Before he died in January, Steel Woods co-founder and guitarist Jason "Rowdy" Cope signed off on the track sequencing for the band's new album, All of Your Stones. The record, the quartet's third, would begin with "Out of the Blue" and end with its title track.
"I didn't realize how kind of perfect the sequencing is," admits Wes Bayliss, the Steel Woods' vocalist, multi-instrumentalist and other co-founder. "Me and Rowdy had talked about it and wrote some stuff down, but we didn't have that set until the last few days. And it was just a simple text back and forth: 'What about this?' 'What about this?' And that was it."
Cope — who was 42 when he died in his sleep in mid-January — had struggled with alcohol and undiagnosed PTSD, but had overcome both. His cause of death was linked to his Type II diabetes, diagnosed in late 2018.
Indeed, both the first and last songs on All of Your Stones, out Friday (May 14), reveal a man who is looking forward with optimism and gratitude, putting a rough past behind him and using his critics' words to motivate himself to prove them wrong. He had come out on top, and he was in a good place.
"He always used to say he earned the name 'Rowdy,' but he's 'Unrowdy' now. Sure, there's stories of him and [from] people that knew him back in the day and maybe weren't around a lot for the last few years, but he really went out on top and with a clear mind and a clear vision for what he wanted and what he thought the band should be, and the two of us were on the same page," Bayliss says. "It would have been a lot more of a tragedy if he wasn't in such a good place. It's terrible for him to leave us, but I'm real fortunate that I knew, and the ones around him knew, that he was really in a good place the last couple of years."
Rowdy wrote most of All of Your Stones: sometimes solo, sometimes with Bayliss and sometimes with other co-writers. "All of Your Stones," for example, is a co-write with Bayliss and Jamey Johnson, for whom Rowdy played guitar for nearly a decade.
There's one outside cut — "Run on Ahead," written by William Ross Newell, a fellow artist and a friend of Bayliss' from Mobile, Ala. — as well as a cover of Lynyrd Skynyrd's 1974 cut "I Need You," featuring Ashley Monroe. It's a song they've performed live together several times before.
"She's a friend and a fan and, you know, sings like a bird ... Nothing else really was even on the table to do for that," Bayliss says. "And, I mean, if we're gonna cut a Skynyrd song, that's kind of my favorite Skynyrd song."
And then there's "Ole Pal." Written by Bayliss alone, the song is a message to a late friend — a soldier killed in the line of duty, though it's only mentioned briefly — in a time of need. The narrator offers a few life updates — about the soldier's family, their hometown and the memorial to them at the city hall — but mostly simply admits that he "need[s] to talk to you right now," because it's been a rough go.
"When it rains, it pours like it never has before / When the sun shines, it burns through my shirt / The wind cuts like razors when I open up the door / I got a broken heart, but I can't feel it," Bayliss sings each chorus. "If I could call you up somehow / I'd like and tell you that I'm getting by / Without my best friend."
Bayliss has no real idea where it came from. All of his close childhood friends are still alive. His best guess is that it came out because the band had been watching the TV show The Wonder Years — in which the older brother of one main character, Winnie Cooper, is killed in action in the Vietnam War in the pilot episode — on the bus.
"I don't know, maybe that influenced it a little," he reflects, later adding with a laugh, "I don't write a whole lot of true songs, because my life and story is somewhat boring. If I wrote about that all the time, it might sound like all the other country songs on the radio."
"It's really wild how that happened," says Bayliss, who knows the song will be hard to get through in concert, if and when the band should choose to play it. "I know that I'm not psychic ... but it's definitely coming from somewhere."
The Steel Woods have played some shows recently, but they'll officially begin their Eagle Up Tour on Friday night (May 14) at the Nashville Palace. Joining Bayliss, bassist Johnny Stanton and drummer Isaac Senty onstage is Tyler Powers, a longtime friend of the band — and even longer-time friend of Rowdy Cope — who has stepped in to fill the late guitarist's role.
"It's not the same show, and it never will be, but he's a great player and brings a real cool, different thing to the sound," says Bayliss, calling Powers "a no-brainer" choice for the spot.
The Steel Woods, Bayliss says are "really in a good spot now" — a bit to their surprise, given that Cope died only four months ago. Of course, they still miss their friend and bandmate, "but, you know, there ain't nothing to do but pick up and go on, sorta."
Beyond this album and tour, the band has not talked a whole lot about what, exactly, what picking up and going on will look like. "There's not any one thing we're planning on doing aside from carrying on," Bayliss says. They want to keep sharing their music, and have discussed a live record, but "it's really up in the air. I couldn't say one way or another for sure," he adds.
"There's only moving forward — [that's] the only thing to do, and that's the way he would want it, and that's what we're planning to do," Bayliss says. "And whatever that entails, we're ready for it."
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