Oliver Wood – Always Smilin’
Honey Jar/Thirty Tigers
11 songs – 38 minutes
Always Smilin’ is the debut solo release from the Wood Brothers frontman, recorded with a wide range of guest musicians. And, as you’d expect from someone with Wood’s impressive resume, it’s a glorious gumbo of gospel, folk, blues and Americana, all adding up to a prime slice of American roots music.
Wood’s raw, almost discordant guitar playing and distinctive, wise, aching voice are both in fine fettle throughout, from the opening track, “Kindness”(with its beautiful refrain “Kindness. Kindness is my religion”) to the electrified gospel of the closing “Climbing High Mountains (Tryin’ To Get Home)”. In between, there is the deep bottleneck blues of “Unbearable Heart”, which sees Wood alone with an acoustic guitar, and the upbeat groove of the first single from the album, “Fine Line”. One of the absolute highlights of an album packed with great moments is the magnificent gospel blues of “The Battle Is Over (But The War Goes On)” – originally performed by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee in 1973.
He calls in some first class support at different times throughout the album, with Jano Rix, Ted Pecchio, Phil Cook, Tyler Greenwell, Ken Coomer, Nicholas Falk, Ric Robertson, Aaron Lipp, Phil Madeira, Bryan Owings, John Medeski, Susan Tedeschi, Brook Sutton, Freda McCrary and Steve Lee all contributing. In addition, production credits are shared between Wood, Sutton, Rix and Cook. But while Always Smilin’ may have been recorded over a period of months, often the result of impromptu jam sessions as the various musicians travelled through Wood’s home town of Nashville, it has a firm thematic unity thanks to Wood’s voice, guitar and singular musical vision and Sutton and Rix’s lively, warm recording.
Wood co-wrote all the songs with a mix of co-writers, except for the classic gospel covers of “Climbing High Mountains (Tryin’ To Get Home)” and ” The Battle Is Over (But The War Goes On)”. As he often does, the vocal melody often goes where the listener least expects it, but this only magnifies the impact of the lyrics, particularly on the chorus of “Kindness”, which really shouldn’t work but absolutely does.
The sheer number of different instruments on display add depth and variety to the songs, from Sutton’s anarchic tube on “Get The Blues” and Lipp’s banjo on “Kindness”, to Robertson’s wurlitzer and mandolin and Falk’s chicken coop and percussion, in addition to the more common guitars, drums and keyboards.
This isn’t an album of extended solos (although the wild, distorted slide guitar solo on “Molasses” is outstanding). Rather the focus is on the songs and Wood’s voice. The result is a fine collection of well-written songs, superbly played and recorded. In addition, in these times of pandemic, discord and uncertainty, Wood’s uplifting, optimistic lyrics add some much needed positivity.
If you like the Wood Brothers, or the loose, groove-orientated songs of Colin Linden & Luther Dickinson or the New Moon Jelly Roll Freedom Rockers, there is lot for you to enjoy on Always Smilin’.