Honey Jar/Thirty Tigers
Okay, before anyone gets too worried and jumps off the next cliff, the Wood Brothers remain intact as an ongoing band. That said, Always Smilin’ is the first solo outing for one of the three members, Oliver Wood. As you likely know, brother Chris has long had side projects too, most notably as a key member of Medeski, Martin, and Wood. Keyboardist/drummer Jano Rix has become an astute producer, most recently on the fine album from Brigette DeMeyer. And, of course, Oliver Wood has long been an in-demand producer as well, notably for Shemekia Copeland and others. So, that’s a long-winded way of saying, side projects are part and parcel of the Wood Brothers makeup.
Oliver is as diverse a roots artist as we have, navigating his way along the pendulum of blues and gospel with his high-pitched, reedy thin yet powerful utterly one-of-a-kind voice. As you’d expect the fare here is not much different than that of the main band, a range of diverse roots music, but it gives him a different setting for his songwriting skills and guitar chops. Most of these are co-writes and/or were born out of jamming with friends in his Nashville studio pre-pandemic. Songs started building up during the lockdown, almost as a release from the on-going stress. Wood found himself going in some unexpected directions but of his intentions was to build a bridge between his past (pre-Wood Brothers) and the present. Hence, numerous collaborations and a plethora of guests.
They include mentor and co-writer Chris Long (with whom he co-founded King Johnson, the roots-rock band that dominated Atlanta’s music scene around the turn of the millennium) to percussionist Jano Rix (Oliver’s partner in The Wood Brothers who also produced three of the tracks). So, the only member of the Wood Brothers not present is the other brother, Chris. Susan Tedeschi, Hiss Golden Messenger’s Phil Cook, Medeski Martin & Wood’s John Medeski, Tedeschi Trucks Band’s Tyler Greenwell, Nashville multi-instrumentalist Phil Madeira, and singer/songwriter Carsie Blanton also make appearances, with Rebecca Wood—Oliver’s wife—handling the album’s handmade linocut cover art. One small quibble is that these guests are not aligned to specific tracks in the liners, so that keeps us guessing although one can take hints from the co-writers on the songs. For Oliver, these old and new friends represented a new level of independence.
Independence has its celebratory side as indicated by the album title and track of the same name. Others in this mode are “Roots,” “Fine Line,” and “Molasses,” all of which hold strains of hope and champion a simpler life. One of the released singles is the opening track “Kindness,” written by Wood alone with its enduring line “kindness is my religion” stemming from the teachings of the Dali Lama. Yet, Wood was thinking of his own friends who think this way, the same ones who inspired him to make the record and partly from the previous Wood Brothers’ album Kingdom in My Mind. It’s an example of what we referenced earlier, born out of a jam with Ric Robertson on Wurlitzer, Aaron Lipp on banjo, Ted Pecchio on bass, and Nick Falk playing the chicken coop. Rix added his drums later. Part of the work here owes to engineer Brook Sutton who co-produced seven of the tracks with Wood.
“Fine Line,” written with five others, hearkens back to his King Johnson days as a tribute to that band. Reconnecting with Chris Long also facilitated a new song, “Face of Reason,” which features some blistering slide from Wood with Medeski on the organ and Falk, of all things, the chicken coop, which Rix employs in a few spots too. “Came from Nothing,” co-written with Pecchio and Greenwell, has some sharp resonator work while Wood’s “Get the Blues” has Pecchio and Rix on background vocals. The bluesy “Molasses,” written with Blanton, is a memorable track with its chorus “before his last breath. “Roots,” written with Phil Madeira, is an upbeat stomper colored by Madeira’s work on piano and organ while Nashville mainstay Bryan Owings plays the traps.
There are a couple of gospel covers, one popularized by many but certainly Dr. John – “The Battle Is Over (But the War Goes on)” and the finale “Climbing High Mountains (Tryin’ to Get Home)” that leads into “Needed Time.” The latter pairs Wood with Rix (drums, percussion, melodica) while “Climbin’…” has some of the most interesting instrumentation with Sutton on tuba, Robertson on mandolin and Rix bringing out that crazy chicken coop again. “Unbearable Heart” is rendered solo by Wood and proves to be a showcase for his guitar chops. “Soul of This Town “is a country soul tune written with Cook that also features a piercing slide guitar turn from Cook, as Kieran Wood adds trombones and Cook, bassist Pecchio, Steve Lee, and drummer Ken Coomer all contribute vocals.
Oliver Wood is turned loose. He’s having fun and gathers a bunch of friends to leave us all smiling.
- Jim Hynes