Always Smiling, Oliver Woods first solo album, is a testament to not having a plan. He didn’t even know he was making a solo album. Being creative, when folks came to Nashville, he invited them over to write and jam in his studio. But then the pandemic struck, and he was surprised to find how much music he had. As Oliver relates, “The best art is an accident. You wind up accessing a different part of your brain and trusting your instincts, rather than relying on control.”
His accidents included using the help of The Wood Brothers’ percussionist Jano Rix, Blues stalwart 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. Quite the set of friends and collaborators. Perfect for an album that combines the blues, gospel and folk. And for the first time the guy making all the final decisions is Wood himself.
Country blues establish a feel for ‘Kindness’, which is based on the words of the Dali Lama. “The idea for the lyric ‘kindness is my religion,’ comes from the Dalai Lama who has expressed this sentiment in his teachings. There are a handful of people in my own life who inspire me and seem to live that way,” Wood relates. The instrumental track, recorded during a pre-pandemic jam session, even features chicken coop percussion, not something you find every day.
Syncopated beats combine with solid horn work, all aiding Wood and Susan Tedeschi on ‘Get the Blues’. When the two sing, “Lord can you hear us,” the hair on the back of your neck stands up. Plus, the blend of gospel and blues is ready made for their two voices. Slow slide frames ‘Molasses’, a song commemorating the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919. “She drowned in molasses / down on Purity Street / Last thing she tasted / was sticky and sweet/ Was a smile on her face / at the time of her death / She made it to heaven / before her last breath.” It’s one of those stories that is buried deep in the history books, largely because of the race of the victims.
One of the great Wood lines comes on ‘Face of Reason’, where we get the telling line, “The fact you’re still breathing / Flies in face of reason.” He also records of a couple of classic covers, making them his own. He raises spirits in Aretha Franklin’s gospel-inspired ‘Climbing High Mountains (Trying to Get Home)’. There’s an insistence to the Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee’s ‘The Battle is Over (But the War Goes On)’ showing that Wood is a true believer in creating change.
In some ways the final track, ‘Climbing High Mountains (Tryin’ to Get Home)’ encapsulates Always Smiling. While the song could be sung with a tired, weary voice, Oliver Woods seems to be exalting in the moment. It seems as if he refuses to be touched by the spirits attempting to lay him low. That’s advice we all could use.