The Steel Woods with Old News may have the strongest thematic storytelling southern rock album since the Drive-by Truckers’ 2004 The Dirty South. This is only The Steel Woods sophomore album, having debuted auspiciously with Straw in the Wind last year. It’s a major leap forward for the songwriting team of Alabama-raised Wes Bayliss and his North Carolina mate Jason “Rowdy” Cope. Bayliss is a multi-instrumentalist and lead singer with soulful pipes like Chris Stapleton, while lead guitarist Jason “Rowdy” Cope brings the outlaw spirit, having played in Jamey Johnson’s band for nine years. The two met while performing on the same bill in a Nashville club, and made Straw in the Wind barely a month after they met.
The maturity is evident here. Each point to the ability to play off the other’s strengths and weaknesses. While the debut was an experiment of sorts, they had a well-honed game plan for this one. They recorded in Asheville at the site of an old church during a break in their busy touring schedule with the whole band participating , playing in a single room, cutting the tracks virtually live. Bassist Johnny Stanton and drummer Jay Tooke round out the rhythm section. The Nashville-based band is a mixture of Southern styles, embracing all pillars of those genres and more. Some have dubbed them a Southern rock band, but they are more diverse than that. There’s even a heavy metal influence as they again, as they did on their debut, render a Black Sabbath tune. Old News is a mix of originals and heartfelt covers.
This is a theme-driven work that joins the mythology of the past with lyrics drawn from headlines to pointing the way for a better future through social critiques, trying to bring unity through music. Perseverance is found in epic, string-laden “Wherever You Are” and the rambunctious opener “All of These Years,” while unity is the focus of the amped-up “Blind Lover” and resilience in the title track. These themes and lyrics stemmed from conversation the band had with people they met on the road.
Like the debut, there is a fair share of dark stuff here. It’s difficult to be direct than the cemetery-placed “Rock That Says My Name,” for example. The bluegrass-tinged “Anna Lee” is the culmination of a murder ballad trilogy that began with “Della Jane’s Heart” on the last album and concludes her with the instrumental Neil Young/Crazy Horse-inspired “Red River (The Fall of Jimmy Sutherland).” In a way these nods toward mortality, influence the covers where they pay tribute to artists who have passed. They include a cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “The Catfish Song,” Tom Petty’s “Southern Accents,” Merle Haggard’s frighteningly timely “Are the Good Times Really Over (I Wish a Buck Were Still Silver) ,” an impassioned reading of Gregg Allman’s “Whipping Post,” and the pedal-steel driven direct meditation on mortality in tribute to Alabama singer-songwriter Wayne Mills’ “One of These Days.” For the Black Sabbath cover, they do “Changes,” injecting some Memphis soul as a nod to the late Charles Bradley.
While these covers are strong and faithfully rendered, the strength of the album is in the original material. The title track combines a social outlook with hope, using lines like these – “And pray for Miss Liberty/And the crack n her bell/There’s a tear in her eye/But her arm hasn’t fell.” (yes, Bayliss’s wife pointed out he grammatically incorrect use of “fell” but he left it in, claiming that we shouldn’t worry about small things that divide us). “Compared to a Soul” is one the strongest story songs, pairing two bargains with the devil, one a man who shoots a friend for cheating at cards, the other a Jezebel stepping out on her Marine lover.
Arguably, it’s the title track and “Rock That Says My Name” that are the linchpins. The latter is another epic piece in a few parts, nodding in part to Buffalo Springfield’s Jack Nitzsche-produced Expecting to Fly, wherein we view our lives in a rear-view mirror, from the ultimate perspective. It features the dual ringing guitars that imbue so many of their songs. The spoken words at the end set against a lonesome fiddle, are from Wes’ grandfather speaking the biblical passage of Matthew 6:19-21. The song was inspired by an article about someone buying a tombstone in advance.
The Steel Woods have the right blend of vocals, musicianship, and superb songwriting, delivering a terrific album. They are a band to watch, and by all accounts, a great band to hear live.