As mainstream country continues to blur the lines between pop music and what could generously be described as country music, those on the fringes remain steadfast adherents to the music’s traditional values. Whether it be plaintive cowboy ballads (Colter Wall), 21st century outlaw country (Chris Stapleton) or southern rock revivalists (Blackberry Smoke, Whiskey Myers, et al.), those operating outside the mainstream seem hellbent on retaining some semblance of integrity with regard to the increasingly obsolete genre tag of country music. Tellingly, most of these artists are lumped into the Americana bracket, a catchall for artists not necessarily playing nice with whatever it is the suits in Nashville happen to be pedaling on any given week.
Over the last several years, The Steel Woods have shown themselves to be prime purveyors of the amalgamation of southern rock and traditional country music. Like their peers, Steel Woods place the focus both on musical prowess and chops while backing each up with solid, often literary songwriting. On their debut, 2017’s Straw in the Wind, the band put together a series of Southern Gothic narratives that created a mood an aural ambiance akin to the dark hues and darker characters of such recent dramas as Justified and Ozark. These songs were given not a modern twist, but rather imbued with a timelessness that, like the best Southern storytelling, resonates as much today as it would’ve 40 or 50 years ago.
In other words, The Steel Woods retain the principle ethos of country music in that their songs reflect the lives and loves, struggles and triumphs of everyday folks just trying to make the best of the hand they’ve been dealt. Their follow-up, Old News, continues this theme while at the same time more explicitly honoring those that have come before. The title track, with its gentle piano/acoustic guitar intro, finds lead singer Wes Bayliss’ unaffected twang tapping into the type of patriotism not seen in country music in many years. Forgoing the jingoistic approach of most modern flag-bearing country artists, Bayliss and songwriting partner/guitarist Jason “Rowdy” Cope tap into something far more substantial:
“We could cut it in half, throw rocks in the street/ Let wild eyes laugh when some disagree/ We could burn it all down on our grandpa’s TV/ Or quit pointing fingers and roll up our sleeves/ And pray for Miss Liberty and the crack in her bell/ There’s a tear in her eye, but her arm hasn’t fell/ Yet the weight of that torch it depends on the trail/ The book that we write and the stories we’ll tell/ ‘Cause I’d hate to think that you think I hate you/ And I hate the thought of you hating me too/ So let’s hash it all out ’til we’re red, white and blue/ ‘Cause I’d hate to think that thinkin’ is old news.”
Where other artists tend to take a hardline stance one way or the other politically, here The Steel Woods take a humanistic approach, reckoning that we might differ ideologically, but at the end of the day we’re all in the same boat; it’s not a matter of who’s right and wrong, but rather who’s willing to put differences aside and work together to ensure a continued pride in our country on both sides of the aisle. It’s this type of topical songwriting that is sorely lacking in modern music of all stripes. We’re living in an unprecedented period in American history and, while there is certainly a vocal minority, they are just that. Artists and musicians of all types need to take a more proactive stand in addressing what is going on instead of ignoring the increased social tolerance of hate and mistrust.
And while the bulk of the album follows a similar track (see also: “Wherever You Are,” “All of These Years” and “Blind Lover”), it’s not all merely social commentary. The album itself serves as an elegy not only to a country increasingly losing its way, but also a handful of musical luminaries and influences on the band who have passed in recent years. Their takes on Gregg Allman’s “Whipping Post,” Merle Haggard’s “Are the Good Times Really Over (I Wish a Buck was Still Silver),” Tom Petty’s “Southern Accents” and their late friend Wayne Mills’ “One of These Days” manage to tie in both thematically and musically while also serving as fine example of the influences from which the band’s sound has been distilled.
At more than an hour, Old News is a bit much to take in all in one sitting. But it’s well worth the effort as The Steel Woods continues to show themselves as born leaders of the next wave of southern rockers and country revivalists. Make no mistake, theirs is by no means pastiche, but rather the flesh and blood embodiment of everything they sing about. Old News shows that Straw in the Wind was no fluke and that The Steel Woods will continue to be a force to be reckoned with.