Published June 26, 2020

Conversations with Tim O’Brien

By Dale McCurry
with Bambi Grinder

Tim O'Brien, Tønder Festival 2015

Tim O’Brien in Tønder Denmark for the Tønder Festival, an annual folk music fest. The guitar in the picture was hanging on the wall of Hagges, the festival pub.

Photos Courtesy of Tim O’Brien

The first time I met Tim O’Brien was in 2013 for a recorded conversation in the press tent of the 40th Annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival. I listened to it again today. It was one of the first of many TBF interviews I was to do. It showed. Thankfully it wasn’t Tim’s first rodeo and he generously offered up some fine answers — some of them to questions I failed to ask.

Up Against the Wall
In spite of not conducting the best interview of my career, Tim somehow allowed me to talk myself and photographer Josh Elioseff of Dancer Productions Photography into the Green Room with with him and Pete Wernick, Nick Forster and Bryan Sutton — Tim’s fellow bandmates in the grassbending Hot Rize — right before they took Telluride’s Main Stage … uh-gain.

The deal I made was that Josh and I would remain quietly in the back of the room and not interact with the band at all as they set about their pre-set rituals. We were to be the proverbial flies on the wall.

I told TBF contact, Brian Eyster, Vice President of Technology and Communications for Planet Bluegrass, the Lyons-based company that owns the festival, about striking the deal and he was surprised — confiding that he had never been in the Telluride Green Room with a band right before they went on. So he came along with Josh and me, and there we were: lined up like usual suspects with our backs pressed against the wall while the fellas ran through a few riffs, ate and drank a little and, in general, shook off the pre-stage jitters.

It was exciting — voyeuristic like peeking through the veil — watching these amazing artists prepare for 10,000 stoked and savvy festival fans awaiting them in one of the prettiest spots in North America.

That was a good day at work.

For the Record

  • In addition to his 22 solo albums and 10 albums with Hot Rize, Tim is a Nashville cat who has been featured in 100 or more recordings by artists ranging from John Prine to Steve Earle, Dwight Yoakam to Phish.
  • A score or more of artists have recorded Tim O’Brien compositions, including The Chicks formerly known as Dixie and Garth Brooks, Kathy Mattea and Alison Krauss. 
  • In 2014, O’Brien won a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album for The Earls of Leicester.
  • In 2013, he was inducted into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame.
  • In 2005, O’Brien won a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album for Fiddler’s Green.
  • In 1993 and again in 2006, O’Brien was the International Bluegrass Music Association’s (IBMA) Male Vocalist of the Year.
  • His band Hot Rize was the IBMA’s first Entertainer of the Year in 1990.
Tim O'Brien

Tim O’Brien

Said What?
Tim also shared his direct email addy with me that day — from which he has given me a number of perfect quotes for stories I’ve written about him and his peers and comrades in the years since. 

Here’s a few:

2013: Asked about the rebirth of RockyGrass following the epic September flood in Boulder and Lyons, Colorado, where the Planet Bluegrass Ranch and festival grounds sustained massive damage, Tim replies:

Planet Bluegrass has made vital contributions for over half of bluegrass music’s history.  With the first Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 1973, they started gathering an audience for innovators like Sam Bush, Béla Fleck and Jerry Douglas. Along the way, they built a new model for concert production. RockyGrass, the younger sister festival to big boy Telluride, is custom made for today’s fans. There’s no finer outfit in the festival business.

Tradition is well tended, and the new caretakers will do the same as past innovators and carriers of the torch. — Tim O’Brien

2014: Hot Rize releases its first studio album in 24 years. The band officially disbanded in 1990, but had played a number of “reunion” shows and tours through the years. I ask Tim about the new album, When I’m Free, and his history with HR: 

I learn from every collaborator, but my 12 years with Hot Rize from ’78 to ’90 was like my college and postgraduate education. We were all learning from each other and, in the process, inventing our brand. I learned PR from Nick, consensus building from Pete and artful style from Charles [Sawtelle, HR founding member. He died of leukemia in 1999]. With Bryan, we’ve all been relearning all that through his filter. 

