Interview: Oliver Wood is Always Smiling

Credit: Joshua Black Wilkins

Why connection is an underlying theme on a debut solo album.

Over the last two decades, Oliver Wood has become a mainstay of the American roots scene and one of the most original songwriters around.  He first came to prominence with King Johnson, a six-piece blues-boogie band from Atlanta, Georgia.  In 2004 he formed the Grammy-nominated Wood Brothers with his bassist brother Chris Wood.  Through those two decades and two bands, Oliver has released eleven albums, but never a solo album.  It took a worldwide pandemic to change that.  While quarantined at home in Nashville, Tennessee, Oliver found a surplus of time and songs on his hands and a new album, ‘Always Smilin”, was born.  Americana UK’s Tim Newby caught up with Oliver to talk about his new album and find out what he learned while quarantined at home.

How did the idea for a solo album come about? 

I really hadn’t planned on making an album. I was just excited about writing new songs and collaborating with friends outside of the Wood Brothers.  Without the quarantine, I never would have had the time or energy because I’m usually touring and recording with the Wood Brothers full time.  At some point during the shutdown, I realized I had almost enough songs for an album, so I made it a goal to finish it while I had the chance.

What was the writing process for the album?  Were these songs all freshly written for this project or were they things you had that were looking for a home?

Some of the songs were written the year before the pandemic.  I had started little collaborations with friends when they came through Nashville.  Great writers like Carsie Blanton, Phil Cook and Chris Long.  Some of the music happened the same way.  My friends would come through town and we would just set up jam sessions at the studio-improvising and spontaneously composing. Since these sessions were professionally recorded I was able to use some of my favourite material to write songs over during quarantine.  Then more music and writing happened during the quarantine.  I had help from producers Brook Sutton and Jano Rix and we were able to get a lot done in spite of the quarantine limitations.  I also enlisted some friends to contribute remotely, like Susan Tedeschi on vocals and John Medeski on Hammond organ.

What inspired your songwriting on this album?

Like most writers, I feel like I am always inspired by what’s going on in the world (even if just subconsciously).  So I’m always influenced by my personal life, family and friends. But also I couldn’t ignore all the complex new emotions that came from the pandemic and all the triumphs and tragedies of society we saw and heard about every day.  I felt very aware of how the pandemic both connected and disconnected us on many levels.  In retrospect, I see the theme of connection running through the songs on this record.  It’s always challenging to stay connected to others and to yourself—I like to write about that, it feels important.

What was the recording process like for this given the state of the world at the time?

I have the great luxury of being part owner of a really cool studio, The Studio Nashville, run by engineer/producer Brook Sutton.  The Wood Brothers share this beautiful space with Brook and he is our sonic guru, recording the last two Wood Brothers albums as well as this new one of mine.  Of course, some of my material was recorded here pre-pandemic, but once in quarantine, we were very careful to wear masks, stay distanced, and only have two or three of us there at a time.  It was really a glorious bubble!  And as I mentioned earlier I was able to get some of my friends to contribute remotely as well.

How did those friends and guests come about?  How did you decide on what tracks they would play on?

Really, the joy of making music for me is collaborating.  I’m usually doing that with The Wood Brothers, and this album was just an opportunity to branch out and work with some other people I admire.  Initially I started writing with them just for the joy of it, with no intention of making an album.  Some of my favourite players like Ted Pecchio, Tyler Greenwell, Rick Robertson, Nick Faulk, Aaron Lipp and Phil Cook.  They all came to the studio at one time or another and either jammed or worked on songs with me.  All of it was recorded, and much of it ended up on the album.  Adding Susan Tedeschi, John Medeski, and horn players Matt Glassmeyer and Roy Agee were Icing on the cake near the end of production.

How was this process and album different, or similar, for you to what you do with The Wood Brothers?

It was actually very similar to the way we work with the Wood Brothers, which is capturing some of the early improvised inspirations and adding lyrics later (for some songs).  But also composing and arranging some of the songs before they’re recorded.  Capturing some live energy is really important, even if some elements are added later.

Any plan to take these songs on the road in a solo setting?

Any chance I get, yes!  With a full Wood Brothers schedule ahead it will be a challenge, but I do have a tour this summer I’m excited about.

While being stuck at home like the rest of the world for the past year, what did you discover about yourself and your music, and how has that impacted or changed what you do going forward?

Well, I think a lot of us liked how we were forced to slow down, have more gratitude for what we have. I personally loved being home with my family even though I missed out on a lot of touring (and income).  I got into some really healthy routines like daily meditation and journaling.  It will be a challenge but I hope to stay in that slower more grateful/present mindset as the world starts back up again.

Oliver Wood’s ‘Always Smilin” is out now on Honey Jar Records

About Tim Newby 59 Articles
Author of books, writer of words, enjoyer of good times. Often found with a beer in hand and barefoot at a festival somewhere. Author of 'Bluegrass in Baltimore: The Hard Drivin' Sound & Its Legacy' (2015), 'Leftover Salmon: Thirty Years of Festival! (2019). New book 'Pete Browning: The Life & Troubled Times of a Forgotten Legend' due out in 2023. Follow him on twitter @Tim_Newby9 .
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