Long among my favorites, singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Tim O’Brien is a mainstay on the acoustic, bluegrass, and roots music scene. Born in Wheeling, WV in 1954, O’Brien first came to prominence with the bluegrass band Hot Rize which played regularly from 1978 to 1990, was resurrected in 2014, and which continues to have an outsized influence on the acoustic music world.
“Steeped in bluegrass tradition…Hot Rize’s music was and is equally informed by a taste for the music of Leadbelly and Freddie King, swing, old-time Appalachia and more in ways that mirror the broad sweep of Bill Monroe’s influences.“
From the band’s 40th anniversary bash — joined by friends Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, and Stuart Duncan — Hot Rize performs Radio Boogie with O’Brien on the lead vocals.
Like many of us, O’Brien listened to a wide range of music growing up. And then he heard Doc Watson.
“O’Brien…absorbed a broad range of American music growing up, from country and rockabilly icons like Jerry Reed and Jerry Lee Lewis backed by local ringers at the famous Grand Ole Opry-style Wheeling Radio Jamboree to Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Dave Brubeck at summer concerts in the park. His parents had season tickets to the Wheeling Symphony and brought along the young O’Brien and his sister Mollie, who would become his first band mate; they also saw Ray Charles and the Beatles when they came through town. O’Brien took it all in, but something clicked when he first caught Doc Watson on TV as a teenager: that versatility, and the distillation of so much into the framework of traditional sounds, would be one of his biggest inspirations. ‘Doc Watson’s a great roadmap for anybody, really, because he played all kinds of music and made it sound like Doc Watson music,’ said O’Brien. ‘Of course, people put him in a bluegrass-folk music pigeonhole, but he really brought all of it together, and that’s kind of what I was interested in.'”
After Hot Rize retired from the road, O’Brien became a sought after session musician; a songwriter with hits covered by Kathy Mattea, Garth Brooks and the Chicks; and a musical collaborator with a range of talented individuals including Darrell Scott. Always ready to use music to make a point, Keep Your Dirty Lights On is about mountaintop removal, something very important to two men from West Virginia and Kentucky.
“If you’ve got money in your pocket and a switch on the wall / we’ll keep your dirty lights on.”
One of my favorite O’Brien albums is 1996’s Red on Blond, featuring string band covers of Bob Dylan songs. This live version of Tombstone Blues, played with an all-star band, burns down the house! The O’Brien version of Maggie’s Farm is also a stellar remake of a Dylan classic.
O’Brien has always enjoyed exploring his Irish heritage as found on both sides of the Atlantic in albums such as The Crossing and Fiddler’s Green. From that second album, Look Down that Lonesome Road, heard here with a Transatlantic band, is a good example of this part of his catalog.
During the pandemic, O’Brien joined a group of Nashville pickers to back up Sturgill Simpson in his hit two-volume bluegrass album Cuttin’ Grass.
O’Brien has a new album coming out this month entitled He Walked On. It is a deeply personal look at getting through our trying times.
“‘He Walked On’ is an expansive portrayal of the nation from its beginnings to the present day through a series of musical snapshots, each training its lens from a different angle: humor, humanity, solidarity, grace. The Latin-tinged “El Comedor,” co-written with O’Brien’s fiancée Jan Fabricius, reflects on time the couple spent last year at the Mexican border near Tucson, visiting with a grassroots humanitarian group that offered water and food to hopeful immigrants waiting for asylum. With ‘We’re In The Same Boat, Brother,’ written by ‘Brother, Can You Spare A Dime’ lyricist Yip Harburg, O’Brien reaches back nearly 80 years for a call to solidarity that still feels timely today.“
That’s How Every Empire Falls is also from He Walked On, and here O’Brien is not only covering an important tune for our times, but he is also recognizing his friend, the late John Prine, who had a famous cover of this song.
The Tim O’Brien Band is on tour this summer. They’ll be in Baltimore on July 9th and at the Red Wing Roots Music Festival in Mount Solon, VA on July 10th, before heading out to Colorado.
Catch some live music and enjoy!
More to come…
Image at top of post from Tim O’Brien | Howdy Skies! (timobrien.net)