Oliver Wood sings of an idealized man on the opening track of his debut solo album, Always Smilin’. This man needs no weapon, his weapon is love. He never talks down, and he doesn’t talk up.
How does he keep that smile? “Kindness”, the man says. “Kindness is my religion.” It’s a turn of phrase Wood borrowed from the Dalai Lama, though it feels no less spiritual when he sings it.
But while that lesson is dispensed via Oliver’s distinctive voice, his role in the song’s narrative is that of the seeker, not the teacher. Even on a song of his own creation, Wood humbly positions himself in the supporting role, elevating the ideas of those around him through his own harmonious perspective.
On “Kindness”, Oliver Wood’s perpetually grinning muse is not any one person in particular, but rather a combination of influences and personal aspirations. As the soft-spoken Wood explains from his Nashville home during a Friday morning phone call with Live For Live Music, the unifying theme of this character is “wonder and openness and also dignity.”
“That’s what I think about,” he reflects. “Never talk up, that means sort of the opposite of talking down, which is not feeling dignified when you’re talking to somebody. Having respect and seeing respect, and that’s part of what that is.”
The wonder-and-wisdom duality of “Kindness” is presented over a wily mesh of squirrelly melodic motion, unorthodox percussion, tension and release. With its healthy disregard for standard rhythmic structure, “Kindness” frequently feels like it’s heading off the rails—and that makes it all the more satisfying when it jerks back into alignment. Like an old wooden rollercoaster, it’s that moment of weightless uncertainty coming around the bend that makes the ride exciting.
Oliver Wood – “Kindness” (Official Video)
[Video: Oliver Wood]
Over a decades-long career, Oliver has become a star by channeling the best in others, pursuing a sound all his own within the framework of defined groups. It’s a role he’s always been comfortable playing, whether as a sideman for blues veterans like Tinsley Ellis, as guitarist/vocalist/songwriter for his late-’90s blues-rock outfit, King Johnson, or in his current capacity as one-third of the Grammy-nominated roots trio, The Wood Brothers.
That mindset still prevails on Always Smilin’, but with Oliver calling the shots for the first time, the divergent creative quirks of his past work are magnified, and their engaging effects intensified. The combination of his complex musicality, elegant metaphors, peerless singing voice, and underlying sense of wonder remains a driving force, while his long-fostered attitude of openness and curiosity, of dignity and mutual respect, helps pull his long list of featured guests down winding creative paths in pursuit of simply “seeing what happens.”
Oliver Wood – Always Smilin’ – Full Album
“This is a real metaphor for how to live, in a way,” Wood considers. “It’s like, if a pandemic comes, there’s nothing you can do. You’re going to have to just adapt to it. And it could be a death in the family or a divorce or all kinds of things that you just can’t control. It’s life, that’s what happens. So approaching it with that flexibility to expect the unexpected makes for a happier existence.”
Oliver Wood’s receptiveness to the unknown was both the situational and artistic catalyst for Always Smilin’, the first collection of material the seasoned bard has ever released under his own name. As Oliver explains, “I never planned on making a solo album, ever. I have a family at home, it’s hard for me to have time. But [before the pandemic], I was trying to make a little bit of time just to collaborate with some different people than The Wood Brothers just for variety and to see what happened.”
“When I had friends coming through town I would say, ‘Hey, why don’t you come to [The Wood Brothers’] studio? We’ll write something, or we’ll just jam and record it,'” he continues. “When the pandemic hit, I already had a few things either written or even partially recorded.”
With newfound time on his hands, Wood returned to this cache of collaborations and finished up a song he had written with Phil Cook (Hiss Golden Messenger), “Soul of This Town”. “Nothing else is going on,” Wood recalls thinking, “and it’s such a great song, and it was so fun to make, and I’d hate for it just to sit there because it was basically done.”
Encouraged by the first single release, Wood continued to flesh out the songs he had started with a range of collaborators—including Tedeschi Trucks Band’s Susan Tedeschi and Tyler Greenwell, acclaimed keyboardist John Medeski, Wood Brothers percussionist Jano Rix, Nashville staple Phil Madeira, singer-songwriter Carsie Blanton, and Chris Long, Wood’s longtime mentor, songwriting collaborator, and King Johnson co-founder.
“Before I knew it, I had a half a dozen tunes and I was like, ‘You know, this pandemic is going to go for a while it looks like. I might just see what happens if I make an album,'” he laughs.
Oliver Wood and his talented friends crafted the rest of the album within the limitations imposed by the pandemic. “Some of it was long-distance,” he explains. “I had a few songs that I wrote demos and then I sent them to my buddy in Atlanta and he put a drum track on it. There’s a couple songs that were collaborations in that way, and other songs I was able to have a few people in the studio a couple at a time and distanced. … So it was a very casual process, it was done sort of hodgepodge, all over the place.”
Part of that hodgepodge involved employing the same creative methods used on The Wood Brothers’ latest record, Kingdom In My Mind, recording improvised jam sessions and cutting snippets into sections of composed songs.
In addition to Always Smilin’ tracks like “Came From Nothing” and “Unbearable Heart”, “Kindness” came together in this jigsaw fashion. “Not only did I write a song over those,” he explains, “but I retained the original recording. I did not redo it.”
The limitations of the existing recordings became the parameters of the exercise, pushing the songwriting process in unexpected directions. He relished the challenge of tuning back in to the captured moment and writing over it, a task that often verged on “square peg, round hole” territory. “You’re given this framework that is only so pliable,” he notes. “You might be able to edit it a little bit but for the most part it is what it is.”
