Bands of brothers are nothing new. Whether it’s Stanley, Everly or Avett, sibling combos are well established across a range of musical generations and genres. But unlike the lifelong chemistry established by some family bands, Oliver and Chris Wood spent nearly two decades playing apart before finally coming together.
The Wood Brothers band together at the Southern Café & Music Hall on Sunday night. (Photo by Taylor Crothers)
The two members of gritty folk-rock trio the Wood Brothers grew up in Boulder, Colorado, learning early varieties of roots music through campfire sing-alongs with their father. There were even a few bedroom jam sessions as teenagers, but with Oliver being four years older than Chris, he left home before there was time for any significant collaboration. Oliver settled in Atlanta, where he cut his teeth on guitar as sideman for blues ace Tinsley Ellis and eventually formed his own band, King Johnson. Chris went the jazz route, studying at the New England Conservatory of Music before going on to form the influential avant-groove trio Medeski, Martin and Wood.
At a fateful gig in North Carolina, King Johnson opened for MMW, and Oliver Wood sat in with his younger brother’s band. On stage that night something intuitive clicked between Oliver and Chris, so they decided to record some demos together.
“When we started we didn’t have a specific goal in mind, other than being together and playing music,” Oliver Wood said. “We’ve lived in different parts of the country for so long that it’s always been challenging to stay connected. It started as a project for fun that gave us a chance to hang out.”
The band’s early demo recordings were so well-received, the duo quickly landed a deal with the venerable Blue Note Records and released a debut album, Ways to Lose in 2006.
Soon after, what started as a loose side project evolved into a more permanent enterprise. The brothers’ undeniable connection resulted in an aggressive acoustic sound that finds Oliver Wood nimbly plucking hill country guitar on top of Chris’ fluid, driving bass lines. They recently added drummer Tyler Greenwell (Tedeschi-Trucks Band) to round out the group.
“A lot of people ask how we found common ground with Chris coming from the out-there territory of MMW, but when it comes down to it we studied the same roots of music,” Oliver Wood explained. “We’re both inspired by Howlin’ Wolf and Alan Lomax field recordings. Part of it is the fact that we’re brothers and we have genetic ties and emotional ties from family and a lot of the same childhood experiences. We’re both into the same stuff, but at first we took it to different places.”
Late last year the brothers released Smoke Ring Halo, their most versatile album to date. It journeys through various corners of Americana, moving from the front porch funk of “When I Was Young” to the electric gospel of “Made it up the Mountain” to the dusty balladry of the title track. Oliver Wood has a voice that’s ripe for a backwater juke joint, especially effective during the frisky intent of foot-stomper “Shoofly Pie.”
The album is the band’s first for country jam mega-star Zac Brown’s Southern Ground label. Brown became a fan of the Wood Brothers through mutual music connections of Oliver in Atlanta and decided to let the band open for him on a stretch of arena dates.
“Zac likes all kinds of music, and he’s supportive of the stuff that he’s passionate about,” Oliver Wood added. “His label does a little bit of everything—hip-hop, country and Americana. It’s nice to work with the president of a label who’s not just a guy in a suit. He’s made an effort to expose us to a new audience.”