Tim O’Brien

Tim O'Brien

Tim O’Brien

A singer of unusual clarity and originality, a self-taught multi-instrumentalist of rare ability, and an incisive songwriter, Tim O’Brien has, over the last 20 years, made a lasting mark on what some are calling “Americana” music through his innate musicianship and his wide-ranging tastes. Whether it’s the reinterpretation of an old fiddle tune, a revitalized honky-tonk shuffle from the 1950s, or an original, bluegrass-inflected folk song, O’Brien’s music feels familiar and comfortable while never lapsing into the predictable. The Wall Street Journal called him “a player who updates and clarifies classic repertoire without stripping it of its earthy essence, and who writes classic-sounding material stamped with his own perceptive personality.” He describes what he’s been doing all these years more concisely: “making something new out of something old.”

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O’Brien came of age in Wheeling, West Virginia, seeing artists like Charley Pride, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Country Gentlemen, and Jimmy Martin perform at radio’s famous WWVA Jamboree. When still in his teens, he went West to explore the vibrant bluegrass scene in Colorado, where he met guitarist Charles Sawtelle, banjoist Pete Wernick, and bassist/ vocalist Nick Forster. That group became Hot Rize, which from 1978 to 1990, earned recognition as one of America’s most innovative and entertaining bluegrass bands. Never straying too far from a traditional sound, the quartet distinguished itself with fresh harmony singing, Wernick’s melodic banjo playing, and O’Brien’s easy-going rhythmic drive. To broaden their repertoire, the members of Hot Rize would often split their show with a set of classic and offbeat country and western music in the comic guise of Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers. Hot Rize was the International Bluegrass Music Association’s first Entertainer of the Year in 1990, and in 1993, O’Brien took the IBMA’s Male Vocalist of the Year honors.

Tom O'Brien, Chris Thile

Tim jams on his new Giacomel octave mandolin at Telluride with Chris Thile. The instrument is the first of it’s kind, by Italian luthier Corrado Giacomel, of Genoa, and it’s fantastic!

O’Brien’s first solo album, 1984’s Hard Year Blues, reached beyond bluegrass into the folk fusion that would define his solo career. Three subsequent releases comprised of duets with his sister Mollie O’Brien in 1988, 1992, and 1994 showcased a love for antique country material, folk songs, and swing. Those records still rank among O’Brien’s best recorded performances, for their creative arrangements and their rapturous sibling harmonies. In 1987, O’Brien met fellow West Virginian Kathy Mattea, who turned O’Brien’s “Walk the Way the Wind Blows” into a career-making hit single. She followed it up with his “Untold Stories.” Both songs came from the Hot Rize repertoire, and yet Mattea’s treatment proved that O’Brien’s songs were versatile and appealing to a mainstream audience.

Following the breakup of Hot Rize, O’Brien assembled the O’Boys, a band to back up his original material. They included jazz and bluegrass guitarist Scott Nygaard and bassist Mark Schatz, leaving O’Brien free to play mandolin, fiddle, or his instrument of choice for many of his own songs: the bozouki. Their initial sets included songs from his first Sugar Hill Records solo album, Odd Man In, a record that in many ways galvanized O’Brien’s eclectic style. They toured intensively and recorded 1993’s Oh Boy! O’ Boy!, a wide ranging record that included the stirring minor-key newgrass number “Church Steeple” and Jimmie Driftwood’s wonderfully spooky “He Had A Long Chain On.” Another of that album’s most successful tracks was a duet with Del McCoury on Bob Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” which helped inspire Red on Blonde a few years later, in which O’Brien interpreted an album’s worth of Dylan material. Through tunes like “Farewell, Angelina” and “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)”, O’Brien highlighted Dylan’s songwriting genius as well as his own flair for fresh interpretation of canonical material.

Tim O'Brien, John Williams

Tim and John Williams jam

O’Brien’s 1997 release When No One’s Around is regarded by some as his finest solo album. He worked with a number of important songwriters to craft a diverse set of tunes that include the softly poetic “One Drop of Rain,” co-written with Hal Ketchum, and the whimsical “How Come I Ain’t Dead”. The title track, an early collaboration with the increasingly prominent Darrell Scott, was picked up by Garth Brooks for his Sevens album.

In 1999, O’Brien released an ambitious 16-song collection of original and traditional songs that explore his family roots in Ireland as well as the Appalachian/Celtic musical dynamic that underlies so much American traditional music. The album The Crossing features the talents of the band Altan, Irish singer Paul Brady, and many of O’Brien’s American bluegrass picking friends. A subsequent project, Songs From the Mountain teamed O’Brien up with old-time musicians John Herrmann and Dirk Powell to make perhaps the rootsiest album of O’Brien’s career. O’Brien contributes guitar and mandolin to a collection of songs inspired by Charles Frazier’s best-selling Civil War novel Cold Mountain. The project, the first release on O’Brien’s Howdy Skies label, will surely broaden the audience for traditional Appalachian fiddle music. And if that album looks back, O’Brien’s most recent project looks forward just as intently. He joined West Coast musicians Mike Marshall, Darol Anger, and others, to release NewGrange, an album that melds Philip Aaberg’s tasteful piano with a string band to push newgrass in yet another direction.

As he has amassed this large discography as a soloist and ensemble player, O’Brien has lent his vocal and instrumental work to projects by a wide range of artists, including Laurie Lewis, Maura O’Connell, Kathy Kallick, Jerry Douglas, Peter Ostroushko, Dwight Yoakam, Pat Alger, and Robert Earl Keen. Most recently, you can hear O’Brien’s voice paired with the sublime Kate Rusby on her Sleepless recording on Compass Records and his fiddle and mandolin supporting the ensemble assembled by guitarist David Grier on 1998’s Hootenanny.

Any of these artists would tell you of their immense respect for O’Brien’s ability to convey something distinctive and personal in each of his performances. His style has evolved in the fashion of so many traditionalists before him, through listening to a wide range of players, adopting and adapting what fit his technique and personality and fusing them. “It’s like chiseling away a sculpture,” O’Brien says of finding an artistic style. “It was always there. You’ve just got to find what it is that’s you.”

Tim O’Brien’s Web site: timobrien.net