As 2021 dawned in the shadow of COVID, everything was headed in the right direction for Jason “Rowdy” Cope. The Steel Woods’ cofounder had beaten back the alcohol abuse and PTSD symptoms that had been dogging him since the release of the band’s second album, Old News, in 2019. He’d emerged from the other end of the tunnel more creative than ever, writing most of the songs on the Nashville outlaw-country outfit’s hard-driving new album, All Of Your Stones (Woods Music/Thirty Tigers).
With all the work in the studio finished and the Steel Woods waiting out the pandemic, the 42-year-old Cope left the world unexpectedly on January 16, passing away in his sleep from what family and friends believe were complications from type 2 diabetes.
“I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy,” says vocalist/guitarist Wes Bayliss, who cofounded the group with Cope. “It’s a hard thing to go through, but he went out doing exactly what he wanted to.”
Like many of the tracks on All Of Your Stones, “Run On Ahead” adopts a big-picture perspective as it aims for closure. It’s also one of the few songs on the album that Cope didn’t have a hand in writing. “Ross Newell is a dear friend of mine from Mobile, Ala., where I lived and played before I moved to Nashville,” says Bayliss of the tune’s author. “I’ve always looked up to him as a songwriter.”
While it’s easy to read too much into a posthumous release, Cope is certainly in self-assessment mode on “Out Of The Blue” and the title track. And while Bayliss’ “Ole Pal” wasn’t written about his bandmate, it could easily pass for a tender goodbye. Bayliss was just 24 when he first connected with Cope, who was playing guitar for Jamey Johnson’s band at the time.
“At some point, you’re either an adult or you’re not,” says Bayliss, when asked if the 13-year age difference between the two of them was ever a factor. “We got to know each other by fishing—and not catching a whole lot of fish.”
Instead, they laid the groundwork for the non-nonsense consolidation of country, metal and classic rock on the Steel Woods’ much-praised 2017 debut, Straw In The Wind. And while Old News was recorded in a hurry between stints on the road, the band could afford to take its time on All Of Your Stones. The result: heavy themes and heavy music—most of it courtesy of Cope.
“In the studio, we always had a push/pull thing that worked for us,” says Bayliss. “He’d want something to really rock, and I’d want it a little more acoustic. I guess I finally came around to the harder sound.”