Oliver Wood has announced his debut solo album, Always Smilin’, will be released May 21 on Honey Jar/Thirty Tigers. A mainstay of modern-day American roots music with his band The Wood Brothers, Oliver has spent the better part of the 21st century blurring the boundaries between folk, gospel, country-soul, and Americana, earning an international audience and a Grammy Award-nomination along the way. Now stepping out on his own, he refocuses his sharp songwriting, savvy guitar chops, and one-of-a-kind voice on an 11-song collection that evokes the swagger of a Saturday evening picking party one moment and the solemnity of a Sunday morning gospel service the next.
“The year before the pandemic, people would come through Nashville where I live and I’d set up a co-write or a jam in our studio, just to do some stuff outside of my own band,” Oliver explains. “There wasn’t an album in mind. I just wanted to be creative. But when the pandemic happened, the songs started building up.”
While 2020 was a year of struggle for most, Always Smilin’, as its title suggests, is first and foremost an album of celebration. Songs like “Roots,” “Fine Line” and “Molasses” focus on hopeful topics, from finding one’s center to embracing a simpler way of living. That intent is reflected throughout: on gospel covers like “The Battle is Over (But the War Goes On)” and “Climbing High Mountains (Tryin’ To Get Home)”; on country-soul standouts like “Soul of This Town” and on the tongue-twisting, purely Oliver Wood-esque songwriting craft of “Kindness.”
“You’d be surprised at the music you write and the chances you take when there’s nothing at stake,” Oliver continues. “The best art is an accident. You wind up accessing a different part of your brain and trusting your instincts, rather than relying on control. I’ve learned it would serve you well to be like that in everyday life, especially when you’re dealing with stresses and crises.”
As Oliver Wood navigated the pandemic by focusing his creativity on writing and recording his first solo album, he’d simultaneously use the opportunity to build a bridge between his past and present through a wide-range of musical collaborations. Guests 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). Blues heroine Susan Tedeschi, Hiss Golden Messenger’s Phil Cook, Medeski Martin & Wood’s John Medeski, Tedeschi Trucks Band’s Tyler Greenwell, Nashville staple Phil Madeira, and singer/songwriter Carsie Blanton also make appearances, with Rebecca Wood—Oliver’s wife—handling the album’s handmade linocut cover art. For Oliver, the goal was simple: to collaborate freely with a mix of old friends and new partners, embracing a new level of independence.
“It was especially satisfying to make a connection between my past and present. The song ‘Fine Line’ dates back to my King Johnson days. Bringing it back and recording it again was my way of paying tribute to that band and the music we made together,” says Oliver. “I also had the opportunity to write a new song ‘Face Of Reason’ with Chris Long who co-founded King Johnson with me. Further to this point, I reconnected with John Medeski who produced The Wood Brothers first album, as well as, my old friends Susan Tedeschi and Tyler Greenwell. Those kinds of full-circle moments are at the heart of this record.”
Embracing the full range of Oliver Wood’s musical heritage, Always Smilin’ builds upon the blues and gospel sounds he explored long before The Wood Brothers’ formation to the American roots music he’s been making during the past two decades. It’s an album of collaborations and communal recordings, spearheaded by a longtime team player who, for the first time ever, is making the final decisions himself. There will be more Wood Brothers music in the future, but this is an album about the present. An album about right now. And right now, Oliver Wood is smiling.