Wheelers: Beloved Tuscaloosa band is taking off 

Gabriella Puccio-Johnson, Contributing Writer

Wheels up! The band Wheelers is taking off. On Jan. 20, one of Tuscaloosa’s local bands released its debut EP “Run for Shelter.” And according to band members, this is only the beginning of what they hope to achieve together.  

Avid fans of jam-band, indie and rock sounds will love Wheelers. According to the band, “Run for Shelter,” has a lot of inspiration from Pearl Jam, Pink Floyd and Grateful Dead, but still showcases its own unique sound. 

Wheelers has four active members, three of whom are students at The University of Alabama: lead singer Graham Humphreys, guitarist Justin Ritondo, bassist Matthew McDavid and drummer Johnny Tidwell III. Although, they have had other musicians work with them over the years, such as drummer Jay Hill. 

On Feb. 3, Wheelers opened for a Birmingham band called The Vegabonds at Druid City Music Hall, which marked its first tour and show with the band. However, for several years prior, the band could often be heard playing at the Tuscaloosa bar, The Booth 

Humphreys, a senior majoring in physical therapy, said the song “Learning How to Walk” is a tribute to a family friend he watched recover from a car accident. In fact, as artists, the band members said many of their songs are tributes to people who have inspired them.  

For example, the song “Dry Land” was written mostly by Humphreys about a family member who struggled with addiction. He shared that this family member was so inspirational to him, as he overcame something so detrimental.  

“The idea for the song is you find safety, you find sobriety, you find closure or something you can hold onto,” Humphreys said.   

“I’ll bring my ideas to the band and they’ll make it better,” Humphreys said. “They always make it better.” 

McDavid, a senior majoring in operations management, joined forces with Humphreys after they met in English class during their freshman year. Humphreys expressed that he had spent his whole 2020 fraternity rush season searching for someone to start a band with him and was overjoyed to find McDavid.  

Together, Humphreys said the band is like a well-oiled machine. The members are so in sync with one another that they can read each other’s moods and adapt accordingly.  

“It’s just a certain relationship that you cultivate playing with the same group of guys on stage every night. It’s really like a brotherhood, a different kind of relationship,” Humphreys said. 

The song “Where you been” is undoubtedly the most personal to the band, but especially to Ritondo, a senior majoring in audio engineering. He used a very special guitar in the making of “Where you been,” his 1955 Gibson ES 335. The song is told from Humphreys’ point of view, watching Ritondo endure a tragic loss, but the band members shared that they wrote it collectively in one sitting. 

Ritondo was the third member to join Wheelers. He said that “Where you been” is very personal to him, and he spent several takes trying to nail the guitar solo.  

“Every solo is unique. The whole breakdown of ‘Where you been’ until the end was just me in the studio. I just put headphones on, and first tape went through the whole thing. And I kept doing it like for or five times after,” Ritondo said. “I kept saying I could do it better, like the perfectionist I am, but we played back the tapes and turns out the first one was my best.”  

Tidwell, a full-time musician in Tuscaloosa, performed for the first time with Wheelers on Feb. 3, sharing his unforgettable prowess on the drums. Going forward, Tidwell plans to continue with the band, giving it all he’s got.  

“After I dropped out of college I was going through a tough time, nobody supported me,” Tidwell said. “I found this spin at a bar, and I asked the band if I could play a song with them. Soon after they asked me to be their drummer. Then, I just recently found Wheelers.”  

As students, the members of Wheelers face many challenges. Between practicing, recording and performing, studying for tests and completing homework is how they fill their spare time. In fact, Ritondo, confessed that he was working on homework right before he went on stage.  

“At the end of the day, we’re working two jobs at the same time. Pretty much you work a job from the morning until whenever school is out. And then we work our job from nine o’clock at night until one in the morning,” Humphreys said. “It’s a juggling act.” 

Wheelers hope to take the band out of Tuscaloosa after the members graduate this spring. Their hope is to start in Asheville, North Carolina, or Austin, Texas, and continue to release short bursts of music. The band’s potential is limitless.  

Check out Wheelers’ social media pages for more details on upcoming shows and new music.