Keeping the Circle Unbroken
Grammy winner Tim O’Brien teaches and learns from the next generation
By Bliss Bowen
When Tim O’Brien comes to McCabe’s this Sunday, the native West Virginian will have more than 30 years and almost 20 albums worth of material to choose from, including 2005’s Grammy Award-winning “Fiddler’s Green” and last year’s “Pompadour.” That presents unique challenges when constructing a setlist.
“I’ve got this record ‘Pompadour,’ and one of the songs depends on a banjo, so I carry a banjo, so that means I can play [other] songs I like on the banjo. So that shapes it a little bit. It’s hard. But I try to feature stuff from recent records so I can sell the things. They’re kind of calling cards, records are; they also pay the gas and the motel bill,” he says.
O’Brien is likely to bring his guitar, mandolin and fiddle too.
Laughing, he says, “I need to change things up to keep myself on task. Maybe it’s an ADDD thing.”
The amiable songwriter and multi-instrumentalist is conversing over the phone, his dog occasionally barking in the background, while eating lunch at home in Nashville. He’s established a comfortable niche since settling in Tennessee, playing on myriad bluegrass and country albums and writing songs recorded by the likes of Garth Brooks, Dixie Chicks, Kathy Mattea and Nickel Creek. He’s also toured with Steve Earle’s Bluegrass Dukes, Mark Knopfler, and fellow songwriter-instrumentalist Darrell Scott, with whom he’s made three duo albums.
Rich in harmonies and melodic songcraft, O’Brien’s recordings with Scott are among numerous collaborative projects he’s engaged in between solo recordings. Since first making his name with Colorado bluegrass ensemble Hot Rize, he has recorded old-time songs with velvet-voiced sister Mollie O’Brien; explored traditional Appalachian music with Dirk Powell and John Herrmann on 1998’s “Songs From the Mountain”; traced connections between Appalachian folk and his Celtic heritage with American and Irish musicians on 1999’s splendid “The Crossing”; and paid homage to Flatt & Scruggs as part of Jerry Douglas’ Grammy-winning Earls of Leicester. More recently, he contributed to Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project, reviving songs from Alan Lomax’s early 20th-century field recordings.
“Tim has always had such a knack for hearing possibilities in an old song and finding just the right balance between being a culture bearer and unearthing songs that people have forgotten about and bringing something new to the table, whether it be new verses or a new way to harmonize the song,” Stone says. “I’ve always admired and learned so much from that. … He has the energy of a young boy and the wisdom of an elder.”
O’Brien acknowledges that those collaborations keep him creatively challenged.
“I learn from everybody,” he explains. “It’s valuable to explore those things. ‘Songs From the Mountain’ was music that was mentioned in the novel ‘Cold Mountain.’ So all of a sudden you have this idea of what you want to do, [though] you don’t know exactly how to go about doing it. Or you put up a frame, like, ‘OK, I’m going to find songs that are sung in both America and Ireland; maybe I should write songs about the experience of leaving, the experience of returning’ for ‘The Crossing.’ You put up the structure and you learn things as you go.
“I love that. I love the whole wide world of music and the context of it, and figuring out where things come from and how they fit together. You try to respect the music but you realize … you can shape it as an artist.
“They say technology changes things. But the basic idea of music and what it does, and the themes contained in it — they stay constant. [Laughs] You’re going to and fro and you want a roof over your head and you want something to eat. You cook it differently, but you’ve still got to cook it here in 2016. [Laughs.] Stuff never really changes, but you find new things about it when you look at it from different ways.”
O’Brien takes cues from late hero Doc Watson.
“The first Doc Watson record I was able to get was a Flatt & Scruggs record with Doc on it,” he recalls.
He found it while searching through records at a five and dime in his hometown of Wheeling, which set him on a musical detective’s path.
“I was 13 or 14 when I started studying on Doc and people that inspired him,” he says. “I was interested in the blues and I couldn’t find traditional Irish music then, but it was on my mind that, whenever you hear the Doors or the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, and later Jimi Hendrix — whatever was on the radio when I was growing up — that there was always something behind those guys that influenced them. In Doc’s case, he would actually talk onstage about where he learned the song. Pretty soon you’re looking for Mississippi John Hurt and Robert Johnson, and then you’re looking for other people connected to those guys.”
Decades later, he found himself sharing a festival stage with Watson; he tells an amusing story about asking his band to sit out when Watson sat in.
Now it’s O’Brien’s turn to be a bridge between generations. He’s producing an album for old friend J.D. Hutchison and he makes himself available to younger players, whether jamming at shows or co-writing with traditionally schooled artists like Sarah Jarosz.
“I’m in great debt to these people that went before me. And it becomes obvious with someone like Sarah that you are carrying this tradition. I’d heard her play once or twice, and when I was playing in Austin she asked if she could get a lesson; she didn’t need a lesson, but at the end she wanted to play songs that she learned from my records. I went, ‘Wow, that’s amazing.’ You don’t want to disappoint these people [laughs]. I’m humbled by that. So I cultivate it.
“It took me a while to learn things, and it still does. I like to compare notes with these kids. They’re studying the same things and maybe have new insights. If I have anything to offer them, it’s theirs. I want it to keep going … the music is really not mine. We’re just kind of here in a brief instant of time, really, each human being, and we’re passing stuff back and forth. It’s humbling that people are study-
ing you, and then it’s also heartening, that maybe things will work out. Maybe I am onto something that’s worthwhile. You kind of wonder sometimes.”
Tim O’Brien performs at McCabe’s (3101 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica) at 8 p.m. Sunday, May 22. $25. Call (310) 828-4497 or visit timobrien.net.