*This article appeared in June/July issue of Owensboro Living Magazine.
Bluegrass/Americana artist Mike Wheeler has recently made Owensboro home. Originally from Vermont, Wheeler went to the University of Vermont, and studied English.
“I’ve played music since I was young, started writing songs around 13, and always wanted to make music a central part of my life, if not the main focus, which it has been for the last five years more or less, with some freelance writing work mixed in,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler played in a handful of bands, starting with a rock band in high school. Together for seven years, the band toured the Northeast and Midwest. “It was a jam, southern-rock, jazz/funk type group, heavily influenced by classic rock, Grateful Dead, and Little Feat,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler’s Uncle Bob is credited with steering him toward bluegrass. “I was always drawn to early folk, Woody Guthrie and that type of thing, so bluegrass was a natural step for the collaborative setting– the folk sound mixed with vocal harmonies and a technical aspect,” Wheeler said. So when his first band broke up, it was a natural transition to join some buddies in their string band, Gold Town, and head off in the Bluegrass/Americana direction.
Gold Town recorded an album, then split after a good run, according to Wheeler. Wanting to see more of the country, Wheeler ended up moving to Georgia, where he toured with another original project for a couple years. That group toured New Zealand, Europe, and all up and down the east coast. From there, he joined Chris Henry & The Hardcore Grass, a Nashville-based group, where he was fortunate enough to play with some amazing musicians, and travel the country for a good stint. “That sharpened my singing and playing a whole lot,” Wheeler said. “I came out of that band ready to focus on songwriting and recording.”
Ready to take a break from the full-time band setting, Wheeler settled in Owensboro, where he released his first solo EP in February. Why Owensboro? Wheeler jokes that it was a southern belle that brought him to the city. But he admits, it is almost like coming full circle since “Banks of the Ohio” was one of the first songs he learned to play. “It’s a cool detail to live there now.”
“Owensboro is a peaceful city,” Wheeler said. “I like the small-town feel, the friendly folks, and the proximity to the country, to Nashville, Paducah, and Cincinnati. I love the river towns, especially in Western Kentucky. Friday After 5 is the type of event I feel most towns or cities could only pull off for one weekend a year, let alone 16. It’s a pretty incredible production and asset to the city, not to mention the RiverPark itself. There’s a very strong sense of community here; everyone seems to take care of one another in a bit of an old-school way, which is refreshing, and seems to be increasingly rare elsewhere. People are proud to be from Owensboro, and from Kentucky in general, which is infectious. While my home-state is vastly different in so many ways, there’s a similar sense of state pride, and I think that in itself strengthens the individual towns and cities.”
The songs from the EP were all written in various places over the last couple years, according to Wheeler. “I think Kentucky’s the only place where I wrote more than one of the tunes on my EP,” Wheeler said. His favorite song, “Charity Ball,” was written about the Junior League Charity Ball, something that southern belle introduced him to.
Wheeler says he has taken two or three cracks at an EP in the last handful of years, but a new band opportunity, or geographical shift would pop up, or he would simply second guess the material. “I had plenty of songs to choose from this time, and had a few picked out to record, but others were just ones I decided to try out on a whim and happened to get a good take,” Wheeler said. “I wanted to start off with an EP, something fairly stripped-down, as I’ve been doing a bit of solo gigging the past two years, and have spent a whole lot of time over the years just singing and playing the acoustic.”
To promote his EP, Wheeler tours across the country, all of which is “DIY,” coordinated and booked by him. “It’s a lot of work, but it helps to have friends in a few pockets of the country, and some supportive towns and venues to return to,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler recorded a follow-up LP last month, which he will likely put out by fall. “The full-length has drums, and bass, so I’m starting to deviate away from bluegrass at the moment, but I’m looking forward to recording an album of bluegrass originals when the cards line up in the next year or so, and I’ve continued to gig in bluegrass combos from time to time,” Wheeler said.
As for the future, Wheeler is hoping for a lot more of the same – writing, recording and continuing to put out original music. “I’ve written a lot of songs in Kentucky over the past year. Must be something in the air.”