Transcending the Suffering

Coming out of the original late seventies “punk” scene in Pittsburgh, PA, with his band No Shelter (known for the song “Brooks Robinson’s Camp”) at a certain point Robert Wagner realized his songwriting muse was looking for a more direct outlet to listeners’ ears, minds and hearts. The band was part of Western PA punk’s “first wave,” which Robert describes this way: “It was really pretty open-ended. People played all kinds of music. It was what you would now call indie music…everybody’s welcome as long as you have something to bring to table.

“By the time…hardcore punk had emerged,” Robert continues, “for me, I kind of realized I’m a good lyricist, I’m a good writer, I’m putting out too much information with lyrics to compete with loud drums and guitars. So I had to find a different delivery system. So my brother (a violin player) and I started the Little Wretches as a vehicle for my songwriting”

Although playing solo has been Roberts’s general MO for the last 15 years or so, the latest Little Wretches album, Red Beets & Horseradish, features the band’s full lineup. Along with Robert on guitars and lead vocals there’s Mike Madden (drums), John Carson (bass) H.K. Hilner and Hollis Greathouse (piano), and Rosa Colucci (lead vocals). Emma Golebie and Jack Erdie also help out on background vocals.

Released back in March 2022, the record has a distinct Easter/Passover theme rooted in the realities of life in a locale that Robert knows well.  “I don’t like the term ‘Rust Belt’…” he says, “but I’m writing about the people who remained in the river towns of Western Pennsylvania when the industry that created those towns was no longer there. So we have songs about old people, sick people, crazy people, people who were alone, people who were struggling to raise their families in a tenuous economy. And you would think that would be depressing material…It’s more about the spirit that sustains people…It’s kind of uplifting.”

The album title refers to a relish usually served around the Easter or Passover holidays by the various people groups of Eastern Europe and their descendants. Serbs, for example, consider the red of the beets as symbolic of the blood of their people, and the horseradish the bitterness of their suffering. For others, it evokes the blood of their savior and the bitterness of his suffering. For people in the Jewish tradition the beets are merely for flavor, but the bitter horseradish represents the memory of suffering in bondage.

You can hear Robert’s previous conversation on Americana Music Profiles here.

Check out The Little Wretches’ website here. Listen to the full interview here.

By Dan Walsh