Wes Bayliss photo byCole Creasy
The Steel Woods’ Wes Bayliss Shares Wisdom With On Your Time
The Steel Woods are releasing their new album On Your Time on October 6th, 2023, via Woods Music/Thirty Tigers and is their first album since losing founding member Jason “Rowdy” Cope, who passed away just before the release of All of Your Stones two years ago. Guitarist, lead vocalist, and co-founder Wes Bayliss took up the challenge of moving forward with songwriting and performances because he knows it’s what Cope would have wanted. The new album builds on their previous songwriting together and also charts new territory.
The Steel Woods are a band who has often been inspired by unifying concepts for their albums and this one is no exception. For their 4th album, they’ve explored their previous storytelling and brought an older character forward, one who appears briefly in a track on their 2017 album, Straw in the Wind. This character, Uncle Lloyd, is a “Man From Everywhere” who has mixed qualities and might easily act as a cautionary figure. While some of the songs on the album are inspired by Lloyd’s mysterious history, other songs chime in on learning from experience and sharing wisdom when going through hard times. I spoke with Wes Bayliss about the many decisions the band had to make to move forward with On Your Time, what went into the storytelling for this album, and why he doesn’t write “party songs”.
Americana Highways: There’s so much story to this album and it seems like you’ve been pretty open about this process for you. I know it’s been a very intense experience, to say the least.
Wes Bayliss: It has! I don’t tend to withhold things. If people are interested to hear what I have to say about it, I’ll share it.
AH: Some people might not have produced an album this quickly or have made one at all given what happened so recently, with the loss of Jason. Was there ever a chance you might not continue?
WB: I don’t think there was ever a question about continuing what we had started. We never said, “We have to release a record every two years regardless of what happens,” but I had this bunch of songs and it seemed like the right thing to do at the time. We could fit it in before the end of the year and some of this stuff was started before Rowdy died. I’m just the type where, if I’ve got enough material to put out a record, and it passes the test, I’ll do it. I don’t want to slow down, and that’s for his sake and for carrying the torch. I don’t think he’d want it any other way.
AH: That can be a motivating thing. When you said there were some songs started before he passed, I can definitely see wanting to release those.
WB: Yes, I really wanted to. He doesn’t have a co-write on all of the record, but I really pushed for some of them and finished them on my own. Some stuff we’d started recording, and maybe one day I can put the others out. At the same time, we didn’t cut them on the previous record with him for a reason, because they didn’t make the cut. He didn’t sign off on them then, so I want to honor that, too. It is a lot of difficult decision-making guessing what he would have thought.
Even on this last record, which I made on my own, there’s no way I could’ve made that without our time together writing, recording, and touring.
AH: I know you also have to think about this album as a unit and how they all fit together. It must have been a lot of questions to reconcile but I applaud you all for getting to the finish line.
WB: Thank you. It is overwhelming, but I pretty much get overwhelmed with everything I do! But as long as I keep moving and pushing forward, I know that’s the right thing. We’ve been pretty busy this year playing and we’re getting into the heaviest part of it now. The road’s treating us pretty good and the fans are great.
AH: I understand that the concept behind the album is a kind of side-path to some of the ideas on your previous albums.
WB: That’s right. My idea for the record, or at least half of it, was a continued story of a song that was on the first record of ours, called “Uncle Lloyd.” That happens to not even be our song! We wanted to carry on the story of a character who didn’t belong to us, so we needed to contact Darrell Scott. Darrell loved it and ended up playing some on the record.
But that song, “Uncle Lloyd,” is about a role model that comes into a young man’s life and isn’t such a good influence. He learns what not to do but is still able to learn from this guy. He wonders why Lloyd is away from his family, and has a drinking and a gambling problem. I wanted to write more about Uncle Lloyd because I think that’s a brilliant song.
Then the other half of the record is almost as if I’m the kid, and they are happy songs about things going right because of the things you learned before, whether from a good influence or from not such a good influence.
AH: Or the hard way!
WB: Yes, or you just learned it on your own.
AH: I find the Uncle Lloyd character fascinating because we have a tradition in American culture of the romantic drifter who comes through town and everyone thinks they are cool. Lloyd is sort of the opposite of that, because he’s unromantic, though mysterious. He carries a lot of pain. Maybe you shouldn’t look up to this guy. That’s realistic. Of course, young people love loner figures so it makes sense they find them so interesting.
