Album Review: Oliver Wood – Always Smilin’

Have no fear longtime fans of the Wood Brothers! Oliver Wood’s new solo album is no indication that he is backing away from our favorite American roots-music band. He simply has too many songs ready for release, as we come out of this pandemic, to not put out an album. Always Smilin’ is a simple and joyous unplanned masterpiece of blues and folk. 

In a society so focused on output deadlines, this album is a true testament to writing and playing music for the sake of itself without any long-term goal. Many of these songs came together after setting up casual co-writes and jam sessions with various friends of Wood’s, whenever they were going through Nashville. Looking back on his thoughts during this time, Wood says he was thinking, “we are never gonna play that freely or with reckless abandon when you’re intentionally trying to make a song. Plenty of these songs are magical moments that couldn’t happen again if we tried.” And as such, this album is a tribute to living in the moment.

One of Wood’s greatest tools has always been collaboration. On Always Smilin’, Wood honors his musical past and present by creating an album rich with appearances from artists who he attributes with encouraging him to write lyrics, try new things, and helping make him the musician he is today. “Fine Line” and “Face of Reason” are both tributes to his old touring band. He recorded and produced both of these funky gospel tunes with King Johnson band member and mentor, Chris Long. As an homage to Jano Rix, his multi-instrumentalist bandmate in the Wood Brothers, Wood uses the same chicken coop as a percussive instrument that he did back in the day, and has it once again played by Rix himself.

This 11-song album is sprinkled with covers and vibe-shifts, switching from folk rock, to country, to  gospel, and at times it may seem to lack the cohesion the Wood Brothers albums of the past have had. While some songs feel as though they could easily be off a Wood Brothers’ album,  there is a lyrical and emotional depth that feels unique to Oliver’s writing in this collection of songs.

Last week, to promote this album, Wood put on a couple of small concerts that were live-streamed for the public. “Soul of this Town” is a touching anthem about gentrification of Nashville, Tennessee. A collaboration with Phil Cook, and featuring his own son Kieran on horn, this gospel-blues song mourns the loss of the souls of cities across the nation. Among a combination of Wood Brothers songs, King Johnson songs, and songs from his new album, he performed his gospel cover of “The Battle is Over (But the War Goes On)”. All of the proceeds from this classic, but ever relevant protest song on Bandcamp are going to the ACLU.

This album is a perfect springtime record to blast as the sun comes out and the world opens back up. After a year of so much struggle, this album is a breath of fresh air. “You’d be surprised at the music you write and the chances you take when there’s nothing at stake, the best art is an accident.”

Galey Caverly