The Wood Brothers take the traveling path
Ryan Summerlin December 9, 2013
A year ago, singer-songwriter and guitarist Oliver Wood moved from Atlanta to Nashville, Tenn. Though the cities are just 250 miles from each other, this was a big upheaval. Oliver, 47, had spent his entire adult life in Atlanta. And there is a wide separation between the two cultures, especially for a musician, with Nashville established as the center of the music business.
“It was a weird idea to move to where all this music-industry stuff is,” Oliver said from Nashville.
Oliver is laid-back and doesn’t seem especially driven by business concerns; with his long hair and slight drawl, he could pass for a second-generation Allman brother. Nashville wouldn’t seem an obvious fit, but Oliver has found at least one thing comfortable about the city.
“There are a lot of people who already understand what musicians do. We don’t have to explain that we don’t have another job,” he said
As of six months ago, the person who probably understands Oliver best as a musician joined him in Tennessee. Chris Wood, Oliver’s younger brother, relocated from upstate New York so the two could put more concentrated energy into the Wood Brothers, the rootsy folk-blues group they started nine years ago. Now, instead of catching a few minutes on the road to write songs together, the brothers get quality time together to collaborate.
“This is a new development. We’re still in the early stages of finding out what this does,” Oliver said, adding that the rest of the Wood Brothers enterprise, including drummer and keyboardist Jano Rix, also is based in Nashville. “But so far, we can sit in each other’s living rooms to write songs, not backstage before a gig or in an airport. It allows us to work at a more casual pace.”
The picture Oliver described of the band’s new reality went beyond business and artistic matters. Oliver’s and Chris’ families spend a lot of time together, and the brothers have grown closer.
Being close wasn’t always a priority. When the brothers, who are separated by four years, left the family home in Boulder, they mostly stayed separated. Oliver headed to Georgia, where he formed King Johnson, a bluesy band that toured early on, but then gave up the road to concentrate on the Southeast. Chris went to a different part of the East: He studied at the New England Conservatory of Music and then moved to New York City to co-found Medeski, Martin & Wood, a musically ambitious, highly successful threesome that explored the outer, funkier limits of the jazz keyboard trio. Their paths rarely crossed.
“Though we were both doing music full time, we were in very different circles, in different parts of the country,” Oliver said. “I felt we weren’t close for a while. We’d drifted apart.”
The brother-and-brother reunion had a definite starting point. A 2001 gig in North Carolina had King Johnson opening for Medeski, Martin & Wood; Oliver ended up sitting in for the trio’s entire second set. The fit was strong enough that Oliver would regularly sit in for MMW’s Atlanta-area shows, and the brothers even began cooking up an idea to take the collaboration further.
“It was so fun and natural,” Oliver said of that initial session with his brother. “We made a point at the next family gathering to play music together. That flipped the switch. We had this effortless rapport onstage. As Chris said, it was like looking in a mirror. Often you get that when you play for years and years together. But we had it right away, and it was blatantly obvious. It was from our brotherhood, our shared experiences.”
The brothers were close as kids, bonding largely through playing music, often with their father — “a folkie from the folk era,” Oliver said. (Dad was also a microbiology professor in Boulder, and the family spent summers in Aspen, where Oliver was an Aspen Times paperboy.) But the brothers had differing personalities.
“Chris was always very disciplined,” Oliver said. “I started on bass, stayed six months, then switched to guitar. I gave him my bass, and he just disappeared. He was so focused. I was easily distracted. Still passionate about music, but it took me 40 years to figure out what I wanted to do — be a singer-songwriter.”
Though they were opposite in temperament, and took different musical paths early in their careers, the early music foundation of folk and jazz has been a powerful uniting force.
“Honestly, our influences aren’t all that different,” Oliver said. “They’re expressed very differently. But I’m still a huge fan of classic jazz — Mingus, Miles Davis, Dixieland. But I leaned more toward Willie Dixon and Dr. John.”
The siblings didn’t have a specific vision for what kind of music they wanted to make as the Wood Brothers. They were guided more by knowing what they didn’t want.
“We didn’t want to play instrumental jazz,” Oliver said. “And King Johnson, that was a roots band, songs, Americana-ish, but that was a big band with a horn section. We wanted something more stripped-down, raw and basic. That was the unspoken goal. And we also just wanted to see what would happen.”
The same could be said for moving headquarters to Nashville. Oliver calls the move an experiment, and “quite a commitment,” but with Medeski, Martin & Wood now a part-time band, it made sense to redouble efforts with the Wood Brothers.
The early returns are good. In October the band released “The Muse,” its fifth studio album. “The Muse” sounds like it has full concentration behind it — the songwriting is deep, with contemplations on the afterlife and the nature of music. The production is ambitious, with strings, horns and backing vocals filling out the sound. The album marks a high point in attention and commercial success for the band, which Oliver chalks up to a confluence of factors: producer Buddy Miller, who has become a Nashville icon through his work with Robert Plant, Emmylou Harris and the Devil Makes Three; Jano Rix, a member of the Wood Brothers for three years but who was making his first appearance on a studio album; and Southern Ground Studios, right there in Nashville.
“It was a perfect storm of things we didn’t have before,” Oliver said.
The band’s new hometown figured into it, too.
“It gave us a rush, a new fresh start and fresh ground,” Oliver said.