In their self-produced first full-length album, Straw in the Wind, Southern rockers The Steel Woods employ dark Biblical and rural imagery to set the scene for battles between good and evil, in the most primal of conflicts. The musical terrain is just as gritty. The songs live where the rougher side of country tangles with rock.
The album showcases the burgeoning songwriting collaboration between multi-instrumentalists Jason “Rowdy” Cope and Wes Bayliss, with the two joining forces on five of the songs, their strengths as songwriters complementing each other.
Vocalist Bayliss says, “As far as the ideas go, the story lines and lyrics mainly start with Jason. Typically the idea and the hook will start with him and that’s what I think his strength is.”
“Then I bring it to him and he has one of the best ears of any musician I’ve ever met,” Cope says of Bayliss.
Cope’s friend and frequent collaborator, Brent Cobb, had a hand in this record, writing or co-writing four of the songs, including “Let the Rain Come Down,” which also appears on Cobb’s album Shine On Rainy Day.
Cope says, of Cobb, “I was good friends with his cousin, (producer) Dave Cobb, and Scooter Jennings, and they kind of weaned him and brought him out to Los Angeles, where we lived at the time. That was in 2006, and we’ve been friends ever since. We’ve been making music together for a long time.”
One song that is a surprise, in the context of this album, is “The Secret.” Lyrically it’s not an outlier, presenting a version of the Eden story, where Eve, rather than the serpent, is Satan. But musically it’s very different from the rest of the album. Instead of electric guitar, there are strings. And instead of a drum kit, timpanis roll in the background like ominous thunder. The net effect is both lush and stark.
“That’s one on there that sticks out from the rest of the record,” Cope says. “It’s very orchestral. It has a string arrangement. We have cello, violin, viola, standup bass, timpani drums, piano. That whole song is just me and Wes and the string player.”
There is a fire and brimstone sensibility in much of this music. Besides “The Secret,” there’s “Axe,” where the narrator waits out the devil through the metaphorical night, in anticipation of impending salvation. And in “Della Jane’s Heart,” a spurned lover murders her cheating lover and then is weighed down by her sin.
Which is why “Whatever It Means To You,” comes just at the right time. The song take a step back and acknowledges that there can be more than one way to interpret symbols.
“You got a rabbit foot in your pocket / And a cross on your rear view / And all it means is whatever it means to you.”
Then, in a self-referential twist, it addresses the songs on the album, introducing the idea that there can be truth in fiction and that the truth depends on who is listening.
“The stories told in all these songs / Don’t sound the same to everyone / Some you hear, and some you see / And all that means is whatever it means to me. / Not all are real, but all are true / Cause all that means is whatever they mean to you.”
Bayliss says, “That song actually started with a session that I had with Aaron Raitiere. I just went over there, wanting to write a conclusion song that just said that it’s different for everyone. That’s why a lot of the lyrics are vague. Especially the ones that aren’t a story. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’re going through, maybe it’s different for you and the person next to you. And of course not all the stories are true. But they’re all…whatever they mean to you. “
The album includes a couple of covers, including a slightly Southern-tinged version of Black Sabbath’s “Hole in the Sky,” and a faithful rendition of Darrell Scott’s gem, “Uncle Lloyd.”
“We view this thing as our introduction to the world of who we are as musicians and songwriters and artists,” Cope says. “We went at this thing with absolutely as much artistic integrity as could possibly be done. We did it all ourselves. It’s a collection of what we thought were great songs and the songs that we wrote that we thought the world needed to hear. I think the whole album encompasses pretty much every array of emotions that a human can go through in their lifetime. “