It didn’t take long for Blount County native and longtime musician Josh Oliver to respond to a query from Jesse Wells, a fiddler he’s known since his days with the band the everybodyfields.
Wells, an instructor at the Kentucky Center for Traditional Music at Morehead (Kentucky) State University, is also part of the touring band for Grammy-nominated and Americana Music Awards winner Tyler Childers. Childers, whose popularity has skyrocketed in recent years, was working on a new record at his Kentucky home, and Wells asked Oliver if he wanted to be a part.
“I got a message from him asking if I would be interested in playing rhythm guitar, and I wrote him back as soon as I saw it and said, ‘Yes!’” Oliver told The Daily Times this week. “A lot of the songs on the list that I got sent to learn were just old fiddle tunes, and I already knew most of them. We got up to his house on a Sunday evening, way out in the mountains in Kentucky, and we rehearsed on his porch.
“We ran through all the songs and recorded everything in two days. Once the band all got there, it came together really easy, and everybody that was there was just super talented and super sweet, and it was just a good hang. It was just good to spend time playing music and sitting around outside, talking.”
As part of “The Pickin’ Crew,” the unofficial name for the band assembled for those sessions, Oliver had a role in one of the most talked-about albums of 2020: “Long Violent History,” an album of instrumental songs (save one) built on Appalachian traditions and released with an accompanying video by Childers, in which he compared the plight of impoverished Appalachians with the struggles of the Black Lives Matter movement. It was a bold statement, but politics wasn’t at the forefront of the recording sessions, Oliver said: Those were all about the music.
Not only did Cecilia Wright, a Lexington cello player and Knoxville music scene expatriate, take part, so too did Andrew Marlin, half of the duo known as Mandolin Orange. For almost nine years now, Oliver has been a part of the recording and touring band for the pair, which also includes vocalist/violinist/guitarist Emily Franz.
“That’s pretty much been my main gig,” he said. “Last year, after things shut down, we were able to record an album (the follow-up to 2019’s “Tides of a Teardrop,” which landed at No. 1 on the Billboard Heatseekers chart and No. 2 on the Billboard Folk Albums chart), and I’ve gotten to play on two instrumental albums that Andrew did. One of them is called ‘The Witching Hour,’ and that came out the first Friday in February, and the second comes out this Friday, and it’s called ‘Fable and Fire.’ Those were super fun to work on as well. Every time I get to play with that group, they’re so good I just feel like I need to go home and practice.”
Say this for Oliver: He’s a modest session and utility player who, despite the self-deprecation of his own abilities, makes every musician he plays with sound better. The son of Blount County’s David and Carol Oliver, he graduated from William Blount High School in 2003 already an accomplished musician, thanks to piano lessons with his grandmother, the late Betty Pierce of Friendsville. Inspired by the roots music boom that came out of the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” film, he enrolled in East Tennessee State University’s bluegrass program, where he met and joined the now-defunct roots music duo the everybodyfields. After that group called it quits in 2009, he played with both bandleaders, Sam Quinn and Jill Andrews, released a solo album under his own name (“Troubles,” in 2011) and a follow-up (“Part of Life,” in 2014) and found his calling as a journeyman musician who feeds off of, and gives back in return, the energy created as part of an ensemble.
“I used to play solo gigs — hey, I’d take any gig! — but playing with just one other person makes it so much better,” he said. “And playing as a side guy in someone else’s band is just so much more fun when you don’t really have to carry the tune, but you’re just listening for the right parts and the right places to play. I feel really lucky to get to play with all of the musicians in Mandolin Orange and in Andrew’s instrumental band. They’re all just fantastic musicians and super easy to play with.”
And, he added again, they make him want to practice more — which he’s had plenty of time to do, given that COVID-19 has shut down the touring industry. He was able to play some socially distanced shows with Mandolin Orange last year, but those were so few and far between that every time he got on stage, he wondered if his hands would remember how to play. They always did, of course — and on March 9, he’ll play a livestream show from the stage of The Tennessee Theatre in downtown Knoxville as part of The Ghostlight Series of digital concerts. Marlin and Clint Mulligan, a veteran of the Knoxville jazz scene who also plays as part of the Mandolin Orange studio and tour crew, will join him, and there may be a new song or two debuted as part of that performance.
However, he has no plans at the moment for another solo album, he said. As a guy who thrives on collaboration, he’s set his sights on getting back on stage in 2021.
“I’m always kind of working on tunes all the time, and I’m always thinking about it,” he said. “I eventually will record an album. It might be fun to do something half-instrumental and a few songs. And I did get together last week with both Andrew’s band and Mandolin Orange to rehearse. There were lots of COVID tests, but it was a treat, and hopefully we’ll get to do some stuff this year. Everything’s up in the air, but it seems like there might be a chance to play more this year.”