The Wood Brothers: Back to the Garden

The Wood Brothers: Back to the Garden

photo: Shervin Lainez


The Wood Brothers have always had a loose, freewheeling spirit. Brothers Oliver and Chris Wood, along with Jano Rix, embrace improvisation, imperfection and the unknown, whether in the studio or onstage. “The magic of recording music—or any art form—is not knowing how it’s going to turn out,” says singer/ guitarist Oliver. “Usually, the best part is the stuff you didn’t expect—the ‘oops, we screwed that one part up but it sounds even cooler’ stuff. Sometimes you hear somebody’s hand sliding across a guitar and it makes an abrasive sound and you’re like, ‘That’s part of the song—it’s part of the magic.’” 

When the band reconvened in their Nashville studio space in early 2022 in search of that magic, they established a few guidelines. They agreed to record to 16-track analog tape—and not to splice that tape—so that the bones of every song would have to be tracked live. Due to time constraints, they also decided to work as fast and as in-the-moment as possible. In the studio, music has increasingly become a more visual language. Pro Tools allows you to see a waveform as the song progresses, a visual representation of what’s to come—or what needs to be removed. For the Wood Brothers’ 2020 album, Kingdom in My Mind, the band spent a lot of time staring at computer screens and moving those waveforms around, building songs from jams, loops and sonic fragments. 

“We are always more excited by not doing what we just did,” says Rix, a multi-instrumentalist who plays drums and keys, often at the same time. “What’s new is usually a reaction to what you were just feeling so it is naturally going to give you some new inspiration.”

Listening back to 2013’s The Muse, the first Wood Brothers album he played on, Rix recalled working with producer Buddy Miller, who encouraged the band to track road-tested songs live in-studio. Rix pushed his bandmates to embrace that back-to-basics approach. Even when they played the stitched-together songs from Kingdom in My Mind live, they broke them down to their raw core— three guys onstage playing their instruments and singing harmonies. So he thought, “Why don’t we just do that on a record and capture more of our live energy?”   

The live, analog approach forced the band to really feel the music, to trust the process, and to go with their guts. The result is the acoustic-driven Heart Is the Hero, a potent blend of blues, rock, folk, jazz, R&B, gospel, even funk—that distinct kitchen-sink Americana The Wood Brothers have cultivated for the better part of two decades. 

“We never turned on a screen during the sessions,” Chris says, which brought the bassist back to his formative years with jazz pioneers Medeski Martin & Wood. “That’s how we used to make records.”

“When you take that element out, it means that you’re very present. You don’t have that in the back of your mind or the front of your mind,” Oliver adds. “You’re just like, ‘Ooh, this is happening now.’ The thing is music is meant to be heard. And if you’re going to see music, you want to see people play it—you don’t want to see a computer screen.” 

“It was so much easier to move fast because I felt like our reactions were more visceral,” Rix says. “We also looked at each other a lot more because we weren’t watching the screen. There’s something powerful about that connection.”


The Wood Brothers were in the midst of touring behind Kingdom in My Mind when the world shut down in 2020. The trio didn’t get to spend much time together as a group until they eased back onto the road in the summer of 2021. “I think it was a good time for us to make this kind of record,” says Chris, who went through a tumultuous period in 2020 and relocated from Nashville to British Columbia’s Southern Gulf Islands with his now wife. “Unlike many bands, who I was very jealous of during the pandemic, we didn’t hang out. My life was nuts, and I moved so I was experiencing a lot of chaos. The pandemic was just scary— I had a stroke early in the pandemic. I lost a little spot of vision off to my left side, but it doesn’t prevent me from doing anything. So I’m incredibly lucky.” 

During that time, he also found a new calling as a farmer and conservationist, working with his wife, a field biologist. (The band now donates $1 from every ticket to support the Nature Trust of British Columbia in their wetlands conservation efforts.) “I basically became a farmer,” Chris says. “I didn’t see it coming, it just happened in a whirlwind of COVID life-changing events. It’s kicking my ass. It’s a lot of work. But it’s kind of a dream come true.” 

