One of the things I love about this genre’ we call Americana, is that there is so much darn good music that just doesn’t fit anywhere else. And while our little corner of the music universe is ever expanding, it’s still at its core, roots music. Whether an Americana artist is 20 or 50, nearly all will relate their path to the influences of obscure and long forgotten originators of this great sound. In many cases, artists will also credit family members as being the catalyst for what they do today as well. Such is the case with the Wood Brothers. If that name is new to you, I urge you to read on, and, catch these guys live somewhere this year. It has been said their sixth and latest CD, One Drop Of Truth, just might be their best to date. The first release is one of my favorite tunes they do; “Happiness Jones.” Lead singer/guitarist Oliver Wood said recently, “It was the most fun we’ve ever had making a record.”
I caught up with Oliver recently to learn more about this eclectic Americana roots band. “My earliest memories are of music,” Oliver told me, “of my father singing and playing. Actually, he is still playing guitar and singing.” Oliver and younger brother Chris’s father was a science professor by trade, but was always a very serious musician on the side. In his college days, he was a real serious folkie who was involved in the early folk scene in the late 50s and early 60s . “He was actually, was friends with Joan Baez,” Oliver said, “and played on one of her records. He even had a radio show when he was in college.”
“He would always play when we were kids sitting in the living room or entertain us on camping trips with his big repertoire of folk songs. We were certainly influenced by that not really realizing that it was something unusual or special at all, but it really was,” Oliver recalled.
Dylan, Hopkins, and Reed
Their father also had an amazing record collection, “or at least back when you’re a little kid it’s pretty amazing,” he said. “He had folk music, Dylan records, classical, the Beatles, the Who; there were all kinds of stuff. I remember, for me personally, it was a couple of the blues records from an artist named Lighten’ Hopkins. His record really knocked me out; and some from Jimmy Reed too, anything with that raw bluesy guitar and singing really stuck with me. But it also was fun to listen to acts like Led Zepplein and the Beatles at the same time and see how that stuff was all connected.”
Oliver started playing guitar as young child, but got more serious about is as a teenager. He started with a bass guitar thinking he might like to be a bass player, but eventually switched to guitar and gave the bass to his brother, Chris. “He took it and ran with it quite a bit,” Oliver mused.
Oliver is four years older than Chris, so they only played a little together proficiently as teenagers before both boys left home and went in totally different directions. “We each spent a good 10 to 12 years pursuing music separately and on different paths,” Oliver said. “We seasoned ourselves, really, for a long time before we actually got back together to play music. When we did that, what was nice about it was that we had already become comfortable with our musical identities and probably our identities in general. It was nice to come back together and make music as grown ups.”
Officially, professionally, the Wood Brothers band started around 2005. Oliver was already 40 years old by then, and Chris nearly 36, each having carved out a solid musical career in their own right. Chris was into Jazz and improv in New York City, and Oliver had formed a solid band in Atlanta after playing with Tinsely Ellis for a few years. His own band had released five records. “That’s where I learned song writing and road life,” Oliver said.
Totally Unique Sound
“It’s definitely a little bit of a lot of things,” Oliver said. “We were both coming from much different music scenes, and from bands that had these big full sounds, and we were interested in going back to our roots a little bit, and stripping that full sound back some. I don’t know how conscious it was, but it ended up being more like what we heard our dad do when we were kids,” he said. “When we started off, it was very much just acoustic guitar and upright bass. Chris had this old National steel guitar, and we found that the combo of that and the upright bass was just this really cool sound that we were really getting into, especially after years of playing with fuller, bigger sounding bands.”
They didn’t want it to sound like everything else, though. “So, there was a conscious decision in some sense to go back in time a little bit and play like our dad played, but with a twist, and adding everything we learned over the years to try to make it our own sound. We still do that, however over the years it’s still evolving, and now we have a drummer/keyboardist in Jano Rix. Now we have all these sonic things we can do too. But we always do try to keep it ‘how would WE do it,’ as opposed to somebody else.”
One of the ways they achieve that uniqueness is with an instrument called a Shuitar. “It really is a cheap, acoustic guitar,” Oliver said, “that’s been converted into a purely percussion instrument. He (Jano) basically just beats on it, but it’s not quite that simple. There are strings on it that are bunched together. He hits them with his thumb, and clicks the side of it with a ring on his finger, and he beats the bottom of it with his open hand, and these three sounds are almost like a kick, snare, and high-hat. It’s almost like a mini little drum kit,” he said. “It’s this weird American percussion instrument that we can appreciate, because it’s not your typical ethnic instrument you often associate with Americana music.”
And, in case you’re wondering (I was), yes, it’s a real instrument. Matt Glassmeyer is actually the inventor of the Shuitar (Shuitar.com). Although the company is no longer officially producing the instrument for sale, he constructed and sold several hundred units between 2012 and November 2017. I imagine one could find a unit somewhere for sale on the web if you were so inclined.
Drop Some Truth
The Wood Brothers officially release their sixth CD, One Drop Of Truth, in February of 2018. By early accounts, it’s possibly their best. Oliver said it was the most fun he’s had making a record. “It’s the freest album we’ve done, the most independent album we’ve done,” he said. “And most importantly, this is the most purely Wood Brothers’ album we’ve ever made.”
“Often, when you’re making an album in the traditional way, there will be a unifying concept, whether that be in the approach to the music stylistically or lyrically in terms over the overall narrative. And even though there are some themes that revealed themselves later, this one is all over the place,” Oliver explained recently. “What I really love about this record is that each one of these songs has its own little world. There are diverse sounds and vibes from one track to the next.”
This album has made me an even bigger fan of the Wood Brothers.