Album Review – The Steel Woods – “On Your Time”

photo: Cole Creasey

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The Steel Woods stand on stage as modern-day Southern rock Gods. On what’s now their fourth full-length album, there’s no reason to measure them against any other, no need to attempt to draw comparisons with the bands that came before them, or to ask where their place is in the music world. Their mix of country, rock, and metal is all their own. They’ve carved out a growing legacy, and now it’s the scrappy young newcomers looking up to them.

We’re so spoiled rotten in the independent music world. Once you get hooked on bands like The Steel Woods, there’s no turning back. Not only is the music so much more face-melting, it’s also rendered so much more meaningful from the insistence on centering the songwriting. Whether it’s the bluegrass pickers, the country heartbreakers, or the badass Southern rockers like The Steel Woods, it always starts with a good song.

On Your Time comes after a trying period for the The Steel Woods. Right before the release of their last album All of Your Stones in 2021, founding member and beloved guitar player Jason “Rowdy” Cope died of complications from diabetes at the age of 42. Previously playing with Jamey Johnson and others, Rowdy’s passing hit the independent country community especially hard. But with the blessing of Rowdy’s family and after some soul searching, The Steel Woods decided to continue on with guitarist Tyler Powers sliding into the lead guitar spot.

Rowdy was a founding member of The Steel Woods with singer, guitar player, and frontman Wes Bayliss. The two often wrote songs together, and they produced the band’s albums as a tandem as well. Despite a significant age difference between the two (Rowdy was much older), they were tightly aligned. Bayliss now shoulders the songwriting and producing burdens himself, though he did solicit some co-writers. As On Your Time assures, Bayliss was up to the test.

A good example of Steel Woods songwriting is the second song on this album called “Cut The Grass.” About so much more than lawn care, like an onion, there are layers upon layers of lyricism to unpeel. Anyone who mows their own lawn can attest that there is a strange mix of zen, catharticism, and burden with the chore itself, but Bayliss takes it to another level by intertwining the ever-present feelings of burden and responsibility we all experience as the pressures of life weigh us down.

Like the other albums of The Steel Woods, there is a narrative thread that runs through On Your Time. Previous albums have told the story of Della Jane, Anna Lee, and Jimmy Sutherland similar to the recurring characters in the “Lorrie” universe of the Turnpike Troubadours. But on this album the songs loosely refer to a character named Uncle Lloyd that was introduced on the band’s first album Straw in the Wind from 2017. The song “Uncle Lloyd” was written by Darrell Scott.

Along with the original songs, one of the other signatures of The Steel Woods is they don’t just perform cover songs, they own them. These songs often don’t constitute the filler on their albums, but the features. Their rendition of “You Don’t Even Know Who I Am” written by Gretchen Peters and made popular by Patty Loveless is a perfect example. If you don’t know the song, it hits you like a haymaker. And if you do know the song, it hits you even harder.

As you’re listening through On Your Time, you don’t really spy a cohesive story necessarily, until you get to the eighth song “Stories To Tell Myself” and you realize that the songs all represent seasons in the life of Uncle Lloyd. We won’t give away any spoilers here. But rest assured, that Steel Woods magic of making an album blossom into something more than the sum of its individual parts is achieved for those who listen intently.

Some others may not want to be bothered by unraveling stories, and there’s plenty for them here too. The sludgy, powerful half-time moments of “Border Lord” get your heart pounding in your chest, and when they go to double time, you’ll be busting out the air guitar, and making funny faces. As for if Tyler Powers can fill the shoes of Jason “Rowdy” Cope, it’s difficult to say that anyone ever could achieve this from all Rowdy brought to the table. But from a standpoint of proficiency and taste as a guitar player, Tyler has slipped into the position of his mentor admirably.

You don’t listen to an album by The Steel Woods for mere escapism or entertainment. It can be both of these things as well for sure. But this is a band who knows how to immerse you in an entirely other universe, and knows how to impart life wisdom through stories, often not saying anything especially revelatory or prophetic, but figuring out how to positively reinforce important lessons that we all already know, yet always seem to need to hear again.

1 3/4 Guns Up (8.4/10)

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