“You can tell when somebody is faking it,” says Cody Cannon, lead singer and guitarist of Whiskey Myers, “and you can tell when it’s real.” This kick-ass band has been steadily building a devoted following with its gritty authenticity, and with their self-titled fifth album, they’re poised to explode.
Each one of the releases from Whiskey Myers has been bigger and bigger — following their break-out third album, 2014’s Early Morning Shakes, their most recent record, Mud, climbed to No. 4 on Billboard’s country charts in 2016. And that was before the group was featured in Kevin Costner’s TV series Yellowstone in 2018 (not just on the soundtrack, but on screen, performing in a bar), which propelled the band’s entire catalogue into the Top 10 of the iTunes country chart.
But playing to larger and wilder crowds — including audiences of more than 100,000 at the Download Festivals in London and Paris — didn’t cause Whiskey Myers to change their approach this time around. “We just bring our songs to the table and make it sound like us,” says Cannon. “We never think about it. We just try to go in and write a good song, whether it’s country or rock and roll or blues.”
“There’s never a plan or the sense that we need to make a song sound a certain way,” adds guitarist John Jeffers. “A country song could end up a rocker or the other way around — it’s extremely organic, and that’s always been us as a band.”
The big change for Whiskey Myers was the decision by the group (which also includes Cody Tate on guitar, Jeff Hogg on drums, bassist Jamey Gleaves and Tony Kent playing keyboards and percussion) to produce the album themselves. GRAMMY-winner Dave Cobb (Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell, Brandi Carlile, Sturgill Simpson) helmed the band’s last two albums, but this time around, they felt ready to take the wheel.
“We loved a lot of things about our producers,” says Jeffers, “but it was time to be set free and do it ourselves — to take what we learned from them and put it all together, figure it out. I think it just made it more authentically us.”
“We didn’t know what to expect being on both sides of the glass, but we loved it,” says Cannon. “Everybody got along, and we really incorporated everybody’s ideas.” Jeffers emphasizes how that sense of collaboration and experimentation really defined their whirlwind eighteen days of recording at the Sonic Ranch studio, outside of El Paso. “There’s never a right or wrong answer when it comes to ideas,” he says. “We would run every single idea from everyone — some work and some don’t, but we give them all a shot. And then there’s that magical moment when the whole band hears it, your eyes get a twinkle — ‘That’s it, that’s us!’ It’s usually a no-brainer.”
It should come as no surprise that at this point, the members of Whiskey Myers can communicate and create so cohesively. The band’s roots stretch back decades into the red dirt of East Texas, where Cannon, Jeffers and Tate first began playing together. They earned a rabid local following on the strength of their 2008 debut album, Road Of Life, and then notched their first No. 1 on the Texas Music Charts with the 2011 follow-up Firewater.
With Early Morning Shakes, though, the rest of the world started to catch up to what Texas already knew. Esquire called them "the real damn deal," while USA Today wrote that their music had “shades of Led Zeppelin and David Allen Coe.” They took their blistering live show across the U.S. and U.K. non-stop, sharing stages with the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Hank Williams Jr. and Jamey Johnson and racking up more than 300 million streams of their songs.
The band draws as much inspiration from Nirvana as from Waylon Jennings, and Whiskey Myers bursts out of the gate with the raging “Die Rockin’,” followed by such bruisers as “Rolling Stone” and “Gasoline.” Over the course of fourteen tracks, though, songs expand, moods change and songs like “Bury My Bones” and “California to Carolina” explore different stories and emotions.
“You want an album to be like a rollercoaster,” says Jeffers. “Does it really take you for a ride, with ups and downs and some loops and sometimes you’re upside down?”
“Those first songs on the album were the first batch we recorded, and they were really rock and roll,” says Cannon. “That got the juices flowing. But an album should be like a whole work of art that moves, comes out strong, ends strong, flows in the middle — like a good show does.”
Whiskey Myers hasn’t dialed down their Southern Rock rowdiness, but these songs also reveal new maturity and changes in the lives of the band — both Jeffers and Cannon got married since the release of their last record. “There’s always pressure there,” says Jeffers about the challenges of maintaining a relationship and a relentless touring schedule, “‘Bury My Bones’ is about being home. I was on the road and just wanted to go home. It is on your mind, sometimes harder than others, and it shows in the songs. And then sometimes you’re just pissed off and you write a song called ‘Bitch!’”
“We’re growing up,” says Cannon, “and this is exactly the place we’re at, and it comes out in our songs, in our business, everything, We’re not as wild as we were — we’re not totally calm, but you see how your life changes. You always write about little sections of your life — you can write a happy song when you’re sad, but you tend to go to where you are — and I just think this album is happier, more upbeat, doesn’t have too many dreary songs on it.”
For this band of renegade brothers, the goal isn’t to fit into a format or try a new direction for its own sake, it’s to be true to the music they love — and with Whiskey Myers they continue pushing in all directions and sharpening their attack, whether country, rock, blues, whatever — even adding the legendary McCrary Sisters’ gospel influence to the project on background vocals. “Everybody wants you to pick a genre, but we did this our whole career,” says Cody Cannon. “We like it all, so we’re gonna do it all. We’re better than we were at 20 years old — you try to hone your skills and get better, write better, play better. This is just how it came naturally, and it works better that way.”
