The Steel Woods
All of Your Stones
4 1/2 out of 5 stars
The third and arguably finest release from these Nashville based Southern rockers should have come with the anticipation it would elevate them to headliner status in larger venues. Instead, it’s tinged with tragedy.
Co-founder/ songwriter/guitarist Jason “Rowdy” Cope, who, along with fellow guitarist/frontman/singer Wes Bayliss anchored the unit, died in his sleep in January of this year. This album had just been completed and the finished mixes sent to Cope for approval.
That infuses an extra layer of reflection to many of the tracks, six out of the nine written or co-composed by Cope. They range from the achingly beautiful ballad “You Never Came Home,” the sweet, melancholy “Ole Pal” and the swamp blues of “Aiming for You” to the propulsive thundering red clay rocking of the opening “Out of the Blue.” The latter is one of the band’s most emotional moments as it describes Cope ultimately beating many of the substance and emotional demons that plagued him, sung over a tough, earth quivering riff.
There’s no doubt about the debt these guys pay to Lynyrd Skynyrd, both musically and vocally. While there are no “Free Bird” guitar shootouts, Bayliss’ voice is eerily reminiscent of Ronnie Van Zants’ and his thoughtful, blue collar lyrics also hit a similar nerve. The connection is cemented with a cover of “I Need You.” The somewhat deep track from Skynyrd’s Second Helping is given a raw yet respectful, moving and bluesy seven and half minute reading with vocal assistance from Ashley Monroe. Her duet tradeoff with Bayliss brings searing gospel to an already poignant song. The double lead guitars appearing at the tune’s close also seem to reference Duane Allman and Dickie Betts’ work, making this the disc’s physical and philosophical centerpiece.
There’s a yin-yang between heartfelt soft acoustic tunes like “Run on Ahead” and the tougher rock of the following “Baby Slow Down,” one of Cope’s solo songwriting credits. The title quotes cautionary words told to him from his mother as some of his demons (he had undiagnosed PTSD) seemed to endanger his future.
The closing title track brings more rugged emotional country as Bayliss sings I laid the foundation with my piece of mind/You helped its creation one piece at a time…I built a house with all of your stones. It’s a perfect synthesis of crunchy guitars, sensitive lyrics and loud/soft arrangements displaying the growth of this band from its 2017 debut.
Cope’s searing six-string work (he played for nine years in Jamey Johnson’s band and was a hired hand for many others) will be missed, as will the songwriting skills that make this such a powerful final tribute to his talents. But Bayliss is determined to keep The Steel Woods going as a testament to his friend and band mate. Thankfully that means these songs will be shared live, an environment in which they’ll thrive.
Photo by Derek Stanley