Q&A with Van Wagner

The Bullfrog Brewery, 229 W. Fourth St., will again welcome Danville musician Van Wagner to perform from 7 to 9 p.m. Sunday.

As an educator and musician, Wagner incorporates experiences from both throughout every aspect of his life, whether it is when he is teaching environmental science at Lewisburg Area High School or performing at local venues.

He has been recognized for his education of the environment, being awarded the Sandy Cochran Award for Natural Resource Education from the Pennsylvania Forestry Association.

Wagner has been busy promoting his 16th release, “Started With A Board.” His music incorporates Pennsylvania culture and history, as well as the environment – all three of which Wagner is passionate about.

The Sun-Gazette recently caught up with Wagner to chat about his new release, how it almost didn’t happen, and the importance of education.


WIEGAND: You’re influenced by Pennsylvania culture and history. Any specific place that you think of when writing?

VAN WAGNER: I especially love the mountains in our area. I grew up on Montour Ridge in Danville area. I still live on that same ridge. The trees, rocks and creeks around this whole area of Pennsylvania have stories to tell.

BW: Being a teacher and a musician, do you ever get to cross those paths? Do you ever have opportunities where you can play music in the classroom?

VW: Music crosses all types of barriers. I often use music in the classroom to open minds and draw students in. I especially like how music can put a human face on a topic.

For example, I teach about coal mining in my high school classes at Lewisburg. But the story of coal in Pennsylvania is so much more than simply a black rock that burns. I may use my song “Bootleg Miner” to expose my students to the real-life issues that faced our ancestors. Immigrants came to American needing work. They often found it in local coal mines. The fact that the conditions, while terrible, were often better than the life they left in the “old country” should tell us a lot about where we come from as a people and how great we have it today.

BW: Tell me a little bit about your new album, “Started with a Board.”

VW: This is my 16th CD release. The album almost was lost due to technological issues. In fact at one point I thought it was gone forever and moved on to another project (number 17 is in the works) … then my friend Jason Perez, who recorded the album, told me everything was recovered and ready for release. I was thrilled because these are some of my favorite songs I’ve written to date.

The title track is especially one I like sharing with audiences. Think of all the things that started with a board … transcontinental railroad; the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria; baseball; and guitars!

BW: In 2012, you were awarded the Sandy Cochran award for natural resource education from the Pennsylvania Forestry Association. What was that moment like?

VW: I am so lucky to work in a school district with amazing educators. This award belongs to all of the teachers at the Lewisburg Area School District as much as it does to me, because they add to my strengths and compensate for my weaknesses.

BW: You performed at the Smoked Country Jam Festival this year and past years as well. Do you perform at other annual festivals? What’s the atmosphere like at your festival performances versus a show at a smaller venue?

VW: Playing at a festival feels like a community, a family reunion. Often when I play at a club or smaller venue it often feels like strangers whom I need to win over. The beauty of the Bullfrog is that it’s a small venue with that huge family and community feeling. I feel right at home when I’m singing there.

BW: You also do educational programs. Besides having the background with teaching, what made you want to offer that to the public as well?

VW: There is such a need to keep Pennsylvania history alive. This is especially true with our youth. I am so passionate about our heritage that I took matters in my own hands and created several programs about coal mining, logging, iron works, wildlife and more.

I often hear people lament that schools just don’t teach as much local history as they used to. My charge to those people is: “So what are you going to do about it?” I am not going to wait for Harrisburg to come around. I visit local schools as often as I can to help tell the story of who we are and where we’ve come from.

BW: What can the Bullfrog Brewery audience expect at your performance?

VW: I won’t be playing because it’s a job. I’ll be playing because I’m coming home. It’ll be a family reunion with a mix of old and new songs.

It’ll be a celebration of the new CD. Whether folks are seeing me for the first or 31st time, they’ll get an honest dose of Pennsylvania mountain ballads that have to do with who we are and where we’ve come from.

For more information on Van Wagner and “It Started with a Board,” visit www.vanwagnermusic.com.