The Steel Woods’ sophomore Thirty Tigers album, Old News, represents a creative leap for the southern roots rock songwriting team of Alabama native Wes Bayliss and his North Carolina partner Jason “Rowdy” Cope, who completed their first recordings barely months after they first met.
Recorded in Asheville, NC at Echo Mountain Studios, the site of an old church during a six-day break in a hectic touring schedule, the new double-vinyl disc (the follow-up to 2017’s critically acclaimed Straw in the Wind) features more original songs and, for the first time, the whole band participated –including the rhythm section of bassist Johnny Stanton and drummer Jay Tooke –playing in a single room, cutting the tracks virtually live.
“We really hone in on what we do, our strengths as a band, establishing a musical identity,” explains Wes about their latest effort. “The first album, we were still figuring out our sound, so what came out, came out. This time, we had a premeditated blueprint, a real plan.”
The songwriting partnership between Bayliss and Cope continues to grow, mature and blossom. “Over time, you find out a person’s strengths and weaknesses, and it just happened to turn out his strengths are my weaknesses, and vice versa.”
Part Lynyrd Skynyrd, Allman Brothers, dual-guitar southern blues-rock with elements of R&B, country, bluegrass, gospel, blues, folk and metal, the descriptively named, Nashville-based band deepens its resolve on a theme-driven album that joins the mystery train of the past with the full-speed loco-motion of the present, seeking to bring people together with the universality of music.
Conceptually and musically, Old News delivers a set of songs at once eternal with lyrics wrenched from today’s headlines, featuring mythic reverberations and social critiques to boot. The album mourns an idealized past but isn’t afraid to point the way to a better future that enlists the best of both worlds.
Like The Steel Woods’ previous release, death and mortality make their chilling presence felt, whether it’s in the collection’s cemetery-placed set piece, “Rock That Says My Name,” whose theme is classic Shelley –“Ozymandias, look upon ye works and despair” –or the vintage bluegrass country of “Anna Lee,” the culmination of a murder trilogy begun with “Della Jane’s Heart” on the last album and ending with the Neil Young/Crazy Horse-ish instrumental, “Red River (The Fall of Jimmy Sutherland).” That preoccupation spills over into an idiosyncratic cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “The Catfish Song,” and a special four-song epilogue that includes faithful tributes to artists who have passed away - Tom Petty (“Southern Accent”), Merle Haggard (the prescient “Are The Good Times Really Over”), Gregg Allman (“Whipping Post” as funeral dirge) and Alabama singer/songwriter Wayne Mills (the meditation on mortality, “One of These Days”). Just as on Straw in the Wind, there’s a Black Sabbath cover, this time a take on “Changes” that transforms the song into a smooth Memphis-style Al Green soul croon, a nod to the cover by the late Charles Bradley.
“Death is a part of life that gets looked over,” says Wes. “It can be a positive or a negative, consequence or reward... It just finds its way into a lot of our writing.”
The album’s title track –which inspired the mock old-fashioned newspaper album cover representing each of the songs with a tintype illustration –is an example of the timeliness and timelessness of Old News, a song of hope that focuses on what connects us. “And pray for Miss Liberty,” sings Wes. “And the crack in Her bell/There’s a tear in Her eye/But Her arm hasn’t fell.”
“We wanted to write a song of hope,” says Bayliss, who notes his wife gave him a hard time about the grammatically incorrect use of “fell.” “Forget about those small things which divide us. This is about the things we all have in common. We’re all here living and working, trying to get by, raising families. We all just want to live and die free.”
In a world torn apart by differences, Old News invites us to partake of music as a common language, reinvigorating classic tropes with up-do-date relevance. The rowdy guitar blues of “Blind Lover” envisions a world where we trust our hearts without judgement, while “Compared to a Soul” offers another of The Steel Woods’ penchant for moral fables, this one a pair of Faustian bargains with the devil, one a man who shoots a friend for cheating at cards, the other a Jezebel stepping out on her Marine lover.
The opener, “All of These Years,” offers a ZZ Top-like guitar riff from an unrecorded song, “Shooting Scar,” while “Without You” offers tough love to a friend “in a bad place,” but in a last-minute narrative twist, turns out to be confronting his own reflection in a shattered mirror.
“This wasn’t an easy record to make,” acknowledges Bayliss about the blood on some of these Old News tracks.
“Rock That Says My Name” is arguably the album’s raison d’etre, a sprawling multi-part epic that recalls such forebears as Buffalo Springfield’s Jack Nitzsche-produced “Expecting to Fly,” confronting our own lives in the rear-view mirror. The song ends with Wes’ grandfather solemnly intoning the words of Matthew 6:19-21 from the King James Bible, a benediction that leads into the four-song “Obituaries” tribute that ends the album. The song was inspired by Wes reading an article about someone purchasing a tombstone in advance. “What better way to drive yourself to live well than looking at your legacy, what you leave behind when you’re gone,” says Wes. “Just a rock with your name, when you were born and the day you died.”
“We’re going to tour this record and do everything in our power to do it justice and get it out to our fans,” says Bayliss. With Old News, The Steel Woods continue to build on the independent-minded approach to recording, touring and connecting to fans which has defined their career from the start.
Whiskey Myers at Taft Theatre has been rescheduled to Saturday, MAY 8, 2021. Patrons should hold on to their tickets as they will be valid for the new date.