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Roots musician returns to some family roots in south central Kansas

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – For the first time since he began playing and recording with his current band, a young musician with local ties will perform with that band in south central Kansas.

Trent Wagler, a Haven High School graduate who also attended Hesston Middle School, and the Steel Wheels are in concert at Bethel College’s Krehbiel Auditorium Monday, Oct. 1, at 8:30 p.m. Bethel College and Hesston College Campus Ministries are sponsoring the concert. Admission is free, with a freewill offering to be taken for tornado clean-up and relief efforts in Greensburg.

The band’s gig in Newton is their last stop on the self-styled “Mennonite Tour,” which began Sept. 19 at Eastern Mennonite High School in Harrisonburg, Va., where the band is based, and continues with dates in Goshen, Ind. (home of Goshen College) and Iowa Mennonite School in Kalona, Sept. 28 and 29, before concluding at Bethel College.

The group performs what it calls “original old time and Americana music, or ‘roots music.’” Their acoustic style conjures old time and country folk music, with elements of funk, soul and blues. Among their musical influences, they list Townes Van Zandt, Jerry Garcia, Stephane Grappelli, Norman Blake, Ben Harper and Ani DiFranco. (For more information on Wagler, the band and their music, see

Wagler recorded his first album of all original music, Journal of a Barefoot Soldier, in 2004. Earlier this year, his first recording with the Steel Wheels, Blue Heaven, was released. The Steel Wheels is Eric Brubaker on fiddle and Brian Dickel on bass. Jay Lapp of the Goshen-based Goldmine Pickers sometimes joins the group on mandolin and guitar.

Wagler, Brubaker (an Oregon native who grew up mostly in the Harrisonburg area) and Dickel (from Frytown, Iowa) met when they were students at Eastern Mennonite University. Both Wagler and Dickel were members of musical families and began performing as young children, and the two of them were part of a punk band in their early college days. Dickel and Brubaker were members of a bluegrass and old time band called the Leftover Biscuit Boys.

Brubaker and his wife are spending the year in Cherry Grove, W.Va., volunteering with Habitat for Humanity. Dickel and his wife live in the Shenandoah Valley near McGaheysville, Va. He builds acoustic guitars for Huss & Dalton Guitar Company of Staunton, Va. Wagler and his family live in Harrisonburg, and he is youth program coordinator at a sexual assault and domestic violence crisis center in Woodstock, Va.

Between 1999 and 2000, Wagler traveled to Palestine and the Gaza Strip to teach music and English to Palestinians. While he was there, one of his students taught him to play folk songs on the ‘oud, a traditional Arabic instrument.

This return to a more traditional form of music, Wagler says, inspired him “to move away from ‘pop’ styles of music so common in America and explore my own roots, in music and in life,” and also provided direction for Blue Heaven.

“So much beauty, meaning and insight can be found if we take the time to focus on our past,” Wagler says. “We can drive an old time fiddle tune with sweaty punk rock energy and then turn around with a tear-dripping ballad.”

Wagler’s musical influences help explain his acoustic sound. He grew up listening to his father, Howard Wagler (pastor of South Hutchinson Mennonite Church since 1993), and three uncles sing in a traditional gospel quartet.

“We went to Bean Blossom (Ind.) Mennonite Church every Monday night for quartet practice,” Trent Wagler recalls. “So music and family were intertwined. My mom [Cathy] and some of the in-laws also formed a women’s quartet and it literally became a family affair. I was onstage singing by about the age of six or seven.”

Wagler, lead vocal and guitar when performing with the Steel Wheels, earlier played electric bass in a handful of punk and jam bands before taking up ‘oud and Arabic music. Now, he devotes much of his time to writing and performing original music.

The new album reflects both that originality and deeply traditional styles. “It was important to record traditional tunes [such as ‘Shady Grove’ and ‘Wayfaring Stranger’] on Blue Heaven,” Wagler says. “But you take something at least a century old, put it through your body, your voice, your instruments, and it comes out with your brand on it. There’s nothing saying you have to play a traditional tune in a traditional way.”

For more information on the Trent Wagler and the Steel Wheels concert at Bethel College, contact Mark Smith at Bethel (316-284-5332), or Kevin Wilder at Hesston College (620-327-8237),

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