Despite borrowing its faux-newspaper album artwork from bluegrass tradition, Nashville-based four-piece The Steel Woods is unquestionably here for the Southern rock meets classic honky-tonk music party on recent album Old News.
Multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Wes Bayliss, guitarist Jason Cope, bassist Johnny Stanton and drummer Jay Tooke further the impact of 2017’s breakthrough album Straw in the Wind with a mix of scorching new originals and a handful of covers that suit a forward-thinking yet past-honoring band of country-rockers.
It feels like cheating to liken The Steel Woods to Skynyrd, but “Double Trouble” might’ve sounded more like “All of These Years” if it’d arrived in the ‘80s, when hard rock got heavier, and blues rock got sleazier. “Compared to a Soul’ and “Without You” would also suit the Skynyrd songbook, had Travis Tritt replaced Ronnie Van Zant.
Elsewhere on the album, “Wherever You Are” and anti-hate anthem “Old News” add to the mounting list of contemporary songs that sound more country than what’s on commercial airwaves. Folks with even stricter tastes in classic Southern music need to check out “Anna Lee.” It’s basically string-band music on steroids. Those of us into (meta)modern sounds get tossed a couple of bones, as well, considering “Rock That Says My Name” and “Blind Lover” mix country storytelling tradition with blues-rock muscle for the Chris Stapleton generation.
The Steel Woods’ exploration of country music, classic rock and other sounds beloved in the South includes several cover songs. The group turns Black Sabbath’s forlorn classic “Changes” into a Gregg Allman slow-burner. Elsewhere on the album, Townes Van Zandt’s “The Catfish Song” also gets a musical facelift to fit with other Skynyrd-inspired stompers.
Other covers include a true-to-original, steel guitar-accented version of Merle Haggard’s “Are the Good Times Really Over (Wish a Buck was Still Silver)” and expectedly on-brand renditions of the Allman Brothers Band’s “Whipping Post” and Tom Petty’s “Southern Accents.”
A lesser-known cover, “One of these Days,” comes from the pen of the late honky-tonk purist Wayne Mills. The band leader, side man and former football player for the Alabama Crimson Tide was murdered in 2013 at a Nashville bar. It’s the second tribute song for Mills in recent memory. He’s also the subject of Brent Cobb’s “King of Alabama.”
To do these songs justice, the band recruited some heavy-hitters as special guest musicians. Tanya Tucker sideman turned solo artist Jake Clayton and Jamey Johnson’s preferred steel guitarist Cowboy Eddie Long beef up string accompaniment, while Eric Church’s backup singer and secret weapon Joanna Cotten lends her voice to multiple songs.