Album Review – The Steel Woods – “All Of Your Stones”

Years before the formation of the hard-charging Southern rock band The Steel Woods—before they would released two critically-acclaimed albums, go on tour opening for folks like Miranda Lambert and Dwight Yoakam, and form a strong and loyal fan base—the idea of forming a band that would take the best elements of country, Southern rock, and heavy metal, and combine them with the songwriting sense of the greatest Nashville composers dwelled as a vision and dream in the mind of the band’s founding guitarist and songwriter Jason “Rowdy” Cope.

Making it become a reality took many years. Cope was busy being the touring guitarist for Jamey Johnson, and producing and playing on albums from artists like Brent Cobb and Lindi Ortega. He moved out to Los Angeles for eight years before moving to Nashville, and as he continued to grow older, almost missed his opportunity to create his dream band. It was a chance meeting, and a dare with singer and guitarist Wes Bayliss 13 years his junior that finally saw the formation of The Steel Woods, who roared onto the scene in 2017 with their debut album Straw in the Wind, and immediately became a preeminent force in independent country and Southern rock.

This all set the table for the writing and recording of what’s now the band’s third album All of Your Stones. With their first record, The Steel Woods were looking to introduce themselves to the world, and establish their sound. With their second album—the ambitious 15-track Old News that included numerous cover songs from the country, rock, and metal worlds—they drew in an even deeper audience.

But now that The Steel Woods had our rapt attention, were renown in the industry, and had proven their musical concept to be resonant, it was time for the ultimate vision for The Steel Woods that Rowdy had dreamed up all those years before to be fully realized in their third album, and what they consider to be their opus. Then after putting the finishing touches on the record—and only weeks away from revealing it to the public—the unthinkable news came down. Jason “Rowdy” Cope had been found unresponsive in his home in Nashville.

You can’t listen to All of Your Stones without considering Jason Cope’s passing at the age of 42. It may sound like a cliche to say contextualizing the songs within this tragic news results in an entirely different experience that eerily speaks to a prescient awareness of Rowdy’s impending passing, but that’s exactly what happens in one turn after another on this album, and in a way that will shake you to your very core.

Whether it’s one of the early singles from the album “Out of the Blue,” the song “Old Pal” about a best friend that’s passed and mourned, “Baby Slow Down” that’s the pleading of a mother to her son to be more careful and delivers the line “There ain’t nothing worse on planet Earth, than a mother laying rest to what she gave birth,” in song after song, and line after line, All of Your Stones strikes chills down your spine and soul knowing that the now deceased Jason “Rowdy” Cope wrote these words, brought perhaps to an emotional apex with the slow, quiet, and lamenting “Run on Ahead” that is hard to stay composed through, even if you had no idea who Rowdy was before.

Even the title All of Your Stones seems pertinent to the circumstances. Upon the passing of Rowdy, the inevitable rumors upon his cause of death swirled. If you’re a music fan, you’ve seen this script play out many times before. Musician is found dead in their home, with no signs of foul play or a struggle. Often, drug overdose or suicide is the cause. There should be no shame for anyone even if these are the conclusions upon someone’s death from what we know now about mental health today and the stresses and isolation so many have been suffering through over the last year, and musicians especially. But for Rowdy, these assumptions were false.

Over the last few years, Jason “Rowdy” Cope had been battling complications from diabetes. He even left the band briefly in 2018 after the diagnosis to get his health issues under control. Though he’d had his excessive dalliances with intoxicants in the past, the diabetes issue necessitated he clean up, or it could cost him his life. Ultimately, it did anyway, but not after Rowdy had become sober, and delivered the album he’d been dreaming to make for a decade or more.

It’s not just life intersecting with art through coincidence or circumstance that makes All of Your Stones so powerful, Rowdy knew his days could be numbered due to his condition. He’d had to face his own mortality and the thought of a world without him in it, and that’s what he wrote into this work. But it isn’t just the words. The progressive complexity of the guitar work on this record is exceptional. These aren’t just your average pentatonic exercises, but expertly-composed arrangements Cope wrote for this record, that arguably match the inspiring work of his lyricism.

And All of Your Stones doesn’t solely focus on matters of life and death. There’s also ample songs of love and heartbreak like “You’re Cold,” and “I Need You” featuring vocal contributions from Ashley Monroe. It’s in these moments where lead singer Wes Bayliss shines especially, though really throughout the entire record Bayliss takes the role of being the voice of Rowdy’s words with an incredible sense of reverence and duty, and delivers one soulfully-packed vocal performance after another that meets or exceeds the weight inherent in the words written both both himself and Rowdy.

After deeply considering All of Your Stones, it is fair to characterize it as an opus, and not just from the desire to speak fondly of the deceased. It’s also fair to say that compared to their previous records—especially their last one Old News with so many recognizable cover songs—All of Your Stones may not be their most accessible. It’s probably their most resplendent and well-orchestrated. But it may be a little too much for some that crave more straight ahead Southern rock, or three chords and the truth.

Regardless, All of Your Stones symbolizes a triumph of spirit, and a realization of a dream and vision. Whether Jason “Rowdy” Cope knew in some cosmic way that his time was limited, or the words and real-life circumstances intersected in some instances solely due to coincidence, he made this record like it could be his last, pouring every once of his soul into it, while being aided and assisted exceptionally by Wes Bayliss, bassist Johnny Stanton, and drummer Isaac Senty, assuring Rowdy’s musical legacy will resonate on planet Earth for many years beyond his physical presence.

1 3/4 Guns Up (8.5/10)

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