on my own for the last 6 months, though I brought in some friends to play and sing in the last couple months, and they helped carry me over the finish line. It will be released this fall and believe me, when it’s time to start talking about it, you won’t be able to shut me up.