Every time Jason “Rowdy” Cope pulls into The Shed Smokehouse and Juke Joint on West Broadway Avenue in Maryville — as he’ll do on Saturday, when the band headlines the big stage — he can’t help but grin.
After all, there’s a particular Shed show that stands out to Cope and his partner/bandmate, Wes Bayliss, as an example of how far they’ve come, he told The Daily Times recently.
“It was years and years ago, and we had a show booked inside on the small stage,” Cope said. “And it rained, so nobody came! There were only two people that came to the show, so we can say we played for two people at The Shed. That was before our album came out or anything, so it was way back in the day. But those two girls have come and seen us since at that same place, when there were 1,000 people there.”
All these years later, Cope and Bayliss remember shows like that because it keeps them in touch with their working-class roots. They’ve cobbled together a fanbase a handful of fans at a time, without the assistance of a major label and outside of the stifling confines of mainstream country. And they’ve done it, Cope said, by never letting off the gas.
“We just believe in the music we’re making,” he said. “We played to those two girls like there were 2,000 people there. We played like we were in an arena, because we love what we do.”
The band got its start back in 2015 when Cope, who had been playing guitar for Jamey Johnson, wound up at a tribute concert for the late Wayne Mills. Both he and Bayliss were backing up other people, and they wound up taking over the stage between songs, playing together and sparking an immediate chemistry.
“It just worked; something clicked with us, and I was booking these shows, so I invited Wes to come be on one and play,” Cope said. “I think we both come from a place of music that’s deeply rooted in the South and in Southern culture. His upbringing is very unique, in that he was in a family gospel band as a child, so he’s been in a band pretty much his whole life.”
Together with manager Derek Stanley, the band struck upon the idea of pushing demo records in the hands of construction workers around Nashville’s various building projects in those early days, according to a profile published earlier this year in the trade magazine Pollstar. They always prefaced a handoff with the caveat that the tunes would hit a sweet spot for fans of Waylon Jennings and the Allman Brothers Band, and they weren’t lying.
“We’re just a rock band on 11, no doubt,” Cope said. “We’re a loud rock band, but our songwriting is really kind of bluegrass based. Most of our songs start on an acoustic guitar, and then we take that and crank up our amps around them.”
In 2017, the guys released “Straw in the Wind,” which gained them industry traction and earned them opening slots for everyone from Lynyrd Skynyrd to Miranda Lambert, from Blackberry Smoke to Cody Jinks. The Steel Woods defy easy categorization, because as much as they can evoke the dusty backroads of the rural South, they’re rock ‘n’ roll kids at heart.
“When I was a kid, I was fascinated by Jimi Hendrix,” Cope said. “What he did with an electric guitar, the way he approached it, was something else. I remember when I first learned to play the lick to ‘Purple Haze,’ I thought I was the coolest kid on the planet.”
“Straw in the Wind” climbed to No. 42 on Billboard’s Independent Albums chart, and earlier this year, the guys released “Old News,” getting some distribution assistance from the independent label Thirty Tigers. It’s a bigger, bolder sounding record designed to capture the bombast and energy of the live show, Cope said.
“A lot of what you’re hearing is just us in a room, one take, throwing down,” he said. “There are some guitar overdubs I went in and did once we got the initial tracks down, but what you’re hearing is 95% live.”
Combine the original material with a few choice covers — “Whipping Post” by the Allmans, for example, or “Same Old Blues” by Skynyrd — and you have the recipe for a Southern rock throwdown, whether there’s two or 10,000 people in attendance.
“These shows, we just love playing live,” he said. “Honestly, that’s just us in our element. It’s what we do — no tracks, no nothing. We play everything for real, and whenever we’re at The Shed, we want people to come out and see us. We’ll be on 11, no doubt, because we like to throw down when we’re in there.”