Roosty, soulful, Americana-slinging The Wood Brothers return to Jefferson Center on Thursday having experienced their greatest success to date.
The act’s seventh studio album, “One Drop of Truth,” got a Grammy Award nomination for best Americana album, in a category that featured award winner Brandi Carlile, along with John Prine, Lee Ann Womack and Bettye LaVette.
The record, which dropped in February 2018, has translated well live, with cuts including “The River Takes the Town,” “Happiness Jones,” “Sky High,” “Sparkling Wine” and “Can’t Look Away” making a lot of the set lists. But lately, a new song is creeping into The Wood Brothers’ shows. It’s a bluesy, finger-picked number called “Little Bit Sweet.” On Oct. 24, Rolling Stone online premiered another new one, “Alabaster” — go to this story at roanoke.com/entertainment/music to hear it.
Those tunes signal that it’s time for a new album. “Kingdom in My Mind” is due Jan. 24. As The Wood Brothers slowly introduce the new ones and head toward Jefferson Center for the first time since their debut there five years ago, they’re ending what music business people call the cycle for “One Drop of Truth.” In an interview the day before “Alabaster” premiered, singer/guitarist Oliver Wood said that he is ready to move forward.
“The whole recording world versus the touring world is quite out of sync,” Wood said. “We’ve been working on this new record that we just finished for the last year, and especially over the last three or four months we’ve been really working hard on it. I’m ready to move on and make the next record. I’m excited to play these songs live, but I’m done listening to them on the record.
“It’s same thing with the old record, and even playing the songs live. Currently not feeling sentimental, just ready to move forward and do the next thing. But I will balance that out and say that it’s awesome over the years to see what songs our fans have gravitated toward and really request all the time. And I like to give ‘em those songs.”
The Wood Brothers’ old standby is “Luckiest Man,” which was on their first record, “Ways Not to Lose.” It has held up over the years with “Chocolate on My Tongue,” “Atlas,” “Postcards from Hell” and newer numbers “Who the Devil,” “Snake Eyes” and “Neon Tombstone.”
“‘Luckiest Man,’ that’s maybe the most requested, and we play it every night,” he said. “I remember maybe two gigs in 10 years we didn’t play it, and I never get tired of playing it. I just think it’s great. It makes people happy, it’s what people wanna hear, and it makes them also receptive to something they haven’t heard yet — if you give ‘em some things they want. So I like the balance of the familiar and the unfamiliar.”
Taking part in the Grammy Awards ceremony itself was unfamiliar territory. Wood produced blues singer Shemekia Copeland’s Grammy-nominated “Outskirts of Love” and “33 1/3.” Actually getting the nomination for “One Drop of Truth” in cahoots with his brother, bassist/vocalist Chris Wood, and their longtime bandmate, drummer/keyboardist/vocalist Jano Rix, was another feeling entirely.
“It feels different to have co-produced it with the other guys, plus written and performed it,” he said. “That hit me a little deeper. The Grammys is something I was never really super tuned into, or super on my radar. I’ve been doing this a long time, made a lot of records, and I was just pretty jaded about the whole thing and I thought who cares about [it] anyway. But then, when we heard about it, we were, well actually, that’s pretty cool, but we’re not gonna go there. We’ll never win. Then we were like, well actually, let’s do go there, that could be kind of fun.
“You’re gonna go up against John Prine and Brandi Carlile, which we knew our asses were kicked. But we actually went just to see this kind of spectacle. There were some really neat things about it, and there were some real Hollywood TV bullcrap things about it, but it was fun. It was certainly an honor to be in the same category with some of those people, everybody else in the category. I was very proud of that.”
The Wood Brothers have a reputation for putting on adventurous live shows. All three players — particularly Chris Wood, who is a member of jazz/funk/jam band Medeski, Martin & Wood — are strong improvisational players who listen deeply to each other. That fact is evident on the band’s four live albums, including this year’s release, “Live at The Fillmore,” recorded at the iconic San Francisco venue. With a new studio situation, the band captured its live mojo, then cut-and-pasted results, to craft much of “Kingdom In My Mind.”
The trio went in with sound engineer Brook Sutton, who recorded “One Drop of Truth,” to rent an old dance studio in their home base, Nashville, Tennessee. Oliver Wood described their space, The Studio Nashville, as a clubhouse, studio and rehearsal space all in one.
