Two brothers decide to form a band, adapting the blues, folk and other roots-music sounds they loved as kids into their own evocative sound and twining their voices in the sort of high-lonesome harmony blend for which sibling singers are often renowned. While that’s not a terribly unusual story, the Wood Brothers took a twisty path to their ultimate collaboration. Indeed, they pursued separate projects for some 15 years before joining forces.
You wouldn’t necessarily gather this fact from listening to Smoke Ring Halo (Southern Ground), the duo’s third full-length album – their musical chemistry has never felt more profound. Oliver Wood (guitar, vocals) and Chris Wood (bass, vocals, harmonica) refine their rich, spacious sound on songs like the rousing opener “Mary Anna,” the back-porch-funky “Shoofly Pie,” the waltz-time plaint “Pay Attention,” the elegiac title track, the gospel-inflected “Made It Up the Mountain” and more.
With supple assistance from drummer Tyler Greenwell and a fleet of gifted guest players – not to mention Grammy-nominated producer-engineer-mixer Jim Scott (Johnny Cash, Tom Petty, Lucinda Williams) – the brothers simmer, swing and soar, shifting moods and time signatures with aplomb. As ever, Oliver’s lived-in, expressive voice and urgent fretwork bounce off Chris’ propulsive stand-up bass lines, in-the-pocket harmonies and ghostly harmonica phrases. But this time Chris contributed some lead vocals, displaying a startlingly pure tone on the dreamy “The Shore” and the slide-spiced “Rainbow.”
They both imbibed the heady tones and stories of American roots music – notably folk, blues, bluegrass and country – at the feet of their father, a molecular biologist with a passion for performing. “Even before we discovered his record collection, we listened to him around the campfire or at family gatherings,” Oliver recalls of assorted hootenannies at their Boulder, Colorado, home and other locales. “He’d entertain anybody.” Adds Chris, “Having that experience of live music at home was pretty important. It definitely affected the way my brother and I view music.” Their mother, a poet, meanwhile, taught them a deep appreciation for storytelling and turn of phrase.
Though initially “too shy to sing,” Oliver became obsessed with the guitar, especially as voiced by bluesmen like Lightnin’ Hopkins and Jimmy Reed. Chris, who cites the “roundness, warmth and mystery” of those same blues recordings as a primary influence, studied clarinet and piano but gravitated toward jazz sounds; by the time he took up the bass he was fully enraptured. The boys discovered classic rock artists like Hendrix and Led Zeppelin on their own along the way; Oliver followed those monster guitar riffs back to the electric blues of “the Kings” (B.B., Albert and Freddie), Albert Collins and other mid-century masters. He too spent some time spellbound by the complex filigrees of bebop – but, as he says, “I came back full circle” to roots music.