Hope, Perseverance, and Southern Rock: Rowdy Cope of the Steel Woods

Photo by Zack Morris

Jason “Rowdy” Cope was filling days as a session player and nights as a member of Jamey Johnson’s band when he met singer-songwriter Wes Bayliss at a gig outside of Nashville. Sharing a mutual admiration and complimentary tastes, the two musicians became friends then fishin’ buddies but eventually, they sat down to write together. That first song, “Axe”, would light the fuse of their debut album, Straw in the Wind, and send them down the road as the Steel Woods. A year ago, the band released Old News a heavy mix of originals and tributes that, like its predecessor, leans towards what fans call Southern Rock for the 21st Century… But call it what you will, for Rowdy Cope, it was simply meant to be.

AI- We’re just about a year out from the release of Old News. The Steel Woods as a complete band was able to step into the studio at Echo Mountain for that one. That was a room you were familiar with, you’d had time to be on the road together and hone your sound as a band, and write songs… At that point, I have to imagine that your confidence was strong leading into the project. What was it like making a Steel Woods album for the second time?

JRC- Well, it was A), a full band. We hadn’t done that before. We didn’t get Johnny [Stanton] until after the first album, and we also hadn’t been on the road as much. With that record, we got to go down to Texas and while we were down there, we had a week off. So we literally– just like in high school– went into the garage and just hashed everything out and got it to where we thought it was up to par. Then we would start rehearsing ’em at soundchecks ’cause we didn’t want to release it to the world. ‘Cause now everybody’s got an iPhone or a phone, you know what I mean? And they video it and then it’s on YouTube and Facebook and everywhere, and we just wanted to keep it top secret for the final release. That was the main difference. We also did it in a different studio. We did it in the studio in my hometown, in Asheville [NC]. I’d been in there a lot.

Yeah, Echo Mountain kind of gives you a whole different feel, as I understand it, when you go in there. It was an old church, right?

Yeah. It’s a really old church with this big beautiful stained glass window, and it’s got high ceilings. I mean, it was literally made before amplification, so you could sing in that room and it was loud. Imagine the drum sounds and all that stuff. It was just really cool. And the four of us were all in the same room, and we cut it 99% live. Sometimes I would go back and maybe it’d be like, “I can do a guitar solo better than that!” But for the most part, it’s… There are certain songs like “Southern Accent”, I mean that’s one take. That’s just live!

You bring that up, so let me throw this at you. You pay some serious tribute on that album. You mentioned Tom petty– but Townes Van Zandt, Merle Haggard, Gregg Allman, and you even included a song by the late Wayne Mills. How important was it to fill out that record with those selections?

We did the album like a newspaper and that section, the last four songs, is the obituary… Wayne was just one of my best friends in the world– who got murdered. But [some of] the other artists are people that passed away during the writing of that record. And every time, it was heartbreaking ’cause it was like, “Oh, one day maybe we can tour with them!” It was just like, “Awww!” You know? And [otheres were] people that were just huge influences on me and Wes. We decided to do that as the obituaries.

You and West Bayliss, as I understand it, you guys met and then were fishin’ buddies before you actually started playing music together? What was the moment that you two were like, “Okay, we have a future together as bandmates?” Because fishing is generally a silent pursuit…

Yeah, that is true! When you start playing music, you don’t catch as much fish (laughs), but I’ll tell you this, we had played some shows together, and it was something where I felt that me and him could do something. We clicked on the stage immediately, and I was like… And he was like, “I dig your guitar playin’.” He knew of me from my previous band. I was in a band with JameyJohnson for almost ten years. I heard [Wes] play at a gig that we were doing out at Dickson, Tennessee. I booked another gig out there literally just to get him to come out and play it with me (laughs)! And it just worked! So we did a couple more out there and then… I guess I made a decision. Because I’ve been doing this for so long that if you gonna go into a venture like this– as intimate and as hard as it can be with the push/pull effects, sometimes the writing and musical decisions, and the road decisions and being stuck on the road with each other for potentially the next 10 to 20 years– you better get to know that person. And I just [felt] like when we were out there fishin’ that, “Yeah, there’s just something about it.”

Do you guys still get out on the water and angle when you have the time?

We don’t have time! (Laughs) He’s got a baby on the way!

Oh, really?

His third baby on the way, yeah! Honestly, it has turned into this thing 110% of the time, and what time we do have off… We just don’t have time.

As a guitar player, you mentioned being out with Jamey Johnson for those years and in the studio, you’ve worked with Brent Cobb, Lindi Ortega, Nikki Lane. I love studio musicians, players capable of just getting in the groove with anybody. Do you get to do that much now? I mean, you just said how busy you were, but I know that’s got to be a priority at times– to play with different people.

Nah, it’s almost this thing 110% of the time. The only thing I’ve done since this thing was I produced an EP [Til The Goin’ Gets Gone] for Lindi Ortega. But other than that, I really haven’t had any time. And once you get your own thing going on, you sorta want to keep it to that. Not that I’m opposed to doing some things. Like if Jamey called me and was like, “Come play on my record.” I’m gonna be like, “Yeah, man! Let’s do it again!” ‘Cause I very much enjoyed doing those albums with him, and I love him. He’s one of my best friends. But even then it would be like, “Man, I hope we’re home when you’re doing it! So it’s been tough.

Can we talk about gear for a minute? What’s your rig looking like these days? What’s your main axe and amp configuration when you’re on the road?