Oliver and Rix stayed put in Nashville and did get around to making some music together: Oliver’s 2021 solo debut, Always Smilin’. Longtime collaborator Ted Pecchio played bass, and friends like John Medeski, Phil Cook and Susan Tedeschi contributed. Oliver and Rix even toured a bit as a trio with Pecchio.

“That solo record came about purely because of the pandemic and the shutdown,” Oliver recalls. “All of us like to be creative with other people once in a while, and as busy adults who have a full-time gig already, it’s hard to find time like that.” 

With Chris now living in another country, The Wood Brothers quickly realized that their time together needed to be more focused as they plotted their return to the road and their eighth album. Before shows, they started workshopping new material as a warm-up exercise, building a new repertoire to take into the studio. Ultimately, they spent a little over two weeks—during two recording stints— co-producing 10 new tracks with engineer Brook Sutton. 

Like most Wood Brothers records, Heart Is the Hero has a timeless quality. It also sounds, well, like a Wood Brothers record. “We have this established sound that’s just inherent in all bands that are together long enough,” Oliver says. “Our challenges when we write new stuff is that we’re always trying to push the boundary of what we’ve done in the past. That’s how an artist works. Sometimes you don’t know what your next new sound is but you know what it’s not, and then you just keep fishing and experimenting and trying new recipes. I guess it’s like applying your personal taste and what feels like you as an artist. All my favorite artists just have a thing that they do. And I kind of don’t want them to change it.” 

Heart Is the Hero is acoustic and analog in nature, with Oliver playing electric guitar on just one song, which gives the album a rich and warm but still lively feel. “I feel like it inadvertently turned out to be a very acoustic record, even though there’s some things that are pretty slamming on it,” Oliver says. “That’s the least electric guitar I’ve ever played on any Wood Brothers record.”

However, you wouldn’t guess that at first, especially after hearing the hooky and unmistakably funky “Pilgrim.” “I played acoustic guitar more like an electric guitar,” Oliver says. “On a song like ‘Pilgrim,’ I am playing an acoustic archtop guitar, but it’s being played like something you’d play on a James Brown song or a Meters song.”

The Wood Brothers have always been masters of the groove—it’s hard not to when you have Chris playing bass—and a track like “Line Those Pockets,” built on a Rix drum-and-keys loop, is a reminder of the band’s ability to make you move your hips. “Musically, it’s a departure,” Chris says. “It has this Latin feel but, of course, done in our own bastardized Wood Brothers way.” 

“That was a real envelope pusher,” Oliver adds, noting that he originally wrote it as a sweet ballad that they eventually realized wasn’t working. Lyrically, “Line Those Pockets” is a plea for understanding—to not immediately rush to judgment. “We’re all a little bit lost,” he says. “There’s been a magnifying glass on all these social things that are fucked up about everything and everybody. It’s all about judgment all the time, no matter what side you’re on. Everybody’s just trying to be happy, even if they’re doing something evil or fucked up, or if they’re begging. That sounds so hippie dippy, but that was the point.” 

That balance between light and dark has always been a hallmark of the band’s lyrics. Oliver’s writing tends to look more toward the light; Chris’ songs are often a bit darker. “There is a thematic glue, and it’s not that much different than the thematic glue that holds a lot of Wood Brothers music together lyrically,” Rix says. “It’s about seeing both sides of a point at the same time and the richness and complexity—the beauty in that and acceptance of that.” 

Chris sings two tender, sparse, self-reflective songs that are among Heart Is the Hero’s standout tracks. “Worst Pain of All” unpacks his struggles with tinnitus as well as other invisible illnesses—both physical and mental. He wrote “Mean Man World” as a message to his daughter, who is becoming an adult at a time when society is simultaneously getting better and worse. “On one hand, there are social progressive movements that are making her life better. And, meanwhile, we have a climate crisis,” Chris says.

The bassist wrote the lyrics to “Rollin’ On,” which Oliver ended up singing on the record, as a hopeful anthem—a direct response to the pandemic. “It’s hopeful because it’s about human connection, but it’s also basically saying, ‘We’re fucked,’” Chris says. “It’s like, ‘What are we going to do? We’ll keep rolling on. Let’s be fucked together and navigate this the best we can and try to do right.’”


