By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
PLUNKED DOWN BETWEEN Ween and line dancing: That's where Country Music News stuck the Wheels when the paper ran a review of the band's eponymous debut on the same page as Ween's 12 Golden Country Hits and instructions for the new "Bronco Stomp." It's a strange place for a country act to be. But Wheels, the "First All Black Country Band," is a strange commodity, and their sketchy management hopes they'll be a sellable one as well.
Perhaps the ultimate staple of whitey-dom, New Country pushes a pasty vision of Americana, and up until now, Wheels have been pedaling unsuccessfully around a country-music scene that allows for dozens of Clint Blacks but no black Clints. But what happens when the Billy Ray Cyrus tape starts to wear thin and the Jeep Cherokee set goes a wranglin' fer somethin' differn't? Enter Wheels manager Billy Truitt. Seemingly cut from the same mold as Cowboy Jack Clement--the infamous Nashville businessman who discovered black country pioneer Charlie Pride--Truitt is a snake-oil salesman looking to give the country world the same old sound in a brand Nubian bag.
And he seems pretty damn taken with his project, and himself. Truitt was genuinely surprised (not to mention a tad hurt) when he got word that he wasn't going to be interviewed along with his band. Yet, after grousing about the impossibility of making time for journalists in the band's busy Nashville recording schedule, Truitt finally agreed to give the reins over to vocalist Donald Hopkins (though he was obviously coaching his charge from the wings during the Q&A).
Alabama-born Hopkins had been a preteen drummer in gospel bands before joining Wheels, an already-established gospel group stuck in baby-band putter. When the hapless foursome entered a True Value-sponsored country-music contest on a whim, and went away winners, the decision was finalized: It was Opry or bust. Truitt soon latched on, and Wheels has been working the casino circuit ever since. "We've worked at Mystic Lake Casino before," Hopkins says. "It's not as good as a honky-tonk, but people seem to enjoy themselves."
The lead Wheel is pleased with the way his career is going, and he doesn't hold a grudge against Charlie Pride fans hungry for covers or the Branson, Missouri sojourners his band meets as it tours the slot-machine circuit. "People come up and ask if we do any of Charlie Pride's music. I like his music, but I never gave it any thought," Hopkins says. "I have people that come up to us and invite us into their homes. I had one guy who had his own golf course, and he offered for us to play there for nothing. What more can you ask for?"
Wheels play at Treasure Island Resort & Casino in Red Wing through Saturday; call 1-800-222-7077.