Digging Up the Roots: An Interview with Oliver Wood

NYS Music had the chance to sit down with Oliver Wood of The Wood Brothers just days before they embarked on their 2017 Winter Tour, which is currently under way. Due to their familial connection, the Woods come from the same musical roots, but their talents grew in all different directions over the years prior to forming the soulful folk band that now has a worldwide following. Some dates on this tour are already sold out, so if the spirit of their music moves you, purchase your tickets today!

Ben Boivin: Let’s start from the very beginning…The Wood Brothers connection with the state of New York.  Your first ever show was at Tonic in NYC and two of the first five shows were at Savannah’s in Albany. How did the Capital District wind up as your first stomping grounds?

Oliver Wood: Well, part of it was a matter of convenience because my brother [Chris Wood] used to live in Saugerties and in the early days of The Wood Brothers we were trying to find little gigs and do things that were realistic and convenient. I was living in Atlanta at the time so I would just go up there and hang out for a few days and work on music and then get a few gigs in the area. We played gigs nearby Atlanta for the same reason. My brother would come down and that just made the most sense. Sort of how we cut out teeth and started to figure out what The Wood Brothers was all about.

BB: What do you feel is different about playing in New York State compared to other parts of the country?

OW: Every region has its own unique vibe and certainly New York State has that. The first thing that comes to mind for me is obviously New York City. That’s where we got our record deal and where our management company is located and where we played our first gig. There’s a sentimental connection to it. Also, we played several times at Levon’s [Helm] barn, his rambles, while he was still alive. Besides Chris living in that part of the country, it certainly has some sentimental value to me as well. There is such a rich tradition there.

BB: Is there one band member that chooses the set lists or is it a group effort?

OW: We definitely tweak it as a group, but I would say Chris is the master set writer. He is the guy that masterminds it and really thinks it through. I don’t know why, it is just something he started doing and was really good at. I guess he is a better decision maker than me? We certainly consult each other and as a group make a list of songs, but Chris is really good at putting them all together.

BB: Do you ever consider cutting songs based on the crowd?

OW: Oh, absolutely. If the crowd is rowdy, we add some rowdier songs. Sometimes we try to tone it down for people and they might be rowdy, but what they don’t know is that they actually want to shut up for a minute and really be in the moment and that’s cool too because it brings them in.  It gives them something they didn’t expect.

BB: I read something you said about touring with the Zac Brown Band in front of 20,000 people and how that is a much different level than the normal tours you do as a trio. What makes that different from the theaters and bars where you primarily play?

OW: In a large venue, it is more consistent, there is this one gear. But, I like the variety of small and medium places because they are all unique and you can play them in different ways. It is very satisfying to not just do the same thing every night.

BB: How does playing music with your brother help or hurt what it is you are trying to do?

OW: It is definitely a different dynamic. I mean when you play in a band for years and years with people they become brothers. It’s like a family. It’s like a marriage even. There are those kind of brothers and then something different and deeper with a real brother because you’re family and because you have a more shared experience. Your childhood and your growing up and your parents are all formidable things that you both have. I think also, there is that innate, intangible, yet genetic thing that Chris and I noticed right away. After years apart, being able to comfortably play together and have this telepathy that usually takes years to develop, we were kind of like,“Wow, we have it built in!”

BB: In recent tours you guys have been taking different versions of the same songs on the road.  Does Jano Rix help you dissect and resurrect new versions of the same song?

OW: It’s very much a group effort. Part of that is for us. By rethinking a song it is keeping it fresh for us. If we have been playing a song for a couple of years, we may think people love this song but maybe we are getting kind of tired of it. Let’s do something different with it. There is a big rocking number, like the song “Shoefly Pie,” that’s a full electric one, but we made it more porch-y the next time around. We made it all acoustic and Jano was on percussion instead of drum kit, and that’s an example of how we can deconstruct a tune and put it back together in a completely different way. It keeps it fresh for us and for the audience too. We have had a lot of comments where people appreciate and enjoy that.

