Southern rock often goes overlooked in mainstream or music criticism circles, which is why bands like The Steel Woods will probably never have the widespread followings they deserve. Bands of this ilk either get lumped in with country (and subsequently written off by people who don’t like country) or compared endlessly to Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Allman Brothers Band, as if no southern rock bands have existed since. But the past few years have been nothing but healthy for southern rock, bringing great albums from new artists (A Thousand Horses, Whiskey Myers, Cadillac Three, Blackberry Smoke) and old standbys alike (the ever-reliable Drive By Truckers). Even Chris Stapleton has more than a little bit of the southern rock sound in his DNA.
The Steel Woods add their name to that list with their stellar debut album, the recently-released Straw in the Wind. Blending influences from half a dozen genres—including blues, gospel, down-home country, rock ‘n’ roll, and even a little dash of metal—The Steel Woods sound more seasoned, versatile, and assured on this sprawling 13-song collection than you would normally expect from a debut act. (Though they do have a previous four-song EP under their belt.) The band’s wheelhouse is dark, atmospheric rock ‘n’ roll, like the slow-burning opener “Axe” or the gospel-tinged “Let the Rain Come Down,” a song that appeared in a more acoustic-oriented arrangement on last year’s debut album from singer/songwriter Brent Cobb. Foreboding and thrilling, these songs carry an almost apocalyptic glint to them, which makes for a hell of a lot of fun.
However, despite their southern rock leanings, The Steel Woods also have the hooks and songs on this record to potentially make a splash as a mainstream-leaning country band. Two years ago, A Thousand Horses—with the assistance of super-producer Dave Cobb behind the boards—notched a number one country hit with their aching, melodic power ballad “Smoke.” Their debut album, Southernality, blended sheeny country music with gritty southern rock in such a way that they found mainstream traction where many louder and more boisterous southern rock acts missed it.
The Steel Woods, to be fair, are darker and more complex than A Thousand Horses. That much is evident from hard-rock-influenced tracks like “Better in the Fall” and “Hole in the Sky,” or from the rollicking honky-tonk murder tale of “Della Jane’s Heart”—a song that twists the usual “murder ballad” narrative by having the woman put the man in the ground for a change. But buried in the heart of this album are four or five songs that do melodic country rock as well as just about any band working today. If there’s a “Smoke” in the bunch, it’s “If I’m Gonna Love You,” an acoustic-led anthem inexplicably buried in the track eight position. In the 1990s, the big radiant hook and the ripping guitar solo would have slotted this track right in between Counting Crows and Sister Hazel on the mainstream rock radio dial. Nowadays, songs like this don’t have a prayer of touching rock or pop radio, but “If I’m Gonna Love You” could easily find some life on the country side of the dial.
1990s Counting Crows is also a fair point of comparison for “Uncle Lloyd,” another of the more country-leaning tracks from Straw in the Wind. Like the best southern rock, this track cultivates a feeling of time, place, and character that is very real. “He was not my father’s brother/But he wished that he could be/Told us kids to call him uncle/We would be his family/He had a wife and kids in Fresno/The youngest one was 24/Daddy brought him into our house/They didn’t want him anymore.” In the space of a verse, frontman Wes Bayliss sets the stage for a bittersweet story—one of love and newfound family connection on one side and heartbreak and the loss of a family on the other.
The other big gem is “If We Never Go,” which plays the “escapist anthem” role for this record. Just about every country-leaning album will have a song in that category, but “If We Never Go” feels unique, thanks to the details in the lyrics and the contemplative ache of the melody. The song plays out as one side of a conversation between a boy and a girl, as the guy tries to convince the girl to run away with him. It’s a classic Springsteen ideal, but the song doesn’t flub on the storytelling just because we know exactly what kind of song we’re getting. “Kiss your daddy bye, he raised his daughter well/If we don’t leave right now, Atlanta will be hell/It’s too dang bad your mom can’t come out for a hug/But you know how she gets with that broomstick on that rug,” Bayliss sings in the first verse. And in the second verse, he adds “I’ve been mowing lawns since 1998/I’ve finally saved enough, let’s bust out of this gate.” These details add nuance, yearning, and urgency to the song, while Bayliss’s vocals, steeped in wistfulness, and some evocative guitarwork from Jason “Rowdy” Cope, round out the bittersweet edges.
With a lot of talent for a lot of different types of songs, The Steel Woods have the potential to make some truly masterful records in the future. Whether they go further in the country direction, go all-in on their blistering southern rock roots, or continue to mix the two into a unique palette of sound, they’ve clearly got a lot to offer as a band. That’s a major testament to the strength of the playing and songwriting on Straw in the Wind, because few debut albums from the last few years have offered such a thorough display of promise, or hinted at so many intriguing directions. Don’t let these guys become the best-kept secret of 2017.