The Wood Brothers Branch Out Into Americana

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They’re slippery, those Wood Brothers. Singer-guitarist Oliver Wood thinks nothing of toying with the markers of musical category.

His trio is as prone to have Chris Wood execute a song’s signature lead lick on upright bass as to do the expected thing and have Oliver play it on six-string guitar. Meanwhile, drummer Jano Rix splits his grooves between a standard drum kit and a discarded acoustic guitar body rigged up with metal noisemakers for thumping, thwacking and cracking. The contraption has proven to be a real conversation starter.

For those and half a-million other reasons, the Wood Brothers’ The Muse is one of the more exotic and exhilarating Americana albums you’ll hear this year. We got Oliver to unpack the way they think and why it so often leads to musical left turns.

CMT Edge: What difference do you feel like it’s made to the music of the Wood Brothers that you and Chris only really began playing together after you headed in opposite directions? He went to conservatory training and jazz in the North, and you went to the blues scene down South.

Wood: Chris got into the jazz scene in New York. But then when you say “jazz,” you think of things traditional, you know, a real genre [with its standard repertoire]. And I feel like what Chris tended to do with his buddies in Medeski, Martin & Wood is try to come up with something new out of the jazz world. They took traditional things and made their own recipe.

I think that’s kinda what I did when I came down South. There’s a blues scene here but … my goal with my band King Johnson was to take our favorite elements of that and make it our own and create a sound that, yeah, it’s got blues in it, but it’s also got all this other stuff.

Now a lot of people are calling what [the Wood Brothers are] doing Americana, so that’s fine, too. But, again, we’re looking for our recipe. To me, Americana means everything in American roots music. So that includes jazz, that includes blues, that includes gospel. It’s not just country and bluegrass, but it’s country and bluegrass, too. It’s all those things.

Do you feel like the Wood Brothers’ focus on songs — the fact that you’re generating, recording and performing original material — is one of the strongest connections between what you’re doing and what people think of as Americana?

I think that’s a good point. It’s a real good point. It’s the songs. I mean, I feel like we can be real experimental sonically with sounds, yet we still use some real traditional acoustic sounds sometimes — or even traditional electric sounds, for that matter — with our vintage guitars and upright bass.

Then we can explore a little bit with our drummer, Jano Rix, who we’ve had for almost three years. He’s a great drummer in a traditional sense, but he’s also a real interesting sort of experimental multi-instrumentalist. He’s got this percussion instrument, the Shuitar.

I’ve heard of it.

It’s basically an old, crappy guitar that’s been turned into a percussion instrument that he can beat on. It sounds like a mini-drum set the way he plays it. … What we love about this Shuitar is it’s an American instrument, American percussion. Even if it’s junky, it comes from the “being resourceful” school. I think of it as a real Americana instrument.

If you had to choose one track on The Muse that really showcases the Shuitar, what would it be?

That’s a tough one. I think there’s several. There’s a song called “Keep Me Around.” … It’s got this cool backbeat. You can tell it’s not a drum kit. I know exactly what it is because I see it every day, but those who haven’t seen it might wonder, “What are they beating on back there?”

There’s something very fresh about what happens when the three of you play together. How do you manage to work jazzy virtuosity in there in a way that’s loose and witty and not ever let it get too heady?

I’ve got to hand it to Chris. I mean, Chris is truly a virtuoso on his instrument. He can play anything. So often it comes down to taste and choices. … [Chris will] push the envelope every once in a while, just so it’s not something we’ve heard before. He’ll give it a little bit extra. He has so many cool influences that he can say, “How about this weird African rhythm?” Or something like that. We pare it down so it doesn’t sound too fancy and, boy, it just works.

Speaking of influences, you have a distinct vocal attack. I’d swear I hear echoes in it of pre-electric blues and hillbilly singers that had that hard-edged head voice. How did you develop your sound as a singer?

I think we all sort of develop from a combination of people we listen to and worship and then our physical and cultural limitations. [chuckles] Because everybody has sort of a different-sounding cranium, basically. You kind of are stuck, to some degree, with what your head is shaped like, I guess.

True, true.

I listened to so much Ray Charles and B.B. King, and I could never ever sing like that. Even if I could, my cranium is not the same shape or something, you know? However, that stuff gets in there a little bit, as does Willie Nelson and Lowell George and Levon Helm and Van Morrison and some of the more, you know, Caucasian singers who also were influenced by soul music and classical blues music.

Some of those voices are really unique, like a Levon or a Van Morrison, where they come from a completely different place, but they’re so influenced by soul music and old blues. … I betcha, if you talk to them, [you’ll find] we all feel like we’re falling short of Ray Charles.

You’ve talked about your science teacher dad and how he’d whip out his guitar and play folk tunes when you were a kid. At first I pictured him being purely a hobbyist, but then I read that he recorded with Joan Baez back then. How’d that happen?

About the time he was in college, he could’ve chosen to be a professional musician or go into science and education. I don’t know. He may have had some pressure from his father, who was also a doctor in the sciences. But he was certainly a natural.

He’s been supportive of what we do, maybe because he never got to pursue that. He was certainly capable and a huge influence. We always think about this: When we were kids, we took for granted he had this huge folk repertoire and knew all these folk songs and blues songs. It was our first exposure to that, as was his record collection.

Chris and I went off and did our crazy jazz and rock ‘n’ roll projects and grew up, and by the time we got together later in our careers, we almost felt like we came full circle. Like we’re coming back to the old stuff and the simple stuff. Trying to create our own simple stuff.

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