In the year before COVID, which seems like a really long time ago, Oliver Wood was dividing his time between putting finishing touches on the most recent Wood Brothers’ album — Kingdom in my Mind, released at the beginning of 2020 — and writing songs and hosting musician friends breezing through Nashville for impromptu jam and songwriting sessions. The troublesome little germ spiked the Wood Brothers’ plans to tour behind the new album, and like everyone else, Oliver Wood suddenly found he had a lot of time on his hands.
“You know, I had a lot of the same struggles as everyone else,” he tells us recently, in a call from his home base in Nashville, “both financial and psychological, but like a lot of people, I feel like we got a little bit of new perspective; we were forced to adapt and take a look at what was important. I found it luxurious to be with my family 100% of the year instead of 50%, and also got a chance to explore creative things that I just never had time for, which is how I managed to make a solo album.
“I don’t know how else I would ever have been able to do it otherwise, so overall, it was a perfect lesson for me.”
Once the pandemic shut everything down, Wood realized he had a sizable and worthy body of material and set about organizing and cleaning it up: He finished writing some songs he had started, added a little post-production and boom.
“Yeah, there was a point at which I had this little list going and I said to myself there’s more than enough here to put an album out, why not just go ahead and do it, for posterity if nothing else,” he says.
Longtime fans of the Wood Brothers’ special concoction of bluesy, gospel-y, rough hewn and sometimes slightly angular Americana will be drawn immediately to Wood’s trademark touch. A sharp and incisive economy of words, splintery acoustic blues guitar, rollicking arrangements and narrative instincts that drift between cinematic detail to plainspoken profundity to rowdy, ensemble throwdowns. Blues, gospel and Appalachia underpin most of the proceedings, stanchions of Wood’s many years both as a member of the Wood Brothers and his earlier partnership in the Atlanta-based roots outfit King Johnson. Guest players and cowriters include Wood Brothers “third man” Jano Rix, former King Johnson bandmate and cofounder Chris Long, John Medeski, Susan Tedeschi, songwriter Phil Cook and singer/songwriter Carsie Blanton.
Even cleaned up for general consumption, the album exudes an elusive vibe; loose jams with lyrics can often betray themselves as such, especially if the personnel are changing from cut to cut, but the album holds together as a finished product, teasing itself as coherent but not over-managed. Almost as if to leave room for the joy of the moment.
“Yeah, it was an ‘accidental’ debut album,” Wood says, “and you know what? I certainly have no regrets about collaborating with people from my whole career. Even this solo album is a series of collaborations, whether it’s collaborating with a writer, other musicians or engineers. That’s what’s fun about music: collaborating with others. If it was just me in a room, recording myself… it’s not fulfilling.”
To date, a few singles have been released ahead of the album’s full release on May 21. The original “Soul of this Town,” released last summer, is about the “modernization” of historic and beloved hearts of the city (any city, he insists, but inspired by cowriter Phil Cook’s reflections on Nashville’s prolonged building boom). He delivers a fine and soul-lofting read of the old Aretha gospel testament “Climbing High Mountains (Trying To Get Home),” and “The Battle Is Over (But The War Goes On),” an old Sonny & Brownie cover, out last September, with proceeds going to the ACLU. An interesting choice, we thought, made particularly vivid given the fraught pre-election environment of last fall.
“That felt like, at the time, we had a lot of social… ” Wood trails off.
“Yeah, friction, but also maybe liberation or at least an attempt at it. And that song sort of felt to me, like, I dunno if ‘protest song’ is really the right term for it, but maybe a song about encouragement.”
As for originals, the rolling Big Easy romp of “Get The Blues,” a kind of paradoxically joyous street party about suffering plays a neat foil against the slithery country blues of “Fine Line,” about the fickleness of the human condition: desire and need, temptation and compulsion. Good, and less-than-good.
And Wood’s gift for detail resonates especially on the narrative tunes. “Molasses” opens with the verse:
She drowned in molasses / down on Purity Street / Last thing she tasted / was sticky and sweet
Was a smile on her face / at the time of her death / She made it to heaven / before her last breath.
A reference, we suspect (and Wood confirms) to the great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919, one of those weird, and weirdly tragic (almost two dozen people died) events buried in American history’s back pages.
“I co-wrote that one with Carsie Blanton, who’s a great songwriter friend of mine from Philadelphia,” Wood explains. “She came to me with the idea of that verse, she sent me an article about it, and we both got kind of a kick out of it, because it was, well, kind of morbid, but also kind of quirky.”
The next two verses were also drawn from real-life, about an elderly man who passed away in the arms of a beautiful young lover (“she loved him to death”), and a musician who died onstage playing the music he loved, surrounded and accompanied by longtime friends. (Wood was a fixture in the Atlanta music scene for years; we’ll leave it to the reader to deduce the inspiration for that vignette.)
But at the end, the simple notion that the triumph of mortal fulfillment comes at the last moment of mortality’s foreclosure carries the tune.
Wood has a few regional dates planned, and then plans to reunite with brother Chris for a full-on Wood Brothers tour, which should be headed to a grand Denver outdoor venue this summer. The break was nice, the album is finished, but the show goes on.
“Chris is doing well: we have our first tour starting in June,” Wood says. “We’re both excited to get back to work. We’ve got quite a busy year beyond that, as long as nothing crazy happens.”