Kindness is my religion: A conversation with Oliver Wood
When the entire music industry shutdown for the foreseeable future in March 2020, many artists and bands didn’t know what to do with themselves. For most, all they’d known for years, perhaps decades, was rolling down the road to the next town, to entertain a raucous audience in a packed venue.
For Oliver Wood, lead singer and guitarist for Americana/indie-folk juggernaut The Wood Brothers, he decided it was high time to put down the guitar and pick up meditation.
“I started meditating every day when the pandemic started. And I’ve learned so much for that — just being forced to sit still,” Wood said modestly. “And it’s this feeling that I want to keep when life opens up again. How can I retain this feeling of stillness and being in the moment? I hope we can all remember that positive part of it, how important it is to for your quality of life to just slow down once in a while.”
Through his daily meditation sessions, Wood began peeling away the sometimes-heavy layers of not only the creative spirit, but also the expectations of being an internationally known and acclaimed musician — days spent alone and away from family, nights atop stages in rooms filled with new faces, all eyes aimed at you and what melodic magic you can conjure with a single chord strum or a mesmerizing lyrical phrase.
Between his meditation and down time at home with his wife and kids last year, Wood began constructing his debut solo album. At its core, “Always Smilin’” (Honey Jar/Thirty Tigers) is a celebration of life, with Wood calling up old friends to collaborate with in the studio (including the likes of Susan Tedeschi, John Medeski, and Hiss Golden Messenger’s Phil Cook).
Released in late May, “Always Smilin’” is an ode to optimism, to being present, to subscribing to the idea of “the now,” and to continuing the pursuit of people and things that spark the fire of love and possibilities within your heart and soul — onstage and off.
Smoky Mountain News: You had been working on some of these new songs before the shutdown, but would this solo record still be on the shelf if the shutdown hadn’t happened?
Oliver Wood: It’s pretty likely. I’m not a great multi-tasker. I’ve learned between tours to just try to be present, be with my family, not work too hard on other stuff.
So, although I had started some of this stuff before the pandemic, I really didn’t have a goal in mind other than to be creative outside of The Wood Brothers a little bit, just to stretch my wings and collaborate with other people. That was the goal — to connect with other people on a creative level and do it sort of for fun.
It wasn’t until the deep into the pandemic where I actually finished one of those songs and released it, finished another one [and released it]. I was like, “Oh, this is fun.” And I just thought I might release a few more. At some point, it just made sense for an album. It gave me a goal to work on while nothing else is happening. That’s kind of how it came up.
SMN: Your sound has such a thick thread of blues and gospel, obviously from your roots. What I love about those two genres specifically is that the music can come across so sorrowful and so sad. But, at the same time, it’s meant to uplift. It’s this weird dichotomy.
OW: Yeah. That’s something I love about music — even if it makes you sad, you want to listen to it, [where] it’s not a bad thing to feel sad. It’s more about pushing that button and it feels good.
Sometimes being sad is like connecting with something that you need to connect with, and then eventually it ends up being a good thing, a happy thing. I’m not saying there’s a bunch of sad songs on the [album], but when there is a topic that does kind of strike a nerve like that, it’s not a bad thing.
SMN: And that’s the key to your songwriting — connecting and showing solidarity to the listener.
OW: Absolutely. And you’re sharing something universal that basically just connects you [to another human being]. That’s the thing — connecting to what makes you feel good, ultimately, even if you’re connecting about something that’s depressing.
SMN: Well, and it’s that irony of the last year, you know? Even though we’ve all been so disconnected, at least physically, it really does circle back to that idea of human connection. It also justifies why we love live music — it’s not just entertainment, it’s a healing force.
OW: Absolutely. And I’ve got to say, I think about this a lot and love to mention it. I think that all musicians, after years of doing it, where kind of the charm and all the attention, all the exciting travel and whatever, all that stuff kind of wears off and some days you’re like, “What the hell are we doing out here on the road? We could be home with our families.”
And then something happens. Somebody mentions [to you] that your music has these healing qualities or that it got them through a tough time or made them happy. You realize, “Oh yeah, this is important work.” That we’re not just spinning our wheels out here because we’re tired of sitting on buses and airplanes.
SMN: You’ve had this incredible career creating music, touring and interacting with people from all walks of life. What has the culmination of that experience, thus far, taught you about what it means to be a human being?
OW: I always come back to connectedness, connection and connectedness, and I just feel like that’s what being a human being is about. That doesn’t completely mean being connected with other people, although that’s mostly what I think keeps us sane.
But, being connected with yourself. That’s where the meditation thing has really helped me, and I’m sure I speak for a lot of people. That’s where, if you have a little bit of discipline about it, you can sort of stay connected with yourself and it makes it a lot easier to stay connected with other people.
Ultimately, I feel like we all are at our happiest when we’re connected with other people, which is why the lack of live music and venues and people being together in small or large groups has been painful, you know?
Want to go?
Singer-songwriter Oliver Wood will perform at the Mountain Song Festival, which will be held Sept. 10-11 at the Brevard Music Center.
Other stage acts will include Mavis Staples, Steep Canyon Rangers, Town Mountain, Charley Crockett, and more.
For more information or to purchase tickets, click on www.mountainsongfestival.com.