After living separate musical lives—Chris was blazing a trail through the Northeast jazz and jam scenes with MMW, Oliver was playing roots-rock in Atlanta with King Johnson—a family vacation in 2004 brought the brothers together as a duo. Soon after, they started writing new music and reworking King Johnson songs like “Luckiest Man” and “Atlas,” melding their blues and jazz influences into a set of not-quite folk songs.

“We found it effortless,” Oliver says. “But the biggest thing that it did, aside from changing my music career completely for the positive, is that it brought us back together as brothers. We had drifted apart. For us to have something to bond over was awesome. After years of being distant and disconnected, it really reconnected us.” 

After touring as a duo and recording with different drummers—including jazz great Kenny Wollesen and Tedeschi Trucks Band’s Tyler Greenwell—the Wood siblings realized that they needed a full-time percussionist to flesh out their sound as they started playing bigger rooms. A series of connections and coincidences led them to Rix, who learned from his dad, a drummer for Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen.

Rix went to college to study jazz piano and even helped his roommate, future Tedeschi Trucks Band keyboardist Gabe Dixon, launch his eponymous Gabe Dixon Band. He dug MMW in school and was a Wood Brothers fan long before he was in the band. “There was a certain honesty and space in the music,” Rix says. “Lyrically, I really cared about it. And I grew up not really caring about lyrics.”

The drummer’s wife recently reminded him of a time when he was listening to the Brothers’ 2006 debut, Ways Not to Lose in the car and wouldn’t leave until it was over. “I listened to the whole record, and apparently—I don’t remember this—I came in the house and I was so fired up that I told her, ‘I’m gonna play with these guys. These guys are doing exactly what I want to do. And they’re still alive. And they’re doing it now.’ Apparently, I manifested it.” 

His first gig was in 2011 for a star-studded Neil Young tribute at, of all places, Carnegie Hall in New York. “It felt really surreal,” Rix recalls. “I grew up meeting famous people because of my dad, so I didn’t get starstruck, but I remember hearing Oliver’s voice warming up in the other room, and I was like, ‘Holy shit, that’s the voice.’ It seemed unreal to me.” 

Rix, also a gifted singer, has since integrated keys into his drum set, a unique pairing that has helped bring The Wood Brothers’ songs to life onstage. “It was like adding two members,” Chris says. “He can sort of do anything. It makes for a very full sound, the fact that he can add keyboard parts while playing a beat and singing.” As Oliver explains, “We just knew he was a great drummer. We had no idea that he would add so much as a singer. The drum set and the keyboard rig is one instrument, and he plays it that way. He is the secret weapon.”

Well established in the jam, roots and Americana scenes, The Wood Brothers have become a reliable live draw, sharing stages with Tedeschi Trucks Band, Greensky Bluegrass and Lake Street Dive. This spring and summer, they’ll embark on one of their biggest headlining tours yet, with husband-and-wife folk duo Shovels & Rope in tow.

Over time, the trio’s legacy has also continued to grow. Goose not only use “Atlas” as a jam vehicle, but also borrow The Wood Brothers’ arrangement of “Liza Jane,” from their 2009 covers EP, Up Above My Head, for their own take on the traditional tune. Greensky Bluegrass has been covering “Luckiest Man” for years, and during a co-headlining tour in 2022, the two bands teamed up to play it around one mic, with Oliver and Greensky mandolin player Paul Hoffman trading lead vocals. 

“There’s such a vibe with that band,” Hoffman says. “I love how unique what they do is—the space they occupy as a trio. They write great songs and Oliver has such an unusual voice—the timbre of his voice is so passionate and it really emotes. The presentation with the three guys is raw and feels very genuine. I wouldn’t even describe it as folky, to be honest. It’s like this raw blues-rock thing.”

That’s part of what makes The Wood Brothers special. They occupy their own lane, evolving and expanding their sonic palette while still maintaining the core of what brought Chris and Oliver back together in the first place.

“Medeski Martin & Wood became an adjective to some people, a way to describe a certain kind of music,” Chris says. “I think The Wood Brothers are doing that in our own way. You can’t just use one word to describe it; you have to use a mix of things. And that’s usually a terrible commercial strategy but it gives us a lot of flexibility to do what we do, be who we are and use all the influences that we cherish.”

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