Blount native Josh Oliver steps out of the sideman shadows to stir up some ‘Troubles’
By Steve Wildsmith (firstname.lastname@example.org)
It says a lot about the disposition and the talent of Blount County native Josh Oliver that when the everybodyfields broke up in 2009, both of the band’s founders picked him for their respective solo projects.
These days, Oliver continues to work as a sideman for both Sam Quinn and Jill Andrews, but when the latter celebrates the release of her new album on Friday night in Knoxville, Oliver will be stepping to the front of the stage to serve as the show’s opener. And he’ll be celebrating “Troubles,” an album of his own.
“I definitely feel more comfortable as a sideman, but I also love singing and playing,” the soft-spoken Oliver — a 2003 graduate of William Blount High School — told The Daily Times this week. “I’m definitely going to make more recordings. I’d really like to split my time — when I’m not playing with Sam or Jill, I do plan on putting together a band with about the same feel, only with more electric (guitar), bass and drums. I’m going forward as much as I can.”
He’s already come a long way from his Blount County roots. The son of local residents David and Carol Oliver, he started playing piano with his grandmother, Friendsville resident Betty Pierce. He played frequently in church, and after his freshman year of high school, he chose music over athletics.
“I played football and basketball my freshman year, but I quit so I could get a job and buy instruments,” he said.
Around that time, the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” phenomenon was catching fire, and bluegrass, Old Time and Appalachian music was suddenly fashionable again. Oliver found himself caught up in it, and he chose to attend East Tennessee State University in Johnson City because of that school’s bluegrass program.
By that time, he’d switched to guitar, and he started hanging out at the Acoustic Coffeehouse, a gathering spot for student musicians where “people were playing music all day, every day,” he said. There, he met Quinn and everybodyfields member Megan McCormick, who called up Oliver one day and asked him to accompany the band on tour to help out with instruments and merchandise sales.
“I didn’t sign up for classes the next semester and went on the road with them, and after about three gigs, I started bringing my keyboard along and would play on a few of the songs,” he said.
McCormick left the band shortly thereafter, and given his multi-instrumental talents — he’d taught himself to play mandolin and hammered dulcimer — Oliver was a natural choice to augment the everybodyfields. He played on the band’s final studio album, “Nothing Is Okay,” and was an integral part of the band during its last two years before Quinn and Andrews went their separate ways in 2009.
Almost immediately, Quinn put together a backing band, Japan Ten, and asked Oliver to be a part of it. Before long, Andrews was putting together her own solo career, and she called on Oliver as well. Between the two of them, Oliver had enough work to stay busy, but during down time for both projects, he sought something else to stay busy and bring in some extra work.
“I started playing a few solo shows just to have something to do,” he said. “It was hard to make money starting out, but I had a bunch of people encouraging me to put something together. I was driving home from Columbia, S.C., one day and was just thinking about how I didn’t have a lot going on, so I called up a friend of mine who’s an engineer in Johnson City and booked a few dates in the studio.”
He asked Quinn and his Japan Ten bandmates, Megan Gregory and Brandon Story, and recorded “Troubles” over two nights. Of the 10 tracks, two are originals — one written in his ETSU dorm room back in 2005, he said, and another a couple of weeks before “Troubles” was recorded. With a voice that epitomizes the high lonesome sound of a man singing for his soul, lifting up grief over a freshly turned grave and weariness over freshly plowed earth. It’s drawn on mountain traditions that have fascinated him since high school, and it capitalizes on the experience he gained with the everybodyfields and the reputation he’s made for himself as a heck of a go-to guy in the years since.
“It’s just a bunch of old traditional songs I really, really like,” he said. “They’re ones that I knew really well, and they all kind of had the same theme.”