The Men of Wood Belly Find Harmony in Nature
By Stephen Pitalo
But where does this connection with the earth come from?
“I think that a great love of the outdoors is initially what brought us all out to Colorado,” said Zink. “I know it was for me. Yes, I think the idea with having the word wood in the name is to evoke an image of nature. We all play acoustic instruments that put forth natural tones, that resonate from the belly of the instrument. Therefore, it seemed fitting to name the band as we did. “I think our music and bluegrass, in general, sits in harmony with the natural world because it doesn’t require electricity,” Weist elaborated.
“Connections begin to develop when you’re able to travel into the natural world and draw inspiration from it. The name is derived from picking at festivals with the wood of your instrument pressed up against your belly all night. There’s a pretty literal connection to nature in that sense I suppose.”
Weist, Patterson and Zink met at the RockyGrass Festival in 2015, and within a year, teamed up with McCloskey and Shuck. With a sound born in rhythm and a driving steadiness, the Wood Belly music brings tradition into today seamlessly.
“When I first met Craig at RockyGrass,” recalled Weist, “we both were more interested in teaching and learning each other’s songs than the standards. Most of the other musicians were calling songs that have been in the veins of bluegrass tradition for years so when you get a chance to pick a tune with the author, it’s a special experience in and of itself.”
The collected influences of the five, both musical and cultural, cover a broad spectrum: The Band, John Hartford, Edgar Meyer, Tony Rice, Jean-Luc Picard, Jerry Douglas, Sally Van Meter, Mike Auldridge, Ralph Mooney, Alan Munde, Joe Carr, Carl Dimow, Alex Johnstone, Taylor Sims, Chris Elliott, Jayme Stone, and Tony Trischka, as well as the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and their birthplace, RockyGrass. Oh, and lest we leave them out, Chris Zink cites “curry dishes, rivers, lakes and streams, pine trees, my dog, the universe, and the color green.”
Weist sees the new album Man on the Radio is a step up from their earlier effort Solid Ground.
“We have all matured — slightly,” he said. “And we were able to home in on the sound that defines Wood Belly. You should expect a vibrant array of songs and textures that keep one foot on tradition and one reaching for a new foothold.”
Zink concurred. “I feel like the material is stronger,” he said, “our playing is better, and the arrangements are more interesting. We knew what to expect from the studio this time, having already finished two other projects, and having our producer Sally Van Meter on board was a huge benefit. I am proud of our first two releases, but I think this one is a big step forward for us.”
Taylor pointed out that most Man on the Radio songs were written after the formation of the band, while all the Solid Ground songs were written before.
“So, Man on the Radio songs feel like they were written for this band,” he said, “and have a direction and cohesiveness, even somewhat of a theme. This being our sophomore shot at a record gave us more assuredness and we had a vision in mind before we even stepped into the studio.”
Zink said that the Wood Belly songwriting process typically starts with a song brought to the table that is “mostly worked out. Then we play it as a band over and over until it feels good,” he added. “During this process, ideas are tossed out and different arrangements are experimented with until we all reach an agreement on how the song should go.”
Weist said that his songs often come from a melody that he pins to a chord progression, and then the style and emotions of the music inform the lyrical content. “I’ll build out from there until I have a few verses and chorus and bring to the band for further tinkering,” he said.
As for where the ideas originate, Taylor said anywhere and everywhere.
“The songs already exist; we just happen to be in the right place at the right time and pick the fruit of the song off the tree of inspiration and work it into tangible music. You have to listen before you can create, and that’s what we do with this band and each other. Listen.”
WHAT WOOD YOU SAY?
MEMBERS REVEAL LITTLE KNOWN FACTS ABOUT THEMSELVES:
Aaron McCloskey: I build custom tube amplifiers.
Chris Weist: I learned to play mandolin while hiking the Appalachian Trail.
Craig Patterson: I keep bees in my backyard.
Taylor Shuck: I’m a retired child actor starring in “Rescue 911”. And I secretly love Jimmy Buffett.
Chris Zink: I’m a giant University of Kentucky fan.