Brian Dickel '98, Eric Brubaker '01, Trent Wagler '02 and Jay Lapp are the Steel Wheels, coming Saturday, Oct. 14, to Eastern Mennonite University's Homecoming and Family Weekend festivities. The university celebrates its Centennial during the 2017-18 academic year, with many special activities. (Photo by Sandlin Gaither)

The Steel Wheels — with deep EMU roots — to headline Centennial festivities

The Steel Wheels, the nationally recognized Shenandoah Valley-based roots music band consisting of Eastern Mennonite University alumni Trent Wagler ’02, Eric Brubaker ’01, and Brian Dickel ’98, as well as bandmate Jay Lapp, will join to headline the celebration of the university’s centennial at Homecoming and Family Weekend this October.

On Saturday, Oct. 14, at 4 p.m., the band will play a concert of its bluegrass- and folk-infused repertoire on the front lawn of the Harrisonburg campus.

The concert is the premier event scheduled during the afternoon Fall Festival on the front lawn, which also includes the Li’l Royals Zone, with kids’ games and inflatables, food trucks, and plenty of lawn space to set out blankets and lawn chairs.

Tickets are required to enter the concert venue. Adult admission is $15 in advance, or $20 on-site. Students are admitted for $5 with an EMU identification card. Concert-goers ages 12 and under are admitted free.

Tickets may be ordered through the EMU Box Office in the Campus Center starting Aug. 1. For more information, call 540-432-4582 or visit the box office Monday-Friday, 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., starting Sept. 1.

Cross-cultural leaves indelible mark

The Steel Wheels are currently on a 40-city tour, following the May release of their new album Wild As We Came Here. The album has been warmly praised, with one reviewer describing it as “ten singularly brilliant songs that form a cohesive document of life in western Virginia.”

Interviewed from the road, Wagler, the band’s lead singer and writer of most of its material, says his EMU education had enormous importance in his development as a performing artist, and specifically as a songwriter.

Referring to the university’s program of cross-cultural study, a staple of its core curriculum for more than 30 years, Wagler said, “it had a huge impact on me, and is one of the biggest things I point to when I try to explain what’s distinctive about EMU.”

He said the universality of the cross-cultural experience is key to understanding its significance for EMU undergraduates.

“Everyone on campus is either preparing for, or coming back from, an experience like that,” Wagler said.

In his own case, fulfillment of this requirement took the form of a year-long internship at a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip dividing Egypt and Israel. It was arranged through the Mennonite Central Committee’s Serving and Learning Together (SALT) program.

While overseas, Wagler gave guitar lessons to a young Palestinian, who in return showed him how to play a traditional stringed instrument of the Middle East called an “oud.” In the process, Wagler discovered a strong affinity for the region’s folk music.

“I couldn’t read the billboards or speak the language that well, so what I was listening to wasn’t filtered through what was popular or what other people were listening to,” he says.

These experiences led Wagler, once he returned to Virginia, to begin exploring his own musical heritage – including Appalachian music and the music of the great singer-songwriters of the ᾽70s and ᾽80s – and to begin seriously mining the rich vein of Americana to which he has devoted himself since then.

Artistic influences found in theater and music professors

Wagler, who pursued a double major in theater and peace, justice, and conflict studies (now peacebuilding and development) at EMU, listed former theater professors Barbra Graber and Ingrid De Sanctis among his other important influences.

“Barb urged her students to see that everyone has the potential to be an artist,” he said. “And Ingrid was the first to encourage me to take my art seriously – to treat it as a discipline, and really work at it.”

Wagler cited De Sanctis’s play Torba, based on the stories of refugees from the civil war that raged in the Balkans during the 1990s, as an early source of inspiration.

“Telling real and honest stories, and trying to put drama and art around that, was something that really clicked for me,” he said.

Another EMU professor who made a deep impression was Ken Nafziger, who recently retired after 39 years on the music faculty. Wagler and Steel Wheels bandmate Eric Brubaker both sang under Nafziger as members of the Chamber Singers, a select student choir.

“He didn’t limit himself or his choirs to only learning and singing music from one particular place,” said Wagler. “He really pushed us to leave behind our familiar environment and comfortable habits, and that definitely had an influence on me.”

In addition to their Oct. 14 appearance at the EMU Fall Festival, Wagler and The Steel Wheels will also be back in the Valley July 14-16 to host the fifth annual Red Wing Roots Music Festival. The popular three-day event is staged at Natural Chimneys Park, located about 20 miles south of EMU in Mount Solon. EMU is among the event sponsors.