Singer, songwriter and guitarist Oliver Wood forms one half of the roots-music duo the Wood Brothers. On their three albums, the pair have refined a soulful blend of blues, folk, back-porch funk and other forms built largely on the foundation of Oliver’s guitar and his brother Chris’ stand-up bass. Oliver’s earthy vocals and sturdy compositions have helped the band gain a substantial fan base and rapturous reviews.
“Oliver is an unbelievable songwriter and a great musician and singer,” says producer-musician John Medeski, who helmed the Brothers’ first two albums (and is Chris Wood’s bandmate in Medeski Martin & Wood). “I can’t tell you how many of his songs I thought were traditional standards. They sound like old classics, but they’re originals. His songwriting is deep.” That depth originates in the childhood of the Wood boys, who watched their dad (a molecular biologist by profession and an unstoppable folkie in his spare time) sing for anyone who’d listen – by the campfire, at family gatherings or in the living room of their Boulder, Colorado, home. “It all started with us just listening to him, and then with us singing along sometimes,” he recalls. “At some point, I got really interested in the guitar.”
Though his dad didn’t teach him to play, he did buy Oliver a guitar – and provided the most potent inspiration. “As I got into his record collection, I thought, ‘Wow, I could play some of that stuff,’” he remembers. This treasury of platters included folk, bluegrass and country, he notes, “But what really captivated me was the blues – Lightnin’ Hopkins and Jimmy Reed especially. I was really attracted to the guitar playing and the singing; the way those old players expressed themselves on guitar came directly from the way they sang. The melodies and little riffs were influenced by the vocals and vocal phrasing.”
As he immersed himself in music – the Beatles’ peerless songcraft, Bob Dylan’s folk-based immediacy, the gigantic blues-derived riffage of Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin – Wood became obsessed with the guitar. “I was always too shy to sing back then,” he relates. “Chris was more of a singer than I was; we played together a little as teenagers and he encouraged me to sing, but it was god-awful. Just hideous.”
His passion for playing only deepened, however; his greatest influences, as he became an adept musician, were electric bluesmen like “the Kings” (B.B., Albert and Freddie) and Albert Collins. “It still has the electricity of rock, but it’s more primitive,” he says of this brand of blues. “It’s plugged in and rockin’, but it’s more emotional. And the guitar sings like a voice.” Although he admits to a period of infatuation with bebop and other complex jazz forms, Wood says he “came full circle,” back to the 12-bar embrace of the blues. And after a brief period at University of California at Santa Cruz, he packed up and followed some musician friends to Atlanta. There he gigged for a time as the guitarist in a band covering Motown and other R&B classics (“I was just happy to be playing anything,” he volunteers). That band lasted barely a year, but he continued pursuing any and all musical opportunities. A weekly gig at beloved local eatery Fat Matt’s Rib Shack enabled him to further develop his chops. “I always got in with older players I could learn from,” he points out.
Wood’s first true immersion in the life of a working musician came when blues singer-guitarist Tinsley Ellis invited him into his band. “He’d been touring since the ’70s and was a real workhorse,” he explains. “He was a real mentor in music in the business. I got exposed to living in vans and hotels and playing every night for not very much money.” He spent two years on the road with Ellis, who pushed Wood to the microphone. “He said, ‘OK, you’re gonna sing one song a night. He gave me Freddie King’s ‘See See Baby,’” the musician recalls. “He also encouraged me to write my own songs; that where I got the fire to start doing my own thing.”
Inspired to form his own group – and now grounded in, as he puts it, “the songwriting process, singing, the mechanics of touring and how it works” – Wood launched King Johnson with his bass-playing friend Chris Long. The band was named for blues legends “the Kings” and “the Johnsons” (Robert, Lonnie, et al). At this point, though, he decided to expand his stylistic palette. “To be a middle-class white guy playing blues – something never felt quite right about it,” he admits. “You can’t really get your own identity from it, and it’s already been done better. But the blues are great as a foundation.” Atop this bedrock he and Long added more diverse influences, from the New Orleans grooves of the Meters and Little Feat to the timeless country tunefulness of Hank Williams. “Our songwriting got way out of the blues box,” he notes.
King Johnson was a labor of love, but it lasted more than a dozen years, during which time the band issued five records and toured nationally (with an emphasis on the South). Eventually the lineup expanded to a six-piece, including horns and percussion.
It was during a gig in Winston-Salem, N.C., opening for his brother’s acclaimed instrumental jazz-groove outfit Medeski Martin & Wood, that Oliver Wood got a glimpse of his future. Sitting in with MMW, he found a remarkable chemistry – particularly with his brother, despite the fact that they’d been on separate musical paths for some 15 years. “It was a creepy experience, like watching myself,” Chris Wood recalls. “He had a lot of the same impulses I did. Part of it was influences and part was blood.”
With their blood and their influences on their side, Oliver and Chris Wood played together at a family reunion some years later, and were both struck by the evocative sounds they produced. “Chris had a recording rig, so we jammed for a couple of days and recorded it.” A tune came out of the process, and Oliver took Chris’ tapes, wrote some lyrics, and finished it. “Then Chris said, ‘Send me a bunch of your songs and I’ll learn ’em, and we’ll record those next time,’” he adds. “So we did that and made a demo, just for fun.” This handful of stripped-down recordings, featuring Oliver on guitar and lead vocals and Chris on upright bass and backups, was the blueprint for the Wood Brothers’ sound.
“We had complementary strengths when we started,” Oliver recalls. “I had these songs and could sing and play ’em well, and Chris could make them sound completely cool and unique. Instead of a typical band situation, you had this incredible upright bass.” Their demo stunned MMW’s manager, who passed it along to Blue Note. The Wood Brothers were signed in short order. After releasing a live EP recorded at the club Tonic in New York in 2005, the brothers began work on their debut album, Ways Not to Lose. Produced by John Medeski and released by Blue Note in 2006, the collection earned effusive praise from roots aficionados. They followed up with the 2008 set Loaded, also produced by Medeski.
The band had been playing theaters and clubs for several years, so it was an adjustment when Grammy-winning roots-rocker Zac Brown invited them on tour – suddenly the Wood Brothers (with drummer Tyler Greenwell) were playing for crowds as large as 20,000. It was a learning experience. “It can be a challenge, when the audience isn’t there to see you and you’re used to these intimate rooms,” Oliver avers. “But when you choose the right material and perform it the right way, you can connect.” Brown also included the Woods in his set.
Brown released the pair’s 2011 album, Smoke Ring Halo, on his Southern Ground label. Produced and engineered by studio vet Jim Scott (Johnny Cash, Tom Petty), the disc offered an array of new songs and sounds. “There are some really exciting, dynamic things happening with rhythms we haven’t tried before,” says Oliver. “It’s the latest evolution of our sound.” Despite all that evolution, though, Oliver Wood’s guitar, voice and songs are still rooted in the great traditions that first captivated him as a child – and now keep his fans spellbound.
Photo courtesy of David Barnum