The return to live touring for the Steel Woods is achingly bittersweet, the rollicking Southern roots rockers still coming to terms with the recent death of co-founder Jason “Rowdy” Cope, who died on January 16, 2021, at age 42 from complications of diabetes.
“We just played our first weekend of shows in a long time, and it wasn’t like riding a bike,” says Wes Bayliss of the Steel Woods. “The muscles have forgotten, but we are getting into the swing of things. It’ll never be the same without having ‘Rowdy’ out there, knowing that you can’t re-create it, and it’s a different thing. But we need to keep going and carry the torch and carry on. He wouldn’t have it any other way, either.”
The hard-charging, hard-living, road veteran Rowdy Cope and the younger, much greener Bayliss formed the Steel Woods in Nashville in 2016. Both Cope, who arrived in the city from Los Angeles, and Bayliss, an Alabama transplant, were attached to several different projects at the time, busily freelancing their services to make ends meet.
“Rowdy and I met through a show just outside of Nashville,” says Bayliss. “I was playing on my own a lot and he was on the road a lot. We played the same gig a couple of times. We became buddies and we talked about putting a band together. Our guitarist [and Rowdy’s replacement] Tyler [Powers] knew Rowdy since 2004 in Los Angeles, and they had traded gigs. Rowdy and Tyler were friends, and, turned out, Rowdy and I were too… It is hard to find a player who is that distinguishable and original in note, the tone, and the licks, like Rowdy was. Folks that have heard Rowdy a lot, they could pick him out from out of one hundred pickers.”
The Steel Woods released its third and perhaps most polished album, All of Your Stones, in May, 2021, a powerful series of compilations that are now all the more touching and resonating after the abrupt loss of Cope. Melodic, with inky-black lyrics, some of the most memorable songs cling to the listener like a wet wool blanket.
“We never had had this much time to work on a record,” says Bayliss. “We wrote most of the songs together. Rowdy would write a part and bring it to me, or I’d write a part of a song and I would bring it to him. Somehow, it would come together and we’d finish it.”
Wes Bayliss was born and raised in a town of less than 200 people, Woodland, Alabama, where he was cushioned by a number of relatives who were guitar pickers and spiritual singers. These family connections taught him the harmonica, the guitar, and a host of other instruments. Before he was even a teenager, Wes had accumulated plenty of performance experience as a member of an itinerant gospel band; many weekends were spent alongside his noisy and passionate kinsfolk, bunched up in a big, clanking bus, fated for churches, religious gatherings, and community festivals.
“My grandfather played guitar and my uncle really worked with me,” says Bayliss. “If I learned something, they wanted me to learn it the right way. I was homeschooled for a lot of my school years. Whether or not they were consciously putting a new instrument in my hand every few months or not, I’m glad that they did.”
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of different bands vying for a slight share of the spotlight and a small swath of the crowd. The Steel Woods were talented and fiery and hybridized enough to make their sound – equal parts wistful Southern, old school country, downright rock n’ roll, and modern grit – stick with the public. Reverential and raucous Southern rock would be a pertinent description, but also an oversimplified one.
“One of the proudest things I could say about the new record is that we didn’t have anyone there to say, now, don’t do this, or to do that. We’ve been country enough. We’ve been rock enough. And a big part of the sound is how our music lives in both spectrums. We’ve always gone with what we think has sounded good. Though you can’t leave the category blank on everything, we said from the start that we would not put ourselves in a corner, and we’d let people decide what they think it is.”
Bayliss says that he and his bandmates will do everything in their power to deliver the same variety of reliable yet distinct live performance that propelled their musical idols such as the group Lynyrd Skynyrd (which first formed in 1964 and continues to roll on) from ordinary regional acts to cultural demigods.
“We might have the same set list, or whatnot, but it’s never the same note part on every solo. I don’t want to play it just like the record. “Rowdy” surely didn’t. We don’t. You got to have a different solo or a different lick. We are that kind of band: a real live bunch of guys playing music, as opposed to copying tracks or something else.”
“Yellowstone” TV Series
One song by the Steel Woods might be more relevant than all of the others to people in Montana. Indeed, followers of Kevin Costner’s brawling, bawdy hit television series “Yellowstone” might easily recognize an original of theirs called “Axe,” heard during an episode from the show’s second season. Another tune from the band will be included in an upcoming third season episode.
“That’s one of the first shows that I’ve been in to in a long time,” says Bayliss. “Since my first time there, I’ve said that my second favorite place on earth was in Montana – with Alabama being number one.”