Wayne Mills, an Alabaman who hosted Nashville’s roaming songwriter round the Alabama Line, gave them all their first opportunities to perform on a local stage. The Steel Woods’ Jason “Rowdy” Cope was with Mills on the last night of his life.
Backstage at the Bridgestone Arena on Nov. 23, 2013, the night of the George Jones tribute concert, was the No. 1 place to be for anyone having anything to do with country music.
George Strait, Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood, Dierks Bentley, Miranda Lambert, Blake Shelton and others performed throughout the night in what was intended to be Jones’ retirement show. But Mills and Cope were backstage to take advantage of the free chicken at catering.
“It took us an hour to get to that catering room because he got pulled six ways from Sunday by Dierks Bentley going, ‘Man, remember when you did this thing for me?’ and Blake Shelton going, ‘He pulled me up onstage when I first came to town,’” Cope recalls. “He put a lot of people onstage for the first time when they came to Nashville. If you were from Alabama, Wayne Mills was a hero to you as a musician.”
Cope was with Jamey Johnson on a bus to their next show in Mississippi when Mills was shot by a gunman later that evening at the downtown bar, the Pit and Barrel.
“We all loved that man,” Cope says. “He had a lot of friends here in town, and his life was tragically cut short. But his music will never die.”
The Steel Woods eulogize Mills by recording the Wayne Mills Band’s “One of These Days” for Old News, the band’s newest album arriving Friday (Jan. 18). It’s one of the album’s four moving tributes remembering impactful artists who have died recently, including Tom Petty, Merle Haggard and Gregg Allman.
What makes Mills an integral part in the Steel Woods’ history is that Cope connected with the band’s Wes Bayliss in his mourning of Mills’ death. Cope and Bayliss were fishing buddies long before they started performing together. But they felt an immediate musical telepathy in their first gig playing for tips in Dickson, Tenn. Since then, the Steel Woods has grown to become one of the most beloved live bands to emerge from the Nashville community in recent memory.
Between the covers and originals on Old News, all of the songs are lived. Some lines in the originals are inspired by passages in Cope’s diary, while other lyrics take on themes of perseverance, unity, hope and resilience. The band’s goal is to offer fans a common ground through shared life experiences and a musical connection.
“If you’re going to let it bleed, let it bleed,” Cope says.
The band is on tour through summer. Old News’ album release shows are set for Friday and Saturday (Jan. 18-19) at Nashville’s 3rd & Lindsley.