They look beat up (laughs). I run a little Egnater head and just crank it up all the way. And it just sounds… When that thing’s on ten, it comes to life!

And you’re a telecaster man, right?

Oh, 100%. All teles.

You get a wild tone out of it. “Axe” was the very first thing that I heard from you, and what struck me most was you had those dissonant Alice In Chains-type harmonies blendin’ with that hillbilly guitar. Was that a calculated effort or was it just gonna come out like that no matter how you did it?

No, it was going to come out like that. Just that real bluegrass feel, you know? It just sounds like you out in the woods, like some guys out… At least where I’m from, I mean I’m from the mountains of North Carolina. You hear that all the time– those really eerie cool harmonies that are very unique to bluegrass.  You wouldn’t hear that so much in a blues song, I guess. But yeah, that was the first song me and Wes wrote together. We wrote that down at the fishin’ hole.

I see a great deal about the Steel Woods being the future of Southern Rock. Southern Rock. Is that a term or philosophy that you embrace?

Man, we kind of just made this stuff and then everybody else has sort of categorized it. Yes, it’s a rock band, and we are very much Southern. So that’s a fair assessment. But I really think we have sort of an element that’s a little different. I don’t think “Old News” sounds so much like a Southern Rock song… Or something like “Whatever It Means to You”. But I guess it is. It’s like our accents when we talk– no matter what we talk about, it’s going to come out with a Southern accent. [That’s] one of the reasons I picked that song, the Tom Petty. Yes, I guess that’s a very fair assessment. We are a rock band from the South (laughs).

Looking at your schedule, your 2020 looks ridiculous! You’re loaded down at least until August and that’s including a trip to Europe. Do you have any designs on recording before the end of the year or is that a priority at all?

We don’t want to make any decisions on that until we know we got the material, and I’d say we’re about halfway there. Honestly, I feel like God sends me these songs that I write. At least that’s my assessment of it. And I think Wes kind of feels the same way. Sometimes you literally get one out of nowhere, you know? I seriously felt like I watched my hand write “Old News”. I’m not kiddin’ you. I wrote that in 15 minutes, 20 minutes maybe. I looked back at it and was like, “Wow, the world really could use that… America surely could use that message right now.”

And that does have a… I don’t want to use the word political flavor to it because it’s not so much making a political statement as it is trying to engage the listener. Were you feeling political at the time that you wrote it?

Everybody else had been hangin’ out in a bar, and I don’t drink. They went to go get a beer after the show. I went in, you know, just to say hey to everybody, pat ’em on the back, but I left and went back to the room. I had my sister’s little guitar in there, and I just picked it up… And you just do whatever. I flipped on the news and was like, “Uhhhh…” you know? Just turned it off and just started pickin’ around. And I swear to you, man, it was like, people are so crazy right now… And we’re all Americans! It’s ridiculous to get this hatred for each other over something I feel like is very much stirred up by the media. I don’t know… When 9/11 happened, wasn’t nobody a Democrat or Republican or whatever independent or any kind of… Everybody was like, “Okay, we’re all on the same team now!” I just felt like that line, “I’d hate to think thinkin’ is old news,” it was just a message that… When I read it back I was like, “I think the world can use that right now.”

Have people engaged you about it? Are people feeling that song?

Yes, very much. Very much so.

This is a tough thing and different artists have different opinions on it. Do you think that there is a responsibility to you, to an artist who has a voice to use it in some capacity to influence people? Maybe not in a political direction, but certainly in a direction to accept and hope?

I believe where there’s hope, there’s perseverance, and perseverance builds character.

We got a lot of character these days, don’t we?

Yeah, but I mean it builds stronger character. I don’t want to say the responsibility because I really don’t know what it is, and I think for each individual artist, each singer, it’s different. There are some [bands] out there that want to take people into a room and be like, “Forget about everything that’s going on, and we’re going to do all drinking songs!” And there’s people that want to just be like, “I wanna get away from my 80 hour work week, go in there, and do that!” I guess with us, I’ve always tried just write great songs and then deliver them as the best musicians that we possibly can. Because all our songs are about different stuff. We didn’t write fourteen “Old News’s” and then put them on a record (laughs)!

Let me change directions for you. February 2020 marks the 50th anniversary of Black Sabbath’s debut album. I know that you are a Sabbath fan. Can we expect some Black Sabbath tribute from Steel Woods come your show at the Capitol Theatre on February 1st?

I’d say other than just us playing “Hole in the Sky”, nah (laughs)! We got so many songs to do now and at this point with two records, we try to squeeze in as many originals we can. And Wes ain’t a Black Sabbath fan.

Oh no?

That was me! Wes is COUNTRY! I’m not saying he doesn’t like ’em, but… When I was 13, younger than that, I think when I first started playing guitar, a song like “Iron Man”, you could learn. Does that make sense? It’s real simple. And then all of a sudden, you think you rock, you know? You’re like, “YES!” And some of their stuff was like that, it’s slower. I mean, it’s great! It’s slower, but it’s simple. It swings a little.

Don’t be surprised if you get some metalheads shouting at you when you get to town.

Oh yeah! It’s so funny… When we play in rooms we never played in before, you can spot that guy out of nowhere, man! Because he’s sorta like got his arms crossed looking at us the whole time. And then we play “Hole in the Sky”. And then he’s just like pushing his way up front and bein’ like, “I’m down!”

Tickets are available now for the Steel Woods with special guests Them Dirty Roses at the Hargray Capitol Theatre, Saturday, February 1st!