A certain level of expectation comes with being referred to as the torchbearers for a new generation of Southern rock, but members of The Steel Woods aren’t afraid of a little pressure.
“It’s really nice to get recognized for the musicianship,” guitarist Jason "Rowdy" Cope said during a phone interview ahead of the band’s show at Phase 2 on Tuesday. “That’s really steeped in what we’re doing.”
The Steel Woods formed in 2015 after Cope and Wes Bayliss, both veterans of the Nashville circuit, played on the same bill in a local show and began taking regular fishing trips together.
“If you do this thing, you end up being stuck with each other for a long time,” laughed Cope, who played in Jamey Johnson’s band for nine years. “So, you got to make sure you get along.”
That same year, the musicians went into the studio, and The Steel Woods’ first record, “Straw in the Wind,” dropped in 2017.
The band sounds like “drinking a bottle of bourbon and having inebriated hallucinations of Gregg Allman and Lucinda Williams standing hand in hand in powder-blue choir robes, as ‘Melissa’ plays in the background,” the staff of Rolling Stone wrote in a May 2017 “10 New Country Artists to Know” list.
Over the next two years, The Steel Woods toured almost nonstop, supporting artists ranging from Miranda Lambert to their idols Lynyrd Skynyrd, and playing their own shows, including a set in Lynchburg last year.
“The Steel Woods are basically forging a new trail of country music that only a few people are in,” says Jonathan Slye, CEO of Lynchburg Concerts, which booked both shows. “I can name on two hands easily the amount of people that are really in their vein of music.”
Since The Steel Woods’ last visit, the group has released its second record, “Old News,” which came out in January and was dubbed “the strongest thematic storytelling southern rock album since the Drive-by Truckers’ 2004 ‘The Dirty South’” by Glide Magazine.
Before the show at Phase 2, Cope talked about The Steel Woods’ influences, atmospheric sound and the new record.
When I listen to you, I hear notes of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Ricky Skaggs and Black Sabbath (and not just because you continue to cover them). Who are the band's greatest influences?
“Oh man, how much time you got? [laughs] We love good music, but we're definitely steeped in Southern music, like bluegrass, country, a lot of that Muscle Shoals sound — R&B came out of there — and Motown too. And old rock. Classic rock. I think we’re more like a classic rock band, we’re just not old enough to be classic yet.”
You have a dark, atmospheric sound, but your lyrics often have a positive note. Is that juxtaposition intentional?
“I think the darker sound really comes from a bluegrass chord progression type [of] thing. More mountain bluegrass-type chord progressions, minor chords and things like that. But as far as lyrics, my mother was a kindergarten teacher, and I wouldn't write a song that I wouldn't feel comfortable going in and singing in front of that kindergarten class.”
Do you have a favorite performance so far?
“I can't pick out a venue, but I’ll tell you what’s been nice is as this thing has grown, looking out and seeing people wearing our merch, singing our songs back to us, where in the beginning it was a lot of people listening cause they didn’t know our music. That’s really what’s been a favorite thing to me. Anytime I look out and see somebody touched by something we did.”
What is the story behind your new record "Old News?"
“I think that is just sort of really an artistic reflection on where our country is right now, which is really a sort of lost sense of debate. One side of people throwing rocks at another set of people and vice versa, instead of really listening. The lyrics ‘I hate to think that thinking is old news’ is based on that. It’s uniting songs as a country, because at the end of the day, we’re all Americans.”
I kind of got almost this newspaper vibe from the album. You had politics, commentary, lyrics that feel like they're pulled from headlines and what seemed like an obituaries section. Am I just imagining this?
“That was definitely the artistic theme of the record, based around the old news — newspapers, property. And yes, that last four songs on the record are the obituaries section with tributes. Three of those are fallen heroes, heroes that fell while we were recording this, which is Merle Haggard, Tom Petty and Gregg Allman, and the other was one of my best friends who was murdered named Wayne Mills. That’s our tribute to him and those guys.”
Why make these tributes part of the arc of the album?
“Because if it weren’t for them, there'd be no us. No doubt.”
From what I know, you cut this album virtually live. Does that change the approach and the sound you get?
“Yes. We really wanted to capture that because before, in the beginning, we really didn’t have a band. It was just me and Wes, so we played all the instruments mainly on the first record. We cut the first seven or eight songs like that and then on the last [four], we brought in another guy to help us, which was Jay [Tooke], our drummer. … This last record, we had just been touring nonstop and we kind of developed what I consider a sound as a band. I wanted to go in there and basically capture lightning in a bottle with that.”
In what way has Steel Woods evolved since "Straw in the Wind?"
“We jam more as a four-piece. And I guess we're always trying to write better and play better. So, if that comes across, that's great because we strive for excellency in musicianship and really bring the spotlight back to how great Southern art is and can be.”