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One Hot Minute: The Steel Woods

By Baylen Leonard

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It’s cloudy in Springfield Missouri, and the weather is “fair to middlin’” according to Wes Bayliss, co-founder and lead singer of The Steel Woods. He’s pacing around a parking lot there when he picks up the phone – with the band back out on the road, it's seemingly business as usual for the group. They played in Iowa last night and are “somewhere else tomorrow” before they head down to Key West the week after for a festival.

What should, even in spite of COVID, be a pretty standard run of events for the band - new album, tour, promotion - is anything but. The group are coming to terms with the sudden death of co-founder and lead guitarist Jason “Rowdy” Cope, who passed away from complications due to diabetes in January. Bayliss and Cope were bandmates before becoming firm friends, joining the very same Nashville covers band before realizing the true potential of their partnership. Bayliss had grown up around music, playing harmonica in his family’s gospel group before teaching himself a variety of instruments. Cope, meanwhile, forged a fond friendship with a certain Jamey Johnson – joining his group for nine years before founding his very own band. Upon forming in 2016, The Steel Woods quickly made their mark with their own brand of Southern Rock, cementing themselves as a vibrant and expressive force in the genre.

All Of Your Stones, their new album, was completed before Cope’s passing, yet is filled with autobiographical stories and fond penchants from his life. The redemption, grief and gratitude that weighs across the album is palpable, creating a moving and beautiful record that celebrates the life of a singular artist and lifelong friend to many. ‘I Need You’, a powerful cover of the Skynyrd staple that Cope decided the band should record is one of many bittersweet imprints on a record full of treasures and sentimental memories. A weighty duet, Bayliss and Ashley Monroe ache through the track, as counter-parting guitars showcase Cope’s idiosyncratic smoothness in playing. ‘Out of The Blue’ is one of the most heartbreaking moments. A song written by Cope following his diabetes diagnosis, its sense of redemption offers hope at the end of the tunnel – having become clean, sober and found a good state of mental health, he wrote the song with a sense of clarity and desire for the very moment. The tragedy of his diabetes being undiagnosed for so long and being the cause of his death adds even further burden and consequence to an already stark yet stunning song.

The album closes with its triumphant and emphatic title track. Written by Cope and his old friend Johnson, it’s an inspiring tale about no longer letting people get you down for what you’ve done or may do in your life. It’s the perfect embodiment of one of the finest, most personal and critically acclaimed albums of their already stellar career.

Now, with the blessing of Cope’s family, the group are out on the road, celebrating the life of their friend and bandmate who in a short time left an indelible legacy. While Bayliss is undoubtedly finding the time reflective and difficult, what’s driving him is the fact they are out sharing his music with the people that love it most, something Bayliss himself says “Rowdy would have had us do”.

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Thank you for this album. For this to come out and for you guys to keep going means a lot to many, particularly for those of us who have lost loved ones ourselves recently. For you, this album must now have a resonance that couldn’t have been anticipated when you recorded it?

I think so too. I was saying it’s a hard thing to do, but the only option was to put out the record and keep going. I know for sure that what’s Rowdy would have had us do. It’s not ideal, it’s something you don’t ever expect to happen - then it does. Now, we are just figuring it out.

I know, for myself, when you are in the middle of that storm and dealing with these emotions of grief, loss shock and anger, it’s hard to see clearly. Was there ever a moment when you thought maybe you wouldn’t release this album or maybe even the band wouldn't go on?

There was a little while where I just didn't think about the band, work, any of it. You immediately go straight to the family and then you talk about the other stuff later on. There was a moment where it was in the back of my mind but knew we’d get together and figure it out. I knew with this record that we’d put a lot of work into it and a lot of Rowdy’s stories are told, so I don't think there was ever a question of whether we wouldn’t go on.

You mentioned you deal with the important stuff right off the bat and with the other stuff later on. I know, for me, sometimes the loss is all you want to talk about and sometimes it’s the last. You now find yourself in this situation where you are expected to have to talk about it. How are you navigating this situation just for your own mental health?

Well, I understand that it's a lot of the news, and the biggest thing now is trying to put myself in your shoes and realize how awkward it might be for whoever is asking the questions to bring it up. I probably feel less weird about it than whoever is asking and worrying about upsetting me. It's just one of those things - it’s something to be talked about and I’m prepared for it.

I do think this album is a balm for people in a year where so many have had to deal with different degrees of loss and loneliness. From a personal perspective, how are you doing?

I’m making it. There was a little while where I went under a rock and didn't want to talk to anybody, but I’ve got a wife and three kids – I’ve got plenty to keep me busy and my mind on other things. I just focused on that and got through it. I’ve still got so much stuff that I haven’t replied to and that I feel awful for, but I'm really ok. I’ve come to terms with this and everything is kind of looking up now.

I guess, in a way, and tell me if I’m wrong here, but this album and performing these songs is a way to still feel close to Rowdy.

That’s what I told him when we were making the record - there were so many parts of this that were his idea or his story, and I said “this is your record dude”. There are a couple of things that were a little off the subject where I wasn’t sure if it would work itself out, but then he passed. I then knew these are the things that are now are totally relevant.

I think it’s important to underline, despite the loss of life surrounding this album, there's a sense of joy that surrounds it?

There certainly is, the whole idea of it is to be in a good place. Like within ‘Out Of The Blue’, in that song, he’s “out of the blue” and now, he totally is. It’s just one of those things, but it definitely provides a positive message, there’s joy in it for sure.

The Steel Woods new album, All of Your Stones, is out now via Woods Music / Thirty Tigers. Watch the video for the title track below.

Photography by Derek Stanley.