On the evening of January 16, as they prepared for the pending release of their third album, The Steel Woods posted the following to their social media:
It is with a broken and heavy heart that we share the news that our brother, friend and the founder of The Steel Woods, Jason Cope, has passed away. We are writing this still in a state of shock and kindly ask for your prayers for the family, friends and band at this time. We take comfort in knowing he is in a better place now and his passion for music and art will live forever in the work he has left behind.
At just 42 years old, guitarist Jason "Rowdy" Cope had passed away in his sleep, having reportedly emerged from a battle with alcohol and PTSD with which he had been struggling since the release of the band's 2019 Old News album. While Cope and The Steel Woods were working in a Southern rock and country arena that had left its salad days on the table with the decline of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Molly Hatchet, their 2017 Straw in the Wind stirred a promise that some life remained in the genre. 
Cope had formed his band alongside the younger singer Wes Bayliss, after serving a decade behind Jamey Johnson and lending his distinct talents to other artists such as Brent Cobb and Lindi Ortega. Heavier than red dirt, more country than alt, the resulting sound recalled those earlier acts without succumbing to stereotype. Bayliss' soulful delivery complimented Cope's heavy but unexpectedly refined guitarwork. One of the year's finest collections, 2019's Old News capped off their watermark album with an appropriately iconic delivery of Tom Petty's "Southern Accents". 
This happened to be his record, Bayliss has noted, remarking on the preponderance of Cope-penned tracks on their third project, All of Your Stones (Woods, May 14). As a result, many of the new songs speak to matters of hope and recovery, the restoration of balance in the wake of a period of upset. The record's hard 'n heavy opener, "Out of the Blue" delivers the message through wailing backing vocals and tumbling drums: It's the righting of a wrong / The writing of a song / Thin air becomes something new / I've finally come out of the blue. Where Old News proposed a state of the nation with a definite socio-political lyrical slant, Stones focuses on more domestic and between-the-ears drama. A cowrite with Jamey Johnson, the solidly country title cut describes coming to terms with life's judgements and insults. One of the year's strongest singles, it fosters a remarkably positive outlook on triumphing over tragedies: I laid the foundation with my peace of mind / You helped its creation one piece at a time / Now its shadow at sunset blocks the hilltop you were on / I built a house with all of your stones

While the tracks were all but complete at the time of Cope's passing, several seem to address his loss in retrospect. "Ole Pal" is a moving acoustic ballad from Bayliss, a sub-genre that The Steel Woods represent as well as any act: The wind cuts like razors when I open the door / I got a broken heart, but I can't feel the hurt. With dobro and strings, the piece creates a deeply emotional setting that's also musically rewarding. Listeners should be prepared for "Run On Ahead" to steal a piece of their heart, with a heartrending vocal from Bayliss. There is rare skill in generating such real feeling without resorting to maudlin manipulation: I wished we lived forever, oh how I wish it wasn't so / That we wear out our bodies just like shoes

It's this partnership between Bayliss and Cope that has given The Steel Woods their genuine sonic identity. The voice of one's guitar is as essential as the other's vocal delivery. "You're Cold" features Cope's sparking guitars and tripping rhythms, with Bayliss pushing his melodic vocals to their limit. Three minutes into the song, Johnny Stanton's prog bassline kicks in, introducing a terrific instrumental outro. You'll also find this instrumental prowess on the band's run through Skynyrd's bluesy "I Need You" (with Ashley Monroe's vocal help). 

Most will lump The Steel Woods alongside Southern rock brethren like Blackberry Smoke and Whiskey Myers. But as the arrival of All of Your Stones attests, there is a depth and an originality to their sound, as well as a pervasive darkness. The Steel Woods deliver their literate, melodic Southern rock 'n country with the same gravitas as Isbell, but without the occasional sensationalism and artistic license of Patterson Hood. As the remaining members continue without Cope's essential contribution as a writer and musician, time will tell the impact of his loss. That said, this trio of records created by the collaboration of Bayliss and Cope is as worthy as almost any other in our kind of music. With any luck, this is just another stone to be added to the band's growing legacy. 

Via Scott Foley | Routes & Branches :