Oliver Wood views his singing in a similar light. While he never considered himself a vocalist early on in his career, he was encouraged to develop that tool by mentors like Ellis. “There was a point where I never sang,” Wood reminisces, “and at one point [Ellis] said, ‘Alright, you’re going to sing one song a night. Here’s the song.’ He knew it was going to take a while to get used to it. And he didn’t have to do that.”
Wood’s voice, a rich, fluid collage of tremolo, cracks, pops, and piercing earnestness, has since developed into a defining trait of his work. “Years and years later,” he explains, “I’m like, ‘Oh, I kind of got better at this.’ At least I’m able to do it, and I kind of like it sometimes.”
It’s not the voice he would have chosen, necessarily, but he’s come to value it. “I really have come to appreciate the fact that for all of us as artists, so many times it’s our limitations that help form what is unique about us. So if I could sing like Ray Charles, that’s who I wanted to sing like. And not just Ray Charles, there’s a lot—Van Morrison and Levon Helm and all these people. But there’s no way. I don’t have any of the things that would make me sing like that. It’s their backgrounds, it’s the shape of their frames, it’s a physical thing, it’s an emotional thing. It’s unique. For any vocalist, for a while, we hate our voices until we realize that’s us. That’s what we got. That’s what we sound like, for better or for worse.”
In his pursuit of new sonic terrain, Oliver incorporated various unusual elements to get the musicians on the album—himself included—thinking outside of their usual boxes. “What I’ll do sometimes,” he explains, “is I’ll just use, like, a really crappy guitar or a weird tuning or just like a wooden slide. I love that thing where, okay, everybody loves this—let’s try the direct opposite. Like, everybody loves sustain on guitars. What if we just went in the other direction?”
“Unbearable Heart” bears the fruits of that tangent. The hollow guitar tone on the blues lament provides the perfect foil for the colorful emotion of Wood’s vocals.
The album also prominently features the chicken coop, an unorthodox percussion instrument utilized in his pre-King Johnson project Coop DeVille with Donny McCormick. “And man,” Wood exclaims, “when we record on an instrument that we’re not comfortable with but it still sounds cool and weird and different, then different stuff comes out. It puts your brain in the inspired frame of mind rather than the logical kind of frame of mind, and that’s where you want it.”
Oliver applied a similar piece-by-piece creative approach to crafting the album’s lyrics. While the symbolic concepts for songs like “Roots” arrived fully formed—”I actually remember being on a trail and literally tripping on a root and thinking, ‘that’s a cool metaphor,'” he explains—Oliver gladly let the chips fall where they may on others.
“If you keep going with that spirit of not needing it to be about anything, that’s my favorite,” he explains, “because then, you just start describing something and there’s an ambiguity to it that is really beautiful. And subconsciously, it ends up meaning something or feeling like something. You’re subconsciously putting feeling into what you’re writing.”
“Those are my favorite songs,” he continues, “It’s kind of like when you read a book versus watching the movie version of a story. … A book will describe a person and you will imagine what they look like, as opposed to a movie, which tells you what they look like, shows you. If you and I both read the same book, we might picture the characters and the lay of the land completely differently.”
“I love that about songs. I like when somebody comes up and says, ‘Man, I love that song. It made me think of this or it got me through a tough time.’ Some of my favorite songs, I don’t quite understand them even. I don’t exactly know what they’re trying to say, but I get it on a subconscious level,” he says with a muffled laugh.
“There’s always a balance of inspiration versus craft, or logic. … You have the inspiration part, which is oftentimes your subconscious—it’s something within or outside the realm of your logical mind—and then your logical mind or your craft comes in. You’re not finished yet, you’re going to have to give it a form and a shape, and you’re going to have to make this last part rhyme or it’s not going to work—the pieces of the puzzle—so that’s your logical mind. And to me, that’s the enemy, in some ways. I want the balance to tip towards the inspired side and the creative side that just kind of is childlike.”
“You can totally logic the magic out of it, and I’ve done it many times,” he chuckles. “I do it all the time. But what I’m excited about is the more I do this, the more I’m aware of that and the more I at least can stop what I’m doing and say, ‘You’re doing that thing. You should take a break or go on a walk or something and see what happens.'”
Following his experimental instincts, Wood sought to forge a new path on Always Smilin’—even when that new path intersected with familiar trail markers. “I think there were some conscious decision to do some things differently,” he considers. “I’m sure there were, and plenty of subconscious ones. … Like for instance, Jano [Rix] played on a bunch of the tunes on my album, and I was a little bit careful to not have him sing too many background vocals because he’s got a very distinctive voice in The Wood Brothers which I am in love with. I love Jano’s voice. And I was thinking, ‘I don’t want it to sound like ‘Wood Brothers Lite’ or something.'”
Wood applied a similar precaution to the rollicking Always Smilin’ version of “Fine Line”, an old King Johnson sing-along that he re-worked with Chris Long. Oliver explains, “There was a conscious decision to not just redo it exactly like it happened. And that’s not to say anything bad about the original version, but I always feel like when redoing a song or covering someone else’s song, the art in doing that is to put your own spin on it. I don’t want it to sound anything like King Johnson because that’s already been done. So what else can we do?”
Oliver Wood & Friends – “Fine Line” (Live)
[Video: Oliver Wood]
In the end, the celebratory nature of Always Smilin’ is what shines through its myriad musical reference points. More than just a collection of excellent songs, it’s a celebration of friendships and music both new and old, of silver linings, of the noble pursuit of originality and creativity.
“I aspire to that,” Oliver Wood surmises. “I don’t always succeed, and if I could do something again, or next time I do something creative and new, I hope to go further into that direction. I want to be more innovative because I challenged myself somehow and say, ‘No, people always do that. Let’s do this and see what happens.’ I love that spirit.”
I know a man, and he’s always smilin’…