Hot Rize remains with me when I go do other projects. It set a standard that I can measure against.

Making the new recording was like doing a major remodel on a stately old home. We had to come up to modern code, so we learned new skills there too. I can already see that the investment we made to do this is paying off on the performing side. It’s given us new energy and meaning.

Hot Rize: L to R Pete Wernick, Nick Forster, Tim O'Brien, Bryan Sutton

Hot Rize consisting of L to R: Pete Wernick, Nick Forster, Tim O’Brien and Bryan Sutton.

2015: I am asked to write program entries for the Fayetteville [Arkansas] Roots Festival about performers, I’m with Her, featuring Aoiffe O’Donovan, Sara Watkins and Sarah Jarosz, and The Punch Brothers with Chris Thile, Noam Pikelny, Chris Eldridge, Paul Kowart and Gabe Witcher. 

Always gracious and real in his praise of fellow artists, I ask Tim if he has anything to share about my subjects. He did: 

Aoiffe, Sara and Sarah represent the best in roots music. They make a beautiful sound together. I told Sarah Jarosz when her first record came out that it was reassuring that the music continues in young hands.

I feel the same about the Punch Brothers, who represent the new model of what a string band can be. Chris, of course, is a truly tireless searcher and innovator.

In general, these younger artists, and the even younger artists nipping at their heels, are like the guys repairing New York’s streets and structures — it will remain New York always but it’ll keep evolving. It’s so exciting to see what they’re going to come up with, and I have no fear that the thread will break.

Tradition is well tended, and the new caretakers will do the same as past innovators and carriers of the torch.

2016:  Back in Telluride’s press tent, I am interviewing Sarah Jarosz — once a high-school-aged bluegrass-and-more prodigy. I get to tell her that Tim O’Brien had repeated his high praise of her to me, and I get to watch her blush.

2020: And now NoteWorthy Music with this — a new conversation with Tim:​
NWM: You once told us that bluegrass “crystallized” in 1945 when Bill Monroe hired Earl Scruggs. So much of your professional life is based on this relatively young American genre. How much has your Irish history and roots affected your music?
Tim: The strains of Celtic music include very much of the same melodies and lyrics as the traditional American songs that are the backbone of bluegrass. My dad was two generations away from the immigrant experience, and was mostly Irish on Saint Patrick’s day, but when I started playing the old fiddle tunes I learned from Doc Watson, I quickly realized that some of them were the same tunes played in the background of Barry Fitzgerald and Bing Crosby films I’d see on TV. I was really playing Irish music, it turned out. It was American and Irish as well.

It wasn’t until I went to college that history and politics came forward. I took a coordinated study program the second semester where I studied Irish literary revivalists like Yeats and Synge, and the politics of Ireland’s long and continuing struggle for independence.

I had also taken a month-long course on James Joyce’s Ulysses. And one of my best friends at college, who also provided my first access to a mandolin, had a record by Arlo Guthrie which included the track “Sailor’s Bonnet” as played by fiddler Kevin Burke. It was the sound I’d been looking for.

I think being removed three generations from the immigrant experience made my ancestry more interesting and so stuff all kinda clicked together around that time, and I started looking for more of the music. I was 19 and I wasn’t much interested in anything besides playing music, so I dropped out of school and went at it full time.

The songs I write have some of the harmony and plaintive melodic content that the Celtic players have used. They use different chord progressions behind the melodies and it stretched my ear enough that some of that shows up in my own songs.

So long story short, the influence was subtle but pervasive from about 13 years of age onward.

NWM: Name three things that make you smile.
Tim: Little kids, a really good taco and Jan’s smile [Jan Fabricius, Tim’s life and biz partner and a member of The Tim O’Brien Band.]

Tim O'Brien, Jan Fabricius. Photo by Scott Simontacchi.

Tim O’Brien, Jan Fabricius. Photo by Scott Simontacchi.

