For a time, Matt Woods flirted with a career in rock ’n’ roll, turning out hard-charging tunes miles removed from the outlaw country he grew up listening to in Roane County, Tennessee, a rural area about 45 minutes west of his current home in Knoxville.
In more recent years, however, the musician has returned prodigal son-like to the classic country style that soundtracked his childhood, penning harrowing acoustic tunes populated by hard-living men seeking solace in everything from the bottle (“Ghosts of the Gospel”) to the afterlife (the death row lament “Johnny Ray Dupree”).
“There’s just an honesty in that music I admire,” said Woods, 37, from the road in Florida during an early March phone interview. “I don’t know if you can call it going back to where I came from, or if it’s just me realizing a change in myself, but this music certainly suits the man I am today better than what I was doing when I was younger.”
The forthcoming With Love, From Brushing Mountain, which the musician plans to release in early May, continues this recent trend, piling on roots-leaning songs about prisoners pining for freedom and characters dealing with the various disappointments that seep in as one hits middle age.
“Prison and bad decisions have been a common theme in country music — up until recently when it all started to turn toward cold beer and pickup trucks,” Woods said. “I also grew up in rural east Tennessee and saw a lot of people make a lot of bad choices with their lives, and I survived to bear witness.
Woods, who was born to a factory worker father and a high school teacher mother, has always been equally drawn toward music and literature. He started playing guitar at 15 after becoming obsessed with his father’s Black Sabbath records, and he grew up absorbing mystery novels by the likes of James Lee Burke, eventually majoring in English with a focus on creative writing at the University of Tennessee. Songwriting, in turn, always felt like a logical meeting point for these interests, and he said even as a teenager putting words to music was something that came naturally.
In more recent times, however, Woods’ music has started to exhibit a more personal streak, and though he still enjoys penning songs under a variety of guises, more often than not the viewpoint that surfaces these days is his own.
“I think as I’ve gotten older I may have found a way to better articulate some of those personal bits and feelings and dirty truths,” he said. “I’m a bit more guarded personally, but with the music I try to let it be as honest as it can be — consequences be damned.”