The railroad tracks run parallel to First Street in Alabaster, which slips by a couple of used car lots and a strip mall or two before crossing over at the courthouse. The locals browsing America’s Thrift Store or drying their towels at Frank’s Coin Laundry or scooping up the last of the guac at the Taco Fiesta can feel the pulse of freight cars as they rumble their way north toward Birmingham. Across the tracks, a faded wall sign offers new auto batteries installed and flat tires fixed.
This could be anywhere, but it’s the place where the protagonist in the Wood Brothers’ new single has left, once and for all, for the promise of something else, something bigger and noisier and maybe more kinetic, in the cold, chaotic embrace of Gotham.
The last phone booth in New York City/ Ringin’ all day, calling somebody home/ She doesn’t answer/ She walks faster/ She won’t be goin’ back to Alabaster.
A character study in liberation, the tune launches with an uncertain, dissonant electric piano chord courtesy of Jano Rix before relaxing into a poised, languid, gospel-y kind of swing, teeing up the mood to Kingdom In My Mind, the seventh studio offering by the Wood Brothers.
We caught up with Oliver Wood a couple of weeks ago and couldn’t help but ask if he’d ever been to Alabaster, Alabama. (We kind of wanted to ask how a town in the Deep South got a name like Alabaster in the first place, but we assumed he wouldn’t know.)
“I … drove past the sign for it, which is what inspired the title, inspired the whole thing,” he says. “Just driving through the outskirts of Birmingham, coming back from a family function. I just love that word, it’s always intrigued me. It just inspired an idea and a story.”
We don’t know, and we’re left to wonder, how Oliver’s unbound protagonist fares in the crush of The Big City, or who was on the other end of that unanswered phone call. The best stories invite us to write the postscript ourselves.
But if she pulled up stakes at the promise of a new life, much of the rest of the new album’s songs suggest that, hey, maybe things are OK. Three tunes in particular — “Cry Over Nothing,” “Don’t Think About My Death” and “Satisfied” — all seem to tie into a single thematic sentiment. Ain’t perfect, nothing is perfect, but we know what we’re doing, and we’re doing the best we can, and we’re learning to value the good, and all that’s good in this mortal comedy is worthy of thanks and appreciation.
“I think it’s sort of an acceptance of [the idea that] you’ll be best off if you come to grips with the fact that you’re not in control, or that not every day is going to be good or everything is going to turn out. But if you can live with that, in a new way, you can get a fresh start,” Oliver says.
“Like the ‘Satisfied’ song … what I like about that song is that it’s sort of saying, ‘This is the best world you got, make the best of it’ … and, at the same time, you can be very curious about the next world, and that doesn’t go away.”
Maybe it’s about… gratitude.
“Yeah. The gratitude thing, maybe it’s a cliché these days, but there’s really something to that,” he replies. “And when I think about these songs. I think of them in those terms. If I want to get something out of these songs, it’s gratitude. Even if it’s not spelled out.”
The new album drops Jan. 24 (“Alabaster” and “Cry Over Nothing” are available now as preview singles), and it follows in the wake of the success of 2018’s One Drop of Truth, which by many critical estimates represents the trio’s overdue commercial watershed, hitting No. 1 on the Billboard Heatseekers Chart and garnering a Grammy nomination for Best Americana Album.
Neither Oliver nor Chris (Boulder natives) are particularly fully vested music-biz mavens, so we wondered how it felt to get their names up on that marquee. Kind of a surprise?
“Absolutely, it wasn’t something that was ever on our radar before,” Oliver says.
“When Chris and I started out, we started on a major label. We were on Blue Note records for a few years, then on another label — Southern Ground — for a couple of years and, I dunno, we normally associated that music business stuff as all being really connected, and the last couple of albums we’ve been very independent, producing our own albums and doing things the way we wanted to do them, and I guess we thought of that as going even farther off the radar.
“But I think that was one reason why the Grammy thing was actually extra special, was that that was something we did completely on our own, without a producer or a label. We’d been doing it long enough that we figured out a cool way to do it on our own, and we’re happy to be recognized for that.
“It was cool to get the recognition, and be involved in the spectacle of the whole thing. We actually went there and saw the whole commercial/TV/Cardi B side of it too. It was just ridiculous and funny and fun to watch, and just being glad we’re not part of that scene.
“I guess the point being… it’s just nice being under the radar.”
And after the Grammy confetti got swept up, the trio got to enjoy the fruits of wider recognition. First time playing the storied Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, playing two nights at the Fillmore in San Francisco (from which was culled a live album, released last September), and the ultimate for hometown kids: first time headlining Red Rocks.
We ask Oliver if he remembered his first Rocks show as an audience member.
“I do! It was George Thorogood, in 1982, or ’83. But not long after that, I saw the Talking Heads ‘Stop Making Sense’ show… oh man, I took it for granted then, but looking back, that was amazing. Tom Petty, Stevie Ray Vaughn with Bonnie Raitt and Taj Mahal supporting. That was incredible. Very fond memories.”
And that headlining threshold, that “next great leap” wasn’t lost on Wood, despite his decades in the business.
“Oh yeah. We felt a little like imposters, like, ‘What are we doing up here?’ But it was super fun.”
ON THE BILL: The Wood Brothers — with Katie Pruitt. 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 13 and Saturday, Dec. 14, Boulder Theater, 2032 14th St., Boulder. Tickets: $36-$65