BB: I have seen you guys a lot and must have heard “Luckiest Man” about 100 times.

OW: Yeah me too, tell me about it.

BB: In the Winter 2016 tour, Jano came out and did a long piano intro before a very jazzy version of “Luckiest Man” and it was really special to hear a familiar song played differently for the first time.

OW: I think people like to get surprised and challenged a little bit and there’s nothing wrong with that on either side.

BB: Going back to the topic of New York, your most recent release, Live from the Barn, was recorded right in the heart of the Catskill music scene in Woodstock, NY.  Why did you choose that spot and why is it so special to you?

OW: It’s a very sentimental place for us and Levon is a serious influence and indirectly like a mentor to us. We hadn’t been there in years. Since he passed away we have done stuff with Amy, his daughter, and felt that family connection with their family. When we made the plan to go back there to play, it felt like a special occasion and we wanted to record it all. You never know how it will turn out. Maybe that was okay or that was horrible, but as it turned out, if felt like a real special night. We were really happy and excited that we captured it. We were sort of tripping on being there. It was magical and brought back all these memories. I mean, we were there watching Levon play and standing two feet from his drum set. By the end of the night, we were singing songs with him and sitting around in his kitchen after the show. There are spirits there that you just don’t get anywhere else.

BB: What is the best piece of advice Levon gave you?

OW: He never really gave us any specific advice. I think we just learned by example. I will tell you the thing I get from him is to just be yourself. Just be real and be yourself. That’s what he was and sometimes it is hard to do that and remember that in this business. Sometimes you think, what can we do to survive and to sell more tickets? It’s not about that. If you can be yourself, that’s going to be the best art you can make.

BB: I am sure you are aware that “Big Pink,” the house that The Band rented to create their debut album, is located about 10 minutes outside of Woodstock.  Do you, Chris and Jano have your own “Big Pink”?  Is there a place that makes writing and creating music easier for you as a group?

OW: Not necessarily. We’ve had several spots, but it has been a challenge since Chris and I lived in different parts of the country for the first six or seven years of The Wood Brothers. I would go up to him and we would write and then he would come down to my place. We would write on the road, backstage, in dressing rooms and at sound checks. He would send me e-mails and we would go back and forth. I will say, since we all moved to Nashville a few years ago, it has been awesomeness because we have been able to hole up in someone’s basement or living room or even rehearsal space. Nashville has been a good place to gel in that regard and relax with our writing. It makes it fun.

BB: What was it about Nashville that drove you guys there?

OW: It was a combination of things. For one, it was somewhat in between New York and Atlanta. We wanted to stay on the east side of the country and I was in the South so long and I like the South, a lot! Part of it too is that we had a lot of great experiences before we lived here. Really cool times where we came to town and recorded with people and collaborated with people and had some shows we really enjoyed. At random, we got to know some good friends and we had kids in school and Nashville is a nice place to raise a family. The music industry here has a stigma that it is just a country music town but there is all sorts of stuff happening with great writers and great music. It is really inspiring just to be here. You can sit in your house and think, “Maybe my neighbors are writing great songs and making great music.” I love that part too.

BB: You will be returning to the Empire State this summer, hitting SPAC in Saratoga and the Highland Bowl in Rochester as well as over a dozen other cities with the Tedeschi Trucks Band & Hot Tuna for the 2017 “Wheels Of Soul” Tour. What’s it like touring with other well-known bands compared to being on the road as a trio?

OW: It’s real special because usually when you’re on the road alone you are crossing like ships in the night and you don’t get to hang out with your contemporaries and they’re all playing at the same time as you are in some other city or state.  It is a real treat even at summer festivals to get to cross paths with some of our friends and to get to hang out for a few minutes if we’re lucky. To do a tour with Tedeschi Trucks and be with them every day for a month or two is a real privilege because not only do we get to hear them play every night, but we also get to play with them, eat meals with them and be close.

BB: Well, we are definitely looking forward to that tour.

OW: Yeah, me too!

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