It can be easy to overlook the songwriting prowess of the principal members of the Southern rock band The Steel Woods for all of the bluster and braying guitars that accompany much of their music. They have their understated moments as well, but often when we think about the songwriting titans of a given time period, we envision the folk artists with acoustic guitars evoking their feelings, not the burly denizens of overdrive pedals.
But hiding behind the rough exterior of The Steel Woods is some spectacular, class-leading songwriting, specifically from frontman Wes Bayliss, and the dearly departed Steel Woods founding guitarist Jason “Rowdy” Cope. What some studious fans of their music may have picked up on, and others may have missed, is a continuing story line across the band’s now three albums, with a recurring cast of characters and events. Similar to the character “Lorrie” in Turnpike Troubadours songs, The Steel Woods too have multiple songs fitting into the same fictional world.
Over a host of tracks—including an instrumental—The Steel Woods tell the story of Della Jane, Anna Lee, Jimmy Sutherland, and a gripping narrative of love and murder.
The story is picked up halfway through the tale on the band’s first album from 2017 Straw in the Wind, and the song “Della Jane’s Heart.” A little bit of back story: the name Della Jane comes from Jason “Rowdy” Cope’s great-grandmother Della Jane Mayberry. In the song, Della Jane “gave up on youth and gave into desire,” and gives herself to a man, only to find out that he has taken a new lover named Anna Lee. In a rage, Della Jane kills her lover, drags him down to a riverbed, and “…with her knees in the mud she looked up and prayed, ‘Lord, please wash all of my sins and his body away.'”
If you look at the cover of the Straw in the Wind album with a woman in a red sun dress on her knees by a riverbed, and sunbeams breaking through clouds personifying the Almighty, this seems to be Della Jane of the song “Della Jane’s Heart.”
The second installment of the story is not hard to find. It comes on the band’s second album Old News from 2019, and it’s called “Anna Lee.” Though the song was released later than “Della Jane’s Heart,” the part of the story it covers happens earlier. “Anna Lee” is sung from the perspective of the lover that Della Jane kills. He feels guilty for telling Della Jane he loves her, and wants to leave their town, especially since he senses if he stays around, “I’ll end up in the ground.” The character also sees a vulture circling his home, foretelling his impending doom.
Though we’re never told the name of the man who first professes his love to Della Jane, only to double cross her with Anna Lee, it’s revealed in the very next track on the Old News album, which is an instrumental called “Red River (The Fall of Jimmy Sutherland).” Since the instrumental segues from the song “Anna Lee” without any pause, Della Jane dumps the double crossing lover’s body in a river, and the instrumental strikes an ominous tone, it seems the two songs are linked and Jimmy Sutherland is indeed the deceased boyfriend.
The cover of the album Old News also alludes to the continuing story. Fashioned like a old newspaper, one of the story headlines is “The River is Red,” and another is “Body Found.” Under the heading of the “Body Found” story it reads, “The remains of Jimmy Southerland were spotted floating under the Highway 48 bridge Sunday morning, according to his girlfriend Anna Lee. He had been missing since late Thursday. ‘He just never showed up.'”
After the release of Old News, this was thought to perhaps complete the trilogy of Della Jane, Anna Lee, and Jimmy Sutherland, may he rest in peace. But on the latest album of The Steel Woods All of Your Stones, a couple of songs appear to add even more context and detail to the story. “Your Cold” seems to tell the story of Jimmy Sutherland’s death from his own perspective, surveying the scene as Della Jane dumps his body in the river.
She kneelеd and she prayed
And the mud from my blood, it just flowed away
And sank in a flow of regret
With the love and the leaves and the blade
And she screamed as I started to fade
The song “You Never Came Home” then continues the story from Anna Lee’s perspective after the death (or disappearance) of Jimmy Sutherland, naming Anna specifically in the first verse, and saying later…
You left that night, you were going to tell her
How dead leaves to dust was us leaving together
Yet still I’m here waiting for a sign or a letter
In this house of cold wood and stone
But that is not all. Similar to the continuing saga of “Lorrie” in the Turnpike Troubadours song universe, once you discover this cohesive narrative behind some of the songs of The Steel Woods, you start to spy other songs, or other lines in songs that may also may feed into this grander love and murder story. For example on their second album Old News after the two songs we know are part of the grander narrative (“Anna Lee” and “Red River”), then next track is “The Catfish Song.” Even though it’s a Townes Van Zandt song, it seems to eerily reference the loss of Jimmy Sutherland’s dream of running away with Anna Lee.
Down at the bottom of that dirty old river
Down where the reeds and the catfish play
There lies a dream as soft as the water
There lies a bluebird that’s flown away
All of a sudden, you can start convincing yourself many of the songs of The Steel Woods are about this deeper story, whether they truly are, or not. There are a few other examples one can root out, but let’s not give away all the spoilers here.
This is all a mark of great songwriting, where a song can mean different things to different people; the story molding to the perspective and experiences of each listener, personalizing the experience.
Something tells me we haven’t heard the last from Della Jane, Anna Lee, or Jimmy Sutherland, with future details to be revealed in perhaps new songs, or older songs as we continue to pick up new clues. It’s all quite savvy work from The Steel Woods.
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A Spotify playlist can be found below of the songs we can be pretty sure are part of the story.
H/T to Looserack Bob on Twitter for pointing this out.