Cornbread Nation: The Bluegrass/Americana World of Tim O’Brien

Tim_obrien"People ask me what my hobby is, and I tell them, well, I like to cook and hang out at home or read history, but really it’s music," says Tim O’Brien with a smile.

So what if that’s what he’s done for a living for going on three decades? And what if he became regarded as a pre-eminent Americana and bluegrass musician by doing so? "It’s my hobby. And everything the hobby does feeds the repertoire," O’Brien, who will be at this year’s Festival of American Fiddle Tunes, says.

At this point in his career, nearly thirty years after moving to Colorado where he would form his landmark band Hot Rize, repertoire is a major part of the Tim O’Brien story. For in addition to his own prolific and successful songwriting, this child of West Virginia and the WWVA Jamboree has never stopped mining the American music canon for great material. He’s a song sponge.

Songs collect and abide in Tim O’Brien’s world as comfortably as family heirlooms. They come from around the world, particularly the American South and Ireland. They morph into new ideas and new songs that update old truths about the human condition. They find expression in O’Brien’s clear-as-ice voice on stages, in recording studios and at home with circles of gifted musical friends. O’Brien’s relationship with songs embodies the very essence of the folk music tradition, always aware that the branches of the musical tree need sap from the roots.

O’Brien was so full of songs when he approached his latest phase of recording that they overwhelmed one album and became two. And yet with Fiddler’s Green and Cornbread Nation, his original intent has remained intact.

[Tim O’Brien singing "Look Down That Lonesome Road"]

"I wanted to do the whole spectrum of folk music from one guy singing and playing guitar or fiddle to a full band with electric guitar," O’Brien said. And that’s how the pair came out, like folk music bookends. Fiddler’s Green tends toward the intimate and traditional, while Cornbread Nation is a bit funkier and tempo-driven. On both, however, old-time tunes sit comfortably next to originals and a few classic country songs by the likes of Jimmie Rodgers and Harlan Howard. "I could have taken all traditional songs, but I love stuff like ‘California Blues’ and ‘Busted,’ which are like folk songs to me, and they fit with the others, and it shows that what is called country music is just another footstep down the same path. Rock and roll, a lot of that is the same too."

This aptly describes O’Brien’s journey from Wheeling, WV to today’s Nashville, for he was a kid of the 1950s who had his ears wide open to the country and bluegrass melting pot on the local WWVA show, as well as the Beatles on the radio. While still a teenager, he went West to explore the vibrant bluegrass scene in Colorado. There, he met guitarist Charles Sawtelle, banjoist Pete Wernick, and bassist/ vocalist Nick Forster, with whom he formed Hot Rize in 1978.

Over the next twelve years, the quartet earned recognition as one of America’s most innovative and entertaining bluegrass bands. Never straying too far from a traditional sound, Hot Rize stood out 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.

O’Brien’s first solo album, 1984’s Hard Year Blues, reached beyond bluegrass into an original folk fusion that would define his solo career. Three subsequent releases of duets with his sister Mollie O’Brien showcased a love for antique country material, cowboy songs and Western swing. Those records still rank among O’Brien’s best recorded performances, with creative arrangements and 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 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 with jazz and bluegrass guitarist Scott Nygaard and bassist Mark Schatz, an eclectic band well suited to O’Brien’s original material. Their output included 1993’s Oh Boy! O Boy! and Red on Blonde, an all Bob Dylan outing.

Throughout the 1990s, O’Brien’s musical relationships flourished, and he became one of the most prolific collaborators in American roots music. In just his second meeting with emerging songwriter Darrell Scott, the pair wrote "When No One’s Around," which became the title cut of a critically acclaimed 1997 album by Garth Brooks. Later, he and Scott joined forces for Real Time, an intimate but electrifying duo album. Songs From the Mountain teamed O’Brien up with old-time musicians John Herrmann and Dirk Powell on songs inspired by the novel Cold Mountain. He joined West Coast musicians Mike Marshall, Darol Anger, and others, to release NewGrange, an album that melded Philip Aaberg’s tasteful piano with a string band to push newgrass in new directions.

And no relationships have been more fruitful than O’Brien’s friendships with the cream of Celtic acoustic music. In 1999 and 2001, he collaborated with some of Ireland’s best musicians to create two striking collections of original and traditional songs. On The Crossing and Two Journeys, O’Brien explored his family roots in Ireland, the Irish-American experience and as the Appalachian/Celtic musical dynamic that underlies so much American traditional music. They were regarded by many as world music triumphs.

Tim O’Brien’s latest CD before the dual release of Cornbread Nation and Fiddler’s Green was called The Traveler, and one couldn’t ask for a more apt description of Tim O’Brien the musician.