Southern-inspired rock band The Steel Woods will bring a string of performances to Montana in support of their recent album, Old News. Centered around the soulful and commanding vocals of lead singer Wes Bayliss and the instrumental prowess of guitarist Jason “Rowdy” Cope, the band is steeped in Southern culture with a modern approach and powerful intensity. Their sophomore release makes a statement in the continuing evolution of The Steel Woods as a unit and the Bayliss/Cope combo as songwriters, something of which their 2017 debut Straw in the Wind only scratched the surface. Old News has received praise from a variety of outlets including Garden & Gun, No Depression, Wide Open Country, The Boot, Magnet, Glide Magazine and Saving Country Music, who called the album, “a career-defining record.”
Over the last few years, the band has built a loyal and passionate fan base through their road warrior touring mentality and extraordinary live shows. Whether headlining or supporting artists such as Dwight Yoakam, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Jamey Johnson, Cody Jinks, Miranda Lambert and Blackberry Smoke, among others, The Steel Woods consistently convert audiences with each performance. Though their style is unapologetically Southern Rock and Rock, just pull back the layers to find lyrics that feature passionate storytelling and messages that resonate. The themes reflected on Old News range from perseverance to unity to hope and resilience. Inspired by conversations they had with people they met on the road, The Steel Woods strive to find common ground through shared life experiences and a musical connection.
In anticipation of their Montana tour stops, the Rolling Zone spoke with Cope about the band’s varied influences, saluting the music of their heroes and bringing the new album out on the road.
Rolling Zone: We’re catching you in Little Rock ahead of the tour’s gradual move out West. How’s the road treating you fellas this time around?
Jason Cope: It’s great, it’s always been great. That’s kind of where it’s at with us, we love doing the live show. Art in motion.
RZ: This band is all about bringing its music on the road and connecting with the fans, especially considering your summer calendar.
JC: Well, we have to. We’re independent artists, so that’s it. We don’t have a video on CMT, we don’t have a song on the radio. We like making those direct connections.
RZ: Two of your three Montana shows will be in Bozeman – first at the more intimate Live from the Divide, then in the ballroom setting of the Eagles Lodge. Does venue alter how this band performs?
JC: I’ll be honest with you, we always come out on 11. We’re always ready to raise the bar for ourselves as musicians and perform these songs to the highest level of musicianship we can offer. We come out swingin’.
RZ: You’re touring in support of Old News, which released at the top of this year on Thirty Tigers. What were the band’s goals for this project?
JC: The first album (Straw in the Wind) was mainly me and Wes playing the instruments, we didn’t have a band yet. Wes is a multi-instrumentalist, he grew up in a gospel family, so he played drums on that. The only other musicians we had on there were guests. Then we had Jay Tooke, our drummer now, come in and finish five other songs, finish the record. With [Old News], we had been the band that had been on the road together. I wanted to capture that, so 95% of what you’re hearing is live performance. You especially hear it on “Southern Accents,” that was just one take.
RZ: Given the response you’ve received since its release, do you think those initial objectives were achieved?
JC: I do, I do. I feel like we’ve retained our sound [as] a band that’s a little more road-sounding.
RZ: Old News closes with tribute renditions of songs by Wayne Mills (“One of These Days”), Merle Haggard (“Are the Good Times Really Over”), Gregg Allman (“Whipping Post”) and Tom Petty (“Southern Accents”). What was the band’s rationale behind this sort of bookend to the collection?
JC: The album itself is meant to be like a newspaper, and that’s the obituary section. Wayne Mills was one of my best friends, he was murdered in 2013 and I wanted to pay tribute to him. Gregg Allman, Merle Haggard and Tom Petty all passed away while we were writing for this album. It just seemed like, let’s have an obituary section for Old News. They’re our heroes and you want to keep that music alive.
RZ: How do you think their inclusion elevated the preceding Steel Woods originals?
JC: If you’re going to put your heroes’ songs on an album, you got to make sure you step your game up too [laughs]. You want to rise to the occasion. We kind of had the concept for the record and then those guys just kept passing and it was like, ‘Man. We’re going to put out a newspaper, we just gotta have the obituaries, we gotta pay tribute to these guys.’ When you make a record, you make stuff that would be cool to go on tour with. This band [touring] with Tom Petty was a dream of mine.
