MAGNET Exclusive: Premiere Of The Steel Wheels’ “Hero” Video

Anyone with kids has likely had to modify their take on heroism at some point. “I’m kind of troubled by the concept—exalting a human person to hero status often leads to disappointment,” says Trent Wagler, chief singer/songwriter for the Steel Wheels. “When I became a dad, I saw I had a lot of unexamined stereotypical masculine ideas left inside me.”

Wagler’s well-regarded Americana outfit has been around for almost two decades—plenty of time for each of its five members to settle down, raise families and ponder what it entails to be a touring musician with real-life responsibilities, some of them hardly mundane. In 2019, the Virginia-based band had to contend with the tragic death of fiddle player Eric Brubaker’s young daughter after a sudden illness. During the pandemic, Wagler’s daughter, Maia, struggled with mental-health issues. His desperate efforts to help her inspired “Hero,” one of 12 tracks on the group’s forthcoming album, Sideways, out February 9 on the band’s Big Ring label.

The good news is that Maia is now a happy and productive sophomore at Virginia Commonwealth University. She choreographed and performed in the disarmingly tender video for “Hero,” joining Wagler, the rest of the Steel Wheels and other students from VCU’s dance department.

“Maia was a part of a whole generation of teens who had a hell of a time becoming young adults in the last few years during a pandemic, the mounting climate crisis and social and political reckonings of all kinds,” says Wagler. “The song was an acknowledgment of my own lack of ability to know how to be the dad I need to be, sliding into tropes of heroic rescue instead of what she often needed, which was space and openness to just move through space in her own way.”

Founded by Wagler and mandolinist Jay Lapp, the Steel Wheels began as an all-acoustic, bluegrass-flavored quartet beholden to Virginia’s mountain-music and string-band traditions. That changed with 2017’s Wild As We Came Here, their first album with producer Sam Kassirer (Lake Street Dive, Josh Ritter), who steered the band toward a more all-inclusive roots-rock sound that still left some room for experimentation. Kassirer was also on board for Sideways, which was recorded over a single week in southern Maine at the Great North Sound Society, where the Steel Wheels cooked their meals on a wood stove in an 18th-century farmhouse and came together as a band for the first time in more than two years. That joy of rediscovery permeates the music on Sideways, which bobs and weaves effortlessly from heartland rock to folky jams to the cosmic-country haze of the ’60 and ’70s Laurel Canyon scene. “Hero,” in particular, hinges on an easy, addictive groove that hints at Lowell George-era Little Feat. 

“The song—and certainly the video—plays with those old images of masculinity,” says Wagler. “Through her choreography, Maia pulls the good, discards the bad and literally teaches us a new dance. It’s the best kind of creation, where the result is simply a time capsule of an experience I’ll hold deeply in my heart. That little song created a setting for my daughter to teach me on her terms, in her artistic language. I’m proud of the song. I’m even prouder to be her dad.”

And we’re proud to premiere the video for the Steel Wheels’ “Hero.”

—Hobart Rowland