Oliver Wood is a mainstay of modern-day American roots music. The frontman of The Wood Brothers since 2004, he’s spent 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, with his debut solo album, Always Smilin’, Oliver reimagines that tradition by presenting his sharp songwriting, savvy guitar chops, and one-of-a-kind voice in a new light. It results in 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.
As its title suggests, Always Smilin’ is first and foremost an album of celebration. Songs like “Roots,” “Fine Line” and “Molasses” focus on brighter topics, from finding one’s center to embracing a simpler way of living. That diversity 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.”
An album of bridges, Always Smilin’ draws on a wide range of collaborations. Guests include bandmates from Oliver‘s musical past and present, from mentor and co-writer Chris Long (who performed alongside Oliver in legendary Atlanta roots-rock band, King Johnson) 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. For Oliver, the goal was simple: to collaborate freely with a mix of old friends and new partners, embracing a new level of independence.
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.