Oliver Wood is surrounded by a sea of boxes and packing peanuts. Things are in a bit of disarray as his family settles into their Nashville, Tenn., home of three weeks.
For the former Atlanta resident, it was due time to move to a smaller locale, to “take a family adventure,” while landing in a city with an impressive music scene, especially in the country & blues bent of The Wood Brothers.
Wood’s first change in residency as an adult—to Atlanta—was also about pursuing music. Oliver and his younger brother, Chris—of avant-groove New York City-based jazz band Medeski, Martin & Wood—both left their family home in Boulder, Colo., about two decades ago. Although the two learned to play under the same roof (Oliver even gave Chris his first bass), it took until the late ’90s for them to reconnect, when Oliver sat in on a MMW set.
It was “so fun and felt so natural” that not long after that, the Woods brothers struck out to write some material together during a family reunion. Their first songs including “Tried & Tempted,” a tune that made its way eventually into the duo’s 2005 debut, Ways Not to Lose.
“There’s a connection you get from playing with someone for years and years; there’s a little telepathy,” Wood says. “Chris and I felt that immediately.”
Between their split and reacquaintance, both musicians forged ahead in their respective careers and genres. Chris blazed new roads in trip-jazz and funk-bop with MMW, while Oliver sang the blues over mean and fiery-hot ’Lanta licks as Tinsley Ellis’ guitarist, and later with his own band, King Johnson.
“We cut our teeth and went to the school of the road and really found our identities—both musically and personally—so, when we finally got together, it was really fun to unite the two opposing things and see how they fit together,” Wood says. They matured separately, thereby avoiding a clichéd brothers-band (think Oasis, The Black Crowes, etc.).
“I’m hoping my brother’s family will move [to Nashville] one day as well,” Wood says. Currently, they live 900 miles apart—a distance that makes rehearsal difficult. However, they’ve managed to produce four studio albums this way, including two Blue Note Records releases: their latest, Smoke Ring Halo (2011), on Zac Brown’s imprint, Southern Ground, and an album of covers, Up Above My Head.
In concert, the brothers, now accompanied by drummer/percussionist Jano Rix, borrow heavily from classics in the American music catalog. On songs like “Ain’t No More Cane” (traditional), “Fixing a Hole” (The Beatles), “Get Out of My Life Woman” (Allen Toussaint) and more, they honor their influences while putting a creative spin on them.
“Our goal when we do a cover song is not to be true to the original necessarily at all. Our goal is to put our own stamp on it,” Wood says. “We get inspired and feel songs in the same way [as the original writers], but it comes out different because we do it in a three-piece acoustic way.”
Don’t let the word “acoustic” mislead you, though. The Wood Brothers, in their simple, refined ways, merge Southern rock, Motown soul, Manhattan jazz and Heartland folk.
Much like the covers they reinterpret, Wood Brothers originals also get makeovers and have evolved over the years, which is documented on the two-volume live set, Sky High and Nail & Tooth, released this year
“We’ve sort of come full circle,” Wood says. But he’s not talking about reinterpreting old material; he’s talking about the brothers coming back to the blues, the first genre they learned as young musicians in Colorado. The flair and bravado of the more technical music that they both went on to create are behind the musicians, at least for this project, because it “gets you further and further from the emotional core of the music.”
“We’re just loving the simplicity of [the blues],” Wood says. “[We’re] just loving songs that are real and soulful and pure.”