Commissioning An Ode: The Solid And Soulful Songs Of The Steel Wheels

by | Nov 18, 2021 | MUSIC

With Everyone A Song, Volume Two, Harrisonburg’s The Steel Wheels bring us their second collection of songs commissioned by fans — a collection that reveals the difficult emotions and deep sentiments that lie at the heart of ordinary human experience.

The rustic jangle of the banjo leads us into the beginning of the new record by the Steel Wheels, entitled Everyone A Song, Volume Two, released November 5. These Harrisonburg heartstring-strummers are releasing another volume of true-life folk music. The album is about people like you and me, and pets sometimes too. 

It is also about much more than that. It is about home. It is about the outpouring of humanity that comes from a collective traumatic reckoning. It’s about how to hug people when you can’t touch them. It’s about the will to survive, and the want to heal, and the need to love. 

All of us, especially performers, had to accept the change that was COVID-19. The Steel Wheels did so by taking song commissions, offering a way to fill a room with love when you couldn’t do it yourself. They offered an appealing product. They offered the ability to become alive in a way that will endure when you are gone. They offered a way to tell someone you love them in an ancient language, or have something to recall in the nursing home when all else evades you. The Steel Wheels offered a way to combat darkness. 

The first song on the second volume of these requested odes (the first volume was released in November 2020) is rooted in the fond nostalgia of someone who built a strong foundation for his family. “Where I’m From” was commissioned by a man as a refrain for an old Catholic School in Chicago that was a part of his life, from pupil to Papa. The slanted floors of his church appear in the lyrics, by way of request and aesthetic necessity. It’s the little things.  

The second song, “Time is All I Need,” was requested by a woman who did not know she was around a man that would be her husband until it was either too late, or just the right time. There is an endearing comedic trope that watered the covered seed of their attraction. This song made me think about the things in life that grow on you — like the concept of this record, or the music behind it. 

At some point during this album I was struck by the idea that the lyrics, by merit of content alone, were profound. The bulk of the pressure of being accessible is taken off the writer when they are writing about a human experience, not their human experience. Unless you are blocking out the sun like a Simpsons villain, I’m sure there is a nugget of relatability that will pan out here if you pay attention.

Notably, the song “Lifeline” is about the complex creature comforts of having pets and how they help us through our day. It made me smile and think of the places I find love. I thought about my bed, in the mornings, when my cats purr their approval of me and make biscuits on my blankets.

The last song on the album is a treasure wrought in tragedy. It is called “Lullaby.” It was commissioned by parents who had lost their child. They wanted the band to craft a lullaby that they could sing to their future children. Strength abides in this song. The swelling soar of a sweet fiddle beckons you into the beginning of the song as the vocal harmonies of The Steel Wheels rock you to the end of the record.

I didn’t know how I felt about this album at first, but the deft musicality was a beautiful underscore to a modern piece of folk history. We are all human, whether we feel like a million bucks or a dumpster fire. Or, in the case of 2020, when the world is on fire in a dumpster. I think the collective drive to survive and thrive is what made me really stop and listen to Everyone a Song, Volume Two. I saw a shadow of myself reflected, like I was on a cold sidewalk in warm clothes, aspirating clouds, lamplights glowing; almost home.

Photos courtesy The Steel Wheels

George Wethington

George Wethington

George Wethington is a master of the interviewing process and a connoisseur of collegiate admissions. He likes to spend time in nature. It is his nature.

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