Otto Wood, the Bandit

The Freighthopping Thief, Bootlegger, and Convicted Murderer behind the Appalachian Ballads

By Trevor McKenzie

Foreword by David Holt

176 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 15 halftones, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-6471-2
    Published: September 2021
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-6566-5
    Published: September 2021
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-1-4696-6472-9
    Published: August 2021
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-6084-2
    Published: August 2021

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Legions of bluegrass fans know the name Otto Wood (1893–1930) from a ballad made popular by Doc Watson, telling the story of Wood's crimes and violent death. However, few know the history of this Appalachian figure beyond the larger-than-life version heard in song. Trevor McKenzie reconstructs Wood's life, tracing how a Wilkes County juvenile delinquent became a celebrated folk hero. Throughout his short life, Wood was jailed for numerous offenses, stole countless automobiles, lost his left hand, and made eleven escapes from five state penitentiaries, including four from the North Carolina State Prison after a 1923 murder conviction. An early master of controlling his own narrative in the media, Wood appealed to the North Carolina public as a misunderstood, clever antihero. In 1930, after a final jailbreak, police killed Wood in a shootout. The ballad bearing his name first appeared less than a year later.

Using reports of Wood's exploits from contemporary newspapers, his self-published autobiography, prison records, and other primary sources, Trevor McKenzie uses this colorful story to offer a new way to understand North Carolina—and arguably the South as a whole—during this era of American history.

About the Authors

Trevor McKenzie is an archivist and musician living in Boone, North Carolina.
For more information about Trevor McKenzie, visit the Author Page.

David Holt is a four-time Grammy Award–winning bluegrass musician, storyteller, and historian. He lives in the mountains of North Carolina.
For more information about David Holt, visit the Author Page.


" A deeply researched account that strives to establish the true story behind a crime spree that has been immortalized in a much-played and much-recorded bluegrass ballad . . . engaging [and] thoughtful."—Southern Review of Books

"McKenzie brings a unique, musician’s perspective to the book . . . [and] deftly threads the needle between fact and fancy, telling the story of the man behind the song."—New York Journal of Books

"Trevor McKenzie has crafted a fascinating history of Otto Wood, a complex and outlandish North Carolinian. Not only is this an engrossing tale of Wood’s short yet eventful life; it also provides a great window into early twentieth-century North Carolina."--Daniel Pierce, author of Real NASCAR: White Lightning, Red Clay, and Big Bill France

"An exciting and deeply absorbing saga of the charismatic and complex outlaw Otto Wood--a self-styled Appalachian Jesse James. Who better than insightful historian, killer storyteller, and native son of the Blue Ridge Trevor McKenzie to tackle a question that has bedeviled southerners for almost a century: 'Otto, why didn't you run?'"--Sarah Bryan, director of the North Carolina Folklife Institute and editor of the Old-Time Herald