In the last couple of years, local singer/songwriter Matt Woods has been reinventing his career. Woods has been performing in Knoxville since the 1990s, leading the rock bands Magpie Suite and Plan A and performing occasional solo shows. Now he's taking a turn as a country singer/songwriter, a side he's introducing with the appropriately titled new solo CD, The Matt Woods Manifesto.
"I feel like this record is kind of a definitive record," he says. "It sort of makes a statement about what I'm doing these days, and defines my music and my direction a little more than anything I've done before."
Woods has been heading in this direction for a while. By the end of his tenure with Plan A, he was writing songs that didn't fit with that band's straight radio-rock style, and in 2008 recorded a solo acoustic CD, which he didn‘t realize at the time was a sign of things to come.
"I took a lot of the songs I'd played with Magpie Suite and was playing with Plan A, and stripped those older songs down to just me and a guitar, and I added a handful of new tracks to that album," Woods says. "That was the first solo one, but it was real bare-bones stuff."
Through the first months of 2009, Plan A's touring schedule had slowed enough that Woods was spending nearly as much time on his solo shows as he was on the band.
"We just kind of hit a wall," Woods says. "We weren't touring anymore. When we lost our drummer it didn't really make much sense to put it back together. I was already touring solo, and all we were doing is playing locally, or within a pretty close area. I just decided to focus on this other stuff."
Almost immediately, Woods started work on Manifesto. He pulled together the songs he'd written while Plan A was still playing, added a few more, and recruited more than a dozen musicians—local A-listers like Tim Lee, Greg Horne, Brock Henderson, and Trisha Gene Brady, as well as members of the Orlando, Fla., Americana band Truckstop Coffee and Birmingham, Ala., roots-rockers Back Row Baptists—to back him on the recording at Dave DeWitt's Shed 55 Studios in West Knoxville. (DeWitt, who plays drums on some of Manifesto, played with Woods in Magpie Suite.)
"The first songs for this collection, I started writing when Plan A was still around," Woods says. "But I didn't feel like they really fit what Plan A was doing, so I hung onto them and played them at my solo shows. I guess some of the older ones have been around for several years now, and some of the newer ones that made the album are maybe only about a year or a year and a half old.... All said, there were about 15 or 16 different players. It was cool. It was a really good opportunity to get my friends and some of the folks I like making music with involved."
Woods take cues from Steve Earle, the Drive-By Truckers, and local songwriters like Cruz Contreras, Jeff Barbra, and Scott Miller who pull various strands of folk and country into a pan-Appalachian mix of country and rock. On the new disc, he steers the makeshift all-star band from twangy power-pop ("Wrong Turn Blues," "Days of Walking") through straight country ("Port St. Lucie," "Ghosts of the Gospel") and dark, haunting folk ballads (the lament "Jellico Mountain," the first-person death-row narrative "Johnny Ray Dupree").
One thing that's remained constant for Woods during the last 15 years is that he plays a lot. What he plays, and where, and when, and with who might change, but whatever the circumstances, he's going to be performing somewhere almost every weekend.
"I really enjoy being on the road, and I really enjoy playing," he says. "I'm hard-pressed to think about the things that are negative about it. I do everything myself—all my own booking, and all my own promotions and stuff like that. Sometimes managing the business end of the thing takes up far more time than I would like. I'd like to be able to free up some time to do more writing and recording, and sometimes the business end gets in the way.
"As far as the touring, man, I love it. I really do. I like doing it. I like getting in the car and hitting the road. I write songs a lot of the time on the highway in the car. I'm playing all the time. I'm playing everyday. I feel like it helps me hone my craft, being on the road this much and playing as many shows as I do."