By David Rolland
By David Von Bader
By Rebecca Bulnes
By Laurie Charles
By Chuck Strouse
By Lee Zimmerman
By Laurie Charles
"Everyone likes this music ... from little kids to older folks," says vocalist and rhythm guitarist Paul Feltman. "It's not just cultural. American roots music is familiar to the ear of most people regardless of nationality because it is basic and similar to roots music in other cultures."
"Some are quite surprised to find that they are enjoying a type of music that they had made a point to avoid in the past, and that's really cool to be a sort of musical proselytizer," DeAngelis maintains. "For others it's because they've discovered this side of American music through the recent Johnny Cash movie Walk the Line or maybe O Brother, Where Art Thou?, or they've gotten hip to the whole Americana thing."
Even so, the bandmates seem somewhat reticent to typecast their sound. While the music generally takes a traditional tack, the group sports a thoroughly modern attitude. "Deep down the band is too steeped in the traditions of rock and roll to be an honest-to-goodness country band," DeAngelis observes. "The energy and attitude of rock music propels us beyond being a dyed-in-the-wool country band.... We all share a love for this style of music, [but] no one in the Wheelers is going to wear a damn cowboy hat or vote Republican."
Despite being weaned on classic rock the Stones, the Who, the Beatles, the Yardbirds, Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, Elton John and inheriting a collection of forty-fives from an older brother and sister ("one-hit-wonder psychedelic garage bands from the mid-Sixties like the Count Five, the Standells, the Music Machine, the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, the Move, the Blues Magoos"), DeAngelis says the influence of country music was never far away while he was growing up. "Dad is a huge fan of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. Bob Wills and his band would come and play at the army air corps base Dad was stationed at in 1945. Even now he insists on hearing öSan Antonio Rose' at least once a day, which sorta drives my mom crazy.
"I didn't really get into country music until I started listening to the Byrds and Bob Dylan. I just went backwards from there into Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Gram Parsons ... then Merle Travis, Hank Williams, Buck Owens and His Buckaroos. This happened somewhere around 1980 or '81, when I was seventeen or eighteen years old," DeAngelis recalls. "So I was listening to the Clash, Elvis Costello, and the Sex Pistols and guys like Merle Haggard at the same time. When I was in high school, my next-door neighbor had a family bluegrass band. I remember going to sleep at night, hearing them practice stuff like 'Boil That Cabbage Down' and 'The Old Home Place.' Southern rock was huge in Central Florida when I was in high school and junior high school. I had to play the stuff in some bands I was in and when I was jamming with guys, but I always sorta dismissed it as shit-kicking music for rednecks. I appreciate it now, but at the time, I guess I was trying to distance myself from the whole redneck culture thing that was pretty dominant in Central Florida at the time."
The real turning point came when he discovered Gram Parsons, an influential member of the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers as well as the musician many credit with introducing country music to the rock and roll faithful. DeAngelis grew up near Parsons's hometown, which provided a further sense of affinity.
"The first time I ever heard about Gram Parsons was when I asked my brother if anyone from our area had ever hit it big in the music business," DeAngelis muses. "With the exception of Jim Morrison, who went to Melbourne High School, Gram Parsons was the only guy around my area to make a name for himself. He was from the town of Winter Haven. Some guy from my hometown of Satellite Beach played bass with him. Gram had a number of bands that used to play a teen club called the Tiger's Den up in Cocoa. The 18 Wheelers share something with Gram's situation in the fact that we're playing this kind of music for audiences here in Miami that, generally speaking, aren't that well versed in the genre of country music. So a lot of this stuff is brand-new for them in spite of the fact that some of the songs are a half-century old."
Parsons seems to be more than a mere influence, though. As far as the Wheelers are concerned, he's more a patron saint. "As a fan of the Byrds from their release of öMr. Tambourine Man' in 1965, I always counted them as an early and major influence on my playing style," says singer and lead guitarist John Gilson. "The blend of rock and roll and twangy country always seemed to appeal to me ... and when Gram joined the band, the move to country rock was complete."
"I listened to quite a bit of Dylan and Springsteen they were favorites of my older brothers," Feltman recalls. "As for Gram, he was the one that tied all of the country rock together for me, especially when I found out about his close association to Keith Richards and his influence on the Stones."