Building community is part of what music, and all good art, does. It brings us together. Music is a common rhythm, a poetic notion, an underlying common language for us all. A good mixtape grabs hold of that commonality and builds on it, with a few surprises along the way. As a band, The Steel Wheels curate a music festival each year, and a mixtape, or playlist, is kind of the digital version of that venture. So, let’s stop talking about it, and start building community with a PERFECT mix. – Trent Wagler, The Steel Wheels
Fruit Bats* – “Humbug Mountain Song”
Let’s start with a groove anyone can get behind. It’s accessible for the pop music lovers who wandered into this gathering — they didn’t know they liked the banjo at all until the second half of this intro kicks in. But now they’re engaged. And why can’t the piano, banjo, and drums live together in harmony? Stop closing your mind.
Kristin Andreassen* – “Get Together”
A good mixtape needs to establish that everyone is included. Loading things up with all your favorite new and rare songs isn’t always inviting. A cover song is common language at the very best. A little freshening up of a classic song will get us all swaying together in time. And what better theme than coming together? Now we’ve got everyone in the room in tune and we can introduce more variance in the mix.
The Wood Brothers* – “Sing About It”
The foundation of community is the strength we have together. Nothing better exemplifies this than the tight grooves and sweet harmonies of the Wood Brothers. And their message here is spot on. No matter where we are in our journey of pain, loss, trouble, or fear, singing a song just might help it pass.
Kaia Kater* – “New Colossus”
Now that we’re all in this, let’s tie the knots tighter. This song is like a sweet honey that helps stick us tightly. The way the melody veers and twists through literary verses encourages your conversations to dig a little deeper.
Jerry Garcia & David Grisman – “Russian Lullaby”
I think it’s more than nostalgia that brings me back to these late Garcia recordings, when he teamed up with longtime friend and musical pioneer David Grisman. The loose nature of these recordings makes you want to sit crisscross applesauce and share most embarrassing moments with a new acquaintance. If the ice wasn’t broken earlier, Jerry will rockabye you, baby. Collaborations are community building at their core.
River Whyless* – “All of My Friends”
Now that we’re all floating together in a musical high, don’t pull away. Leave the phones in your pocket. Let’s be here together fully. River Whyless is a band that simultaneously indicts and playfully dances with the information-overwhelmed age we live in.
Cedric Burnside* – “Hard To Stay Cool”
What is more true blue than these dyed in the wool Burnside family blues. Cedric Burnside’s whole album is full of these tasty grooves. It’s not hard for him to stay cool.
Tim O’Brien* & Darrell Scott – “With a Memory Like Mine”
Here’s another one of my favorite collaborations. The album Real Time by Tim and Darrell has had such a musical impact on me. To hear two great songwriters, who sing and play any instrument they pick up with such mastery, is humbling and inspiring.
Bahamas – “No Wrong”
I’m obsessed with Bahamas’ music right now. The guitar, the groove, and the vocals. The presence of this recording is also so immediate and direct. When you’re among your people, it feels like you can do no wrong.
The Steel Wheels* – “Road Never Ends”
I couldn’t help but include one from our new record. The love and joy of the road is bittersweet. This song puts words to the difficulties of transience while acknowledging the beauty of the strange kind of mobile community it creates.
Ana Egge – “Rock Me (Divine Mother)”
There are few songwriters who tap into deep spiritual depths without cliché like Ana Egge. She’s a treasure. And this song has slayed me every single time I’ve ever heard it.
Tinariwen – “Imidiwan Win Sahara” (feat. Tunde Adebimpe)
All music conjures up a sense of place. Tinariwen was introduced to me by our drummer, Kevin Garcia, and I’ve regularly wanted to go to where their sound takes me. As a songwriter and specifically a lyricist, it’s helpful to reset your listening ear and turn off the language centers of your brain by listening to music with lyrical content in a language you do not speak.
Dr. Dog – “Listening In”
A good mixtape has some curveballs. Dr. Dog has been a sonic companion for me since I first saw them live 10 years ago at Bristol Rhythm and Roots. The lyrical tapestry is so full and always connects through some kind of thought-lightning striking through your brain. I love the line, “I can hear the fear in me…talking.”
David Wax Museum – “Time Will Not Track Us Down”
We’re getting towards the end of our little mixtape. Like the Sunday afternoon lazy picnic, we are starting to wind it all down. David Wax is known for his high energy original Latin-inspired masterpieces, but this simple paired down guitar/vocal really calms my spirit and prepares us to part.
Robert Ellis & Courtney Hartman* – “Up On The Hill Where They Do The Boogie”
One more cover song for good measure. Let’s celebrate the most wacky and wonderful souls among us, and let’s boogie like John Hartford.
Josh Ritter – “Homecoming”
Remember that curating music for your gathering is a privilege. You are setting the sonic table for everyone in your presence. It’s also a responsibility. Everyone wants to feel at home at the end of the day. Everyone wants be at their best and be reminded that they are capable of their best. Music replenishes the various ways daily life drags us down. A mixtape is a good refuge and stand-in for when music festival season is slow.
Photo credit: Josh Saul
*2019 Red Wing performers. Red Wing Roots Music Festival takes place in Mt. Solon, Virginia, on July 12-14, and is hosted by The Steel Wheels