NWM: Dylan or Cohen?
Tim: Both, but Dylan is much more internalized. I will say I was blown away by a speech Cohen gave in Spain about how he learned the guitar, which made me respect him even more. I think he didn’t suffer as much from hero worship and its dangers compared to Dylan.

NWM: Has anything positive come out of the COVID-19 shut-down?
Tim: I’m enjoying a lot of reading time and getting to know the bird couples and families in the backyard. Seeing the season change on a daily basis for the first time in so long. We’re able to tend to the garden instead of leaving it to weed and rot while we’re on tour. I’m very lucky that I live with my sweetheart. I’m learning Pro Tools [recording software] finally! And I’m learning how to write on the tenor and bass clefs because a nice old mandocello landed here unexpectedly, and the cello resides in the bass clef. It seems like the mandocello can fill the guitar’s range, but I’ve been working on a mandolin quartet version of an Irish harp tune, since the mandocello is the foundation of the quartet (mandocello, mandola and two mandolins).

I’ve had long phone conversations with old friends which has been nice. Checking in seems more important.

One of those was with the folk singer Bryan Bowers, an old friend who called me up in early April saying he was sending some of his instruments to friends who would play them. I had played his mandocello and liked it back in the 80s, and he remembered. He’s 82 and while he’s in good health, he said he’s not leaving his property until there’s a vaccine, and he said he was boxing up the cello for me.

It was a tearful exchange between us. It’s somehow right that it arrived on 4/20, and the packing material in the box was mostly old festival t-shirts, sized XL just like Mr. Bowers.

NWM: We’re sure there are more names than you have time to list, but who jumps out as major influences on your music or career?
Tim: The Beatles are the base camp. They broke all the rules and made it look like a plan. Doc Watson. He is so inspiring and the perfect example of how to make diverse music into your own bag. Sam Bush has been big, as has been Bill Monroe. There’s the songwriters like Mose Allison, Randy Newman, Greg Brown, Dylan, Joni Mitchell.

NWM: Who might we be surprised to find on your playlist?
Tim: The most fascinating single playlist might be the Doctor Pepper commercials from 1974 made by various musical artists. I’d been aware that Bill Monroe did one and it just surfaced on YouTube. As soon as I read about it on Bluegrass Today, I looked it up, and then found a compilation that includes versions by Muddy Waters, Ike and Tina Turner, the Four Freshman, as well as Bill Monroe, Doc Watson, Grandpa Jones and more. It’s a survey of that year and I never saw any of them because I didn’t have a TV then! Bo Diddley does one!

Tim O'Brien

NWM: Strangest road story?
Tim: Someday, I’ll write the definitive version of the true story of leaving my fiddle in a car I hitched a ride in, and how I got it back. It involves Patty Hearst, the SLA [Symbionese Liberation Army], a girl who I thought liked me (not Ms. Hearst) and an issue of Rolling Stone with Marvin Gaye on the cover from 1974.

I lost my mandolin when it bounced out of a pickup bed on I-80 near Rawlings, Wyoming, and got it back thanks to a trucker who saw it happen.

One bandmate was left behind at a truck stop by accident, then delivered back to us by a state trooper. That was I-70 in western Kansas.

NWM: What instrument holds the most fascination for you and have you played it?
Tim: I have a mandolin that belonged to Mike Seeger and it’s a wonderful weird thing with an extra low pair of strings, so it’s a mandola and a mandolin in one. It puts me in a funny zone and surprises me with its sounds. Mike is such a hero, and I kept his old strings on it for about 4 years. That Vega cylinder back model from the 20s has an aura and it’s perfect for home music.

NWM: What are your before-you-go-on-stage rituals?
Tim: I like to sing a little and play the hardest licks I might have to play a couple times. If I’m too edgy I might have a little alcohol, or if I’m not edgy enough I might drink some coffee. Sometimes right before the downbeat, I take a deep breath and stay still for a minute.