“We help pay the rent on this place, and in exchange we have an engineer and full run of the studio,” he said. “And when we’re on tour, which is quite often, Brook runs a studio out of there, and he has all kinds of clients come in. Everybody wins kind of thing.”
It’s a “really cool building,” he added. “We did have to retrofit it a little bit, but it turned out to be just the greatest place. We feel so at home there and it’s just a great place for us to experiment. Since we’re not watching the clock and worrying about hourly recording rates or daily recording rates, and all our stuff is there, we can really experiment without stressing. We can write a song and record it the same day if we want to … We can take our time, go on tour for a couple weeks, come back and listen, see if we like it and start over or go on with it. It’s a pretty amazing situation we found ourselves in.”
The Wood Brothers, like most bands, have always done a lot of jam sessions that they recorded on phones or other less-than-stellar recording devices.
“What we started doing was similar, except we had tape rolling and really good mics and a pro engineer, so from the very first day that we started jamming and improvising, we recorded it to tape and dumped it to Pro Tools” digital recording equipment,” he said.
The idea was not to think of songwriting, but instead to experiment with grooves, riffs, melodies, locations within the studio, multiple microphones, one microphone, whatever they could think of to try. What they got were a lot of high quality studio recordings of “first inspiration” moments, Wood said.
“You never get to use those first inspirations,” he said. They “usually are on a demo, at best. Then you learn a song and you play it down with all the parts in your head. And so you never get that super magic wow, that’s never going to happen again. That’s a total accident. You never capture those things to their fullest.”
Armed with reels of them, dubbed from tape to digital, the band moved into an editing mode inspired by Paul Simon and Talking Heads records. They cut up tracks, edited them together in new ways and more fully developed them from there. All three members got into it, but Wood said that brother Chris got especially good at “chopping up the jams.”
“So that was the idea for most of this record, was to use that original source material, chop it up, do some overdubs, but make it into songs and write lyrics or join lyrics to those jams,” he said. “Which is why some of the songs are like, why would you put a drum fill right there? I would never would have been able to sing and play that guitar fill like that.
“It’s not a thought-out arrangement in that traditional way, right? It’s capturing the things you wish you could do on purpose, but they never happen because you end up thinking too much. So we captured a lot of subconscious, stream-of-conscious, non-thought music underneath all these more arranged things.
“I don’t want to say it’s not organic, because in some ways it’s the most organic it could possibly be, but in other ways, it’s manipulated ... That’s a real compositional process. You’re going through maybe like a 20-minute jam and you’re trying to come up with four or five really cool minutes and sections ... you’re mining for the coolest dynamics and coolest sonic things that happen, and the coolest little accidents and things with character. Sometimes you have to choose, and sometimes there’s so many good things in there, it’s hard to just make decisions and get rid of stuff.”
The band’s publicist sent a private stream. After a couple of listens (and before I learned about the process), I already felt like it is the best thing the band has done to date. I’ve been listening since the beginning, years before the band ever got a Roanoke date, because Oliver Wood is an old buddy. Still, I would never spill so much ink, much less zeros and ones, if I weren’t impressed with the product this band consistently brings.
The Wood Brothers have captured serious growth in real time, in moments when they are most themselves, then done a Lowell George or William S. Burroughs number on it.
All the band has to do is learn the music.
“So now, that’s the tricky part, is ... learn how to sing and play some of those things at the same time, which will be a fun challenge,” he said. “And it’s always fun to reconfigure or rework something live anyway, because some things just are gonna evolve immediately into a different thing when they’re live.”
The Wood Brothers are known for inviting their opening acts onstage to sing one or two with them. First-on-the-bill Nicole Atkins will definitely be in the mix, Wood said. Atkins, from Nashville via Asbury Park, New Jersey, has been to Southwest Virginia in recent years, opening for Valerie June at Blacksburg’s The Lyric Theatre in September 2017.
“We’ve toured with her before,” Wood said. “We’re huge fans of hers. She’s awesome. She’s a sassy Jersey girl, and man, she’s got some pipes, and she is fearless. We’ll definitely have her singing with us. She can sing anything.”