WB: It made perfect sense to me because I had those kinds of influences growing up. I was a teenager working for my family’s construction business with guys who were 50 and 60 years old. A lot of them had issues. It seemed real to me.
AH: I love the main song about Lloyd, “The Man From Everywhere” because it’s in Lloyd’s own voice and that’s pretty chilling. There are relatable but dark things in there about the choices he’s made. It’s a dramatic self-portrait. Anyone can relate to restlessness but the idea that it can consume one’s life is scary. You use some cool imagery, too.
WB: Yes. That’s well said! I think he’s definitely a lost kind of guy, particularly at that point of his life. I don’t elaborate that it goes any other way. I think that his whole purpose is to be a clear example to this kid, if only this one kid, and hopefully people who hear the record can make sense of it and start looking at their own lives. Are there people around them who they try to avoid? Maybe they can engage with them and learn from those things instead of just following them.
AH: I guess that poses a potential good outcome. Knowing someone who had made those mistakes is cautionary. How did the sound and music develop for that song? It’s dark and dramatic sounding.
WB: When I write these tunes, the lyrics are the covering and it’s already produced in my head. As soon as there are lyrics, the whole record is going around in my head. As far as the sound goes, I just try to get out what I’m hearing. I’m also hearing stuff that I can’t play. I think it’s a dark enough sound. I played a couple different acoustic guitars that drive the intro and there are kind of unusual chords to add to the mystery, I guess.
AH: “Devil in This Holler” is also a fantastic song. It kind of harks back to song traditions that dramatize the relationship between heaven and hell and people are kind of in the middle making decisions as part of that drama. I’ve heard gospel songs, too, where the valley is used as an image of struggle but here it’s physical, too.
WB: It’s physical and figurative. I wrote the song after a really difficult day trying to put on our first ever fan club show and weekend event. We didn’t seem to get things right and it wasn’t because we didn’t try. It just felt like things were working against us even though it was a really beautiful location in Eastern Kentucky. I was thinking, “There’s something about this holler that really didn’t want the show to happen.”
In my mind, the speaker is maybe a coal miner, but I try not to make it too specific, so that everyone can relate to it. I’ve had a couple people say that song hits them hard. People who work hard, but feel like everything is fighting against them, that’s kind of what it’s about for me. It’s about keeping on going, in the valley, and working your way up to the hill.
AH: I think that’s something special about the song, that it builds up to a turn that I didn’t see coming, where it says, “But he ain’t going to pull me down.” There’s determination and energy there, and without that, it would be a different song.
WB: It could have been. For me, this is definitely on the brighter side of the record, even though it’s a dark song. It’s still the guy that’s getting it right. It ain’t for anything that he’s doing wrong. There’s the idea that the Devil won’t hinder you if you’re already working for him! [Laughs]
AH: [Laughs] Yeah, I’ve heard that idea.
WB: The very first songwriting I wrote and released was the song “Axe,” and I have an axe tattoo on my arm that says, “Idle hands are the Devil’s playground,” and it’s all kind of the same thing. There’s determination and assurance that you’re doing the right thing if everything is fighting you. It’s never easy to be on the right path. It’s easier to bounce around and do whatever.
AH: It could be that the worse things feel, the more significant things might be. I get that sense from the song. It’s calling things out, but bringing determination to that. I’m glad that you write songs about difficulties rather than just happy songs.
WB: I’m with you on that. I’m sure I could write a good song about a party, but what Rowdy and I always wanted and what I still find to be the biggest part of what we’re doing is connecting the heavier, more serious songs, with a more interesting sound, sonically. It’s important to me to make the stuff that I know I want to hear, that sounds good, even without words. I want us to be a big, loud Rock band. Once it appeals to me and others, later on, our fans start to realize that there aren’t any songs here that don’t mean anything.
That’s what I’m most proud of, that we were taking it seriously the whole way. There’s always a message and stuff that people need to hear. People come up to me and talk about lyrics all the time. I get off the stage knowing I’ve missed a lick, but people come up and talk about what the songs mean to them, and I’m reminded that we’re doing a pretty cool thing here. I believe that. That my two cents on why I don’t do party songs!
Thanks very much for chatting with us Wes Bayliss! Find information and tour dates on the Steel Woods website here: https://www.thesteelwoods.com/home
Enjoy our previous coverage here: REVIEW: The Steel Woods “All Of Your Stones”