NWM: Weirdest show?
Tim: It was weird but really cool. It was a benefit for a writers’ group in Nashville where I collaborated with the novelist Tim O’Brien. He did sleight-of-hand and magic and I played waltzes behind on the mandolin. He read from his novels of course and I sang some songs. It was cool because I’d long wanted to meet him, and then it turned out he’d been following me for years as well.

I can cook. And I can remember stuff not worth remembering. — Tim O’Brien

NWM: Tell us about your space or whatever is most necessary for your writing.
Tim: I just need a lot of uncommitted free time. This pandemic is like that but I’ve not written like I’d hoped. I’ve mostly been best early mornings but maybe I should try nighttime.

NWM: What are your non-musical gifts/talents?
Tim: I can cook. And I can remember stuff not worth remembering.

NWM: What is best, and what is most tedious about life on the road?
Tim: Best thing is revisiting places over and over — learning more about them. Finding cool restaurants or historical sights. You just stumble on them. Most tedious is not remembering what town I’m in when I wake up because most hotel rooms look pretty much the same.

NWM: What is your favorite book?
Tim: Might be Jaber Crow, fiction by Wendell Berry. I’ve been reading his The Hidden Wound on racism lately.

NWM: What was your most memorable performance and/or venue?
Tim: Might be The Night of the Living Red, Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers headlining RockyGrass. Three of the band entered on horseback, I entered in a smoke cloud, and we had go-go dancers and a zombie raid. I was there but I didn’t really get to see it all. [Red Knuckles is a performance persona of Tim’s and the Trailblazers are the remainder of his longtime bluegrass band, Hot Rize, with Pete Wernick, Nick Forster and Bryan Sutton. RK&TT often make a brief comic-relief appearance during HR shows.]

Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers

Halloween in Boulder, CO. L to R: Elmo Otto, Waldo Otto, Slade (cardboard cutout), Red Knuckles, Suede, Wendell Mercantile.

NWM: What song or album could you play on repeat?
Tim: Power of One by Nick Lowe.

NWM: Beatles, Stones or Zeppelin?
Tim: Beatles.

NWM: Do you think 2020 will be looked back upon as a songwriters’ renaissance?
Tim: Seems likely. There’s a lot of free time and there’s a lot to write about.

NWM: What is one thing you would want our readers to know about Tim O’Brien about which we might not know to ask?
Tim: I can only wink my right eye.

NWM: What is your favorite Tim O’Brien song?
Tim: “Brother Wind.”

NWM: “Brother Wind” is our favorite, too — we’ve been known to call it your masterpiece (to date), which begs this follow-up question: When did you know you had something special in “BW”?
Tim: I had the verse melody and chords for a while, and I took three or four stabs at the words before I hit on the story line in the final lyrics.

After singing the song for a couple years, I realized the verse chord never goes to the “home” chord. (I’m calling it the “home chord” I mean the “one” chord, it has the same letter name as the key of the song.) The song is in F but it never goes to F until the chorus. So there’s lonesomeness and a tension in the music that matches the homelessness in the lyric.

The song got better after that, because I knew more about it, knew better how to play it.

Then about 15 years into singing it, I was telling fiddler Aly Bain about my older brother Trip who died in Vietnam. I told him Trip took me camping as a little kid and how he brought LPs back from college — Ray Charles, Miles Davis, Odetta and others — that opened my musical ears a good bit. He’s encouraged me in my guitar playing in an audio letter from Nam.

Aly said, “So that’s what ‘Brother Wind’ is about.”

I was taken aback, had never thought of it that way. So it keeps digging deeper into me as I keep singing it.

To learn more about Tim O’Brien and to buy stuff, go to timobrien.net.

Dale McCurry

Dale McCurry

Writer and Editor

Following years as a reporter and editor of a handful of weekly newspapers, Dale McCurry was co-founder and publisher, writer and managing editor of High Notes Magazine on the Western Slope of Colorado and The Wires and the Wood in his native Ozarks. Today, he wears all of those hats for NoteWorthy Music as well.
Contact: Dale@NoteWorthyMusic.org.

For more Tim, check out his words in Part 2 of our series The Day the Music Died.

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