Oliver Wood, A Brother Without The Other, Smiles Through A Solo Debut
There’s a theme in Oliver Wood’s music that runs in parallels to its relentlessly inventive junkyard funk and greasy blues. Whether in his long-running band The Wood Brothers or on his new solo album, the veteran guitarist and singer preaches and teaches the virtues of Zen optimism and faith. He lifts up characters who have an inner light. I proposed this theory to him recently, and he said, “I suppose you’re right.”
“I sort of write about aspirations. Or, ‘I want to be a little more like this,’” he told me in a recent interview at the Wood Brothers’ studio and club house on Charlotte Ave. in Nashville. “I'll write about this guy I'm making up or this guy who is a combination of people I know, or this guy who I admire who just passed away. I like these tributes to some kind of greatness, especially when it comes to spiritual meets creative stuff.”
That jumps out in the title of Wood’s first-ever solo album, Always Smilin’ and in the lyrics of “Came From Nothing” about inspiration: “fell in love with just a spark/ made a mess all in your heart...it came from nothin’/ then it was made.” Elsewhere, “the courage of believin’ flies in the face of reason.” And on the opening track, he profiles a fellow who’s “always smilin’” as per the title. “Is that smile for real, is that just how you feel and how do I find this way of livin’?” The track’s refrain: “Kindness is my religion.”
“That’s a Dalai Lama quote,” Wood says. “I know people like that, people that seem like they're always smiling. You know, they have dignity and humility at the same time. And I just admire that. And I think I have a little bit of that, but I want to take an affirmation, or I'm trying to establish that for myself.”
I’m frankly surprised to find myself writing so much about the lyrics of an artist who’d make me happy dance if he merely sang la-la choruses over his sonically inventive and visceral music. The Wood Brothers, with the fierce and fluid upright bass of brother Chris and the octopus-like reach of drummer/keyboardist Jano Rix, have set the standard for crafty, soulful sounds in Americana music over the past 15 years. It’s always grounded, heady and inspired. Oliver’s solo album, which arrived in late May, partakes of some of that Wood Brothers esthetic and showcases his songwriting prowess while also circling back to his blues and barroom origins.
Oliver and Chris grew up in Boulder, CO in a family deeply invested in folk music and literature. The way their careers and esthetics branched apart and then reunited is one of the more fascinating and inspiring stories in modern Americana. Chris went to New York to pursue progressive instrumental music, forming the improbably successful avant-garde jazz trio Medeski, Martin & Wood. Oliver went to Atlanta and settled into the heart of Southern roots music. He was a sideman for blues guitarist Tinsley Ellis, then a founding member of the big and brassy touring outfit King Johnson. Over those years, he bonded with bass player and lead singer Chris Long.
“A local article about King Johnson in Atlanta a long time ago called Chris the Redneck Confucius,” Oliver says with a grin. “He comes from rural Indiana, and I just love his take on things. Like a John Prine, it can be really moving as well as really funny, you know? So every time we do something together I feel like he takes my writing a certain direction.”
While they’d stayed in touch, Oliver and Chris hadn’t collaborated in 20 years, so Chris became one of the friends who came over to the Charlotte Ave. building to jam and write in 2019 and 2020. And that’s how Always Smilin’ came to be. A product of the pandemic, Wood found himself sitting still for a change. The Studio, as it is so provocatively named, had been shaken down during the jam sessions for the 2019 Wood Brothers album Kingdom In My Mind. And Jano Rix was around as well, so he and Oliver made a core band that plugged in a string of distinguished guests, including Chris Wood’s keyboard playing colleague John Medeski, blues/soul powerhouse Susan Tedeschi, Phil Cook from Hiss Golden Messenger and songwriter Carsie Blanton.
In the two-part conversation posted above, we talk at some length about the collaborations behind Always Smilin’, about Carsie Blanton’s imaginative song about a bizarre fatal 19th century molasses factory fire, and about Jano Rix playing a chicken coop.