RZ: The album artwork is great considering the newspaper theme. Did you use the same artist as you did for the first album?
JC: Yes, her name is Karla Sanders. She’s a traveling artist. It’s crazy, she was in Cyprus when she did our art. When I talk to her, sometimes she’s in Paris, sometimes she’s in Cyprus [laughs].
RZ: Jealous of that life, love her art. Will you continue utilizing her talents in the future?
JC: Oh absolutely. She’s kind of our artist. You know how Tool and other bands have theirs? Well she’s ours, no doubt.
RZ: Steel Woods originals begin to take shape when you and Wes, your songwriting partner, put your heads together. How do you guys decide when something is worth making a song about?
JC: Each one is such a different thing, every one came into fruition in such a different way. A lot of the sadder stuff comes from me. The song “Without You,” that’s a very real song from my journal. Basically, we present ideas and then work at them. We water them until they become what we figure is a final song, then if we think that song’s good enough, we’ll put it out in the public. Trust me, we’ve written as many bad songs as we have good ones [laughs].
RZ: You say a lot of the sadder songs are yours. So, thematically, are you guys usually on the same page or do have competing perspectives?
JC: We both bring two different elements to the songwriting process and I think that’s what makes it work. Wes brings this really strong sense of melody and musicianship, and he can round me out lyrically. You almost don’t want to be exactly the same – Yin and Yang.
RZ: You mentioned “Without You,” but would you say that’s the song you’re most proud of off Old News?
JC: Personally, “Old News” is my statement to the world right now. I think that song was just given to me. I wrote it in a hotel room in about 30 minutes. I turned on the news and turned it off, wrote it right there on the spot. I just think it’s a real statement of our times right now. I try to view my music as healing, and I feel like that song is a good Band-Aid for this country right now.
RZ: The Steel Woods are known to blend outlaw country and southern rock, but the band finds influence in a number of genres. How do you guys approach how you’re going to complement lyrics with their own tailored sound?
JC: I’m a big fan of film score. I lived in LA for a long time and a lot of musicians I played with out there worked in film scoring, a lot of violin and cello players, things like that. And I love the old cartoons. I think the musicians on the old cartoons – the 20s, 30s, 40s cartoons – are just some of the most brilliant musicians on the planet. They take an instrument and make it sound like somebody running. I apply that sort of music theory to our songs, those chord structures and melodies and certain things. You can hear it on a song like “Wherever You Are,” that song has like an opus in the middle. Basically it’s a takeoff, like wherever you are, it’s almost like it takes you somewhere and then it takes you right back to the lyric of ‘As I lay in this field and the clouds roll by.’ If you heard the songs without any lyrics, I’d want you to imagine what they might be about.
RZ: Are you guys working on any new music?
JC: I mean, I write every day. I’m actually working on writing a book. But right now, it’s tour season.
RZ: You did just release Old News and you’ve got a full calendar of shows into fall. So, where do you see the Steel Woods going from here?
JC: I see the moon as just a stepping stone [laughs].
RZ: The sky is NOT the limit.
JC: No, huh-uh. The galaxy is not the limit.
RZ: Well we’re glad you’re bringing a couple shows to us in the meantime.
JC: We’re really looking forward to coming to Montana. Our song “Axe” (from Straw) is going to be on the next season of Yellowstone. We love Montana.
The Steel Woods visit Bozeman’s Live from the Divide on Thursday, June 27th at 9pm. For those who were unable to secure tickets to this sold out show, the band will front a follow-up performance at the Eagles Lodge Ballroom on Sunday, June 30th at 9pm. Advance tickets to this 21+ event are $10 at www.1111presents.com or $11.50 in-store at Cactus Records. Day of show tickets will also be available at the door, depending on availability. Doors at 8pm.
Sandwiched between the Bozeman dates, The Steel Woods will share the stage with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Coyote Brother for an all-ages Downtown Billings performance on Saturday, June 29th at 6pm. Ticketing and further information can be found through the 11:11 website.
The Steel Woods are Jason “Rowdy” Cope, Wes Bayliss, Johnny Stanton and Jay Tooke. Learn more about the band at www.thesteelwoods.com or find them on Facebook and Instagram for updated tour details and other announcements. Their new album, Old News, is available now. Stream on Spotify and Apple Music. •