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Tim O'Brien, he's one of us, but beyond the edge

By Bill Graham - Special for the Mandolin Cafe
June 4, 2008 - 10:00 pm

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Bill Graham
Bill Graham is a freelance outdoor writer, photographer, bluegrass musician and singer-songwriter.

There's a danger in being really good for a long time. People love you but assume you'll be there forever without fully appreciating what they're seeing and hearing.

I'm that way with Tim O'Brien.

He's been one step beyond acoustic music's cutting edge or leaned back in a straight-back chair on the good-old-ways porch since I first heard him play on records and live with Hot Rize in the 1970s.

O'Brien is a musician, singer, songwriter and stage stalker perfectly true to my generation, one raised with swing band background music on the radio and TV of our childhood years, Top 40 Rock' n Roll in our teen years and a thorough deep dive into roots music in our wild-oats young adulthood.

If Tim'O announced he was going on tour with Ron Howard on acoustic guitar (a D-18 with no pickguard) and Angela Cartwright on tambourine, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised.

His best songwriting sounds personal and real with modern introspection, yet plenty of fun, too. His musicianship pulls you into a song and carries you along.

Like so many of us who fell in love with all kinds of music, he can play it all on mandolin, guitar, fiddle and other wooden things with strings.

Yet he still manages to do it all well enough on stage or in the studio to go beyond the cutting edge, or he plays the old way so good it seems new.

ChameleonHis new CD, "Chameleon," is testament. He wrote the songs, sings them and plays various instruments. But he's the solo performer on all. As if we were sitting on the front porch with him, listening to him reach beyond the edge for the freshness that chills.

O'Brien's popularity over the years has prompted me to push his albums back on the shelf now and then. I kept hearing his tunes on the radio and people copying the songs so much in jam sessions (Nellie Kane) that I needed a rest to avoid burnout for someone I deeply respect.

But when I hear him play on stage, I'm wowed, such as when he was touring behind the "Red on Blonde" album. He didn't take our Bob Dylan campground favorites and rework them, something we all would have happily bought. Instead, he went into Dylan's more obscure songbag and paired potent lyrics with arrangements that surprise and delight.

Yet it's a mistake to think of him as just a singer. At a recent Walnut Valley Music Festival in Winfield, he was invited onto a Stage 3 jam with twenty-something jamgrass and jazz power pickers from several bands. Not only was O'Brien up to speed, he was off the wall and the most soulfully interesting mandolin player on stage.

Atta boy, Red.

He's so true to my generation that I get lulled into thinking him common. There's the low-cut Converse Chuck Taylor All Stars and jeans that he wears to work every day. The blue cotton work shirts we all wore in the 1970s that he never gave up because they're so comfortable.

But above all the music, like Monroe managed to do for his generation, is honest.

"I feel like I'm just now finding my feet as a writer," O'Brien said in an e-mail interview. "But like Dylan, I'm not comfortable doing the same thing over and over, which is why I've been so eclectic. Maybe it's ADD, the explanation for everything these days. If someone else is playing guitar, I'd rather play fiddle or mandolin, or bouzouki, or banjo. That's why I took to all the other instruments. I just like putting different textures together. If something gets stale I try to find another way."

Tim'O just came in off a spring tour of Ireland, Scotland, Denmark and Sweden. Generally good, but as is the way for road musicians, he found himself away from family when a close relative died.

"I almost canceled two thirds of it when my wife's mom died," he said. "But it happened so fast, and I stayed on tour. I'm going with Kit to Minnesota to visit her family."

This summer O'Brien is hitting the festival trail a lot as a solo performer and promoting "Chameleon."

What's he do when he is home?

Tim O'Brien - photo credit: Tim O'Brien - photo credit:

"I listen to lots of old recordings mostly," O'Brien said. "Lomax field recordings and stuff like that. I just got an R. Crumb book with his renderings of old time, jazz, and blues players. In the back is a CD of some of the people in the paintings. Wonderful stuff. Dock Boggs, Skip James, Jelly Roll Morton."

Our generation clings to the good times from each phase of life as a new one starts.

My favorite song on the new CD is "The Garden," where in my interpretation O'Brien is singing of the heartbreak borne by a spouse or child. Maturity brings the roles of guide and comforter.

Then there's the final song on the CD that sounds like a near surrender—"Nothing to Say," as in it's all been said before. But then O'Brien goes ahead and says meaningful things in the song, anyway. He doesn't give up.

I suspect he's a long way from being done as a recording and performing artist, and that what he's already done is going to be re-discovered and greatly appreciated by future musical generations.

Yet like Bending Blades in the wind, he might make some adjustments now and then.

"I have a desire to steer my career into more writing and producing, and less touring," O'Brien said. "Hopefully that way, I can go for a lot longer. My desire to travel is less, given that I'm mostly going back over the same roads again and again. I won't give it up completely though, as I have too many friends I only see when I'm touring."

Fast facts for Tim O'Brien fans

THE Nugget A: "I paid Nugget $200 and a ham for the A model he (Mike Kemnitzer) made back in 1976," O'Brien said. "He had good results with the same top wood before he made my A model. It was already aged 50 years I think, but the top he had left had a black line running through it, which meant he couldn't make a sunburst with it. We decided to make the top black and I'm happy I got that top wood.

"I couldn't tell you what kind of spruce it is. It's got a tone bar, rather than x-braces. The one-piece back came from an old barn in southern Ohio. Mike went driving around looking to buy maple trees. He stopped at this farm and the farmer said he'd keep his trees, but that he had some left over wood from when he built the barn. That was my back wood. The fingerboard is flat, though I like a radiused one. The Collings Nugget has a slight radius on the fingerboard."

Update on the Nugget A: "The original A model was sounding thin and I gave it back to Nugget for about nine months. Mike said, 'This mandolin shows signs of having been baked.' It had been baked in car trunks many times, and the pickup in the bridge top affected the sound too. We worked the ripple out of the top by wetting it and pushing it out from the inside, and also refilled the end pin, and put an acoustic bridge on it. I'm happy to say it's back. There's a whole lot of soul played into it over the years, it has a personality. It's like an old friend."

Other instruments: "I tend to scavenge for guitars, upgrading to another vintage one now and then. Mandolins are another story. Though I bought a black topped Gibson straight A about a year ago, I've mostly been given instruments. Nugget has given me an F-5, a mandola, and the guitar shaped bouzouki. I've also had a Flatiron A model, a Giacomel Jazz model, and a nice F-5 made by John Garrity. But the original Nugget A is just a special axe. It's loud and it's sweet and it's got lots of scratches on it that remind me of the years using it on the road and on records. I like a long scale A model over an F model—they're not neck heavy and they can still punch in a bluegrass setting."

Loar temptations: "I've never really wanted to get a Loar for instance. I hear about them coming up for sale and I like looking at them and playing them, but I also like to keep playing on stage if it's raining and like to play out in fields all night sometimes. I'd be worried about using a Loar for that."


Reads Mandolin Cafe: (hint, he doesn't know what MAS is) "I don't read the Mandolin Cafe on line. I'm glad it's there though. You can quickly survey the current state of the mando world in that portal."

The music biz future: "It's a new world. The new model for the next phase of the recording biz has yet to be designed. But whoever invests in the new thing will do better than the one that stays with the old thing. I kind of wonder who's gonna buy whatever record I'm working on. My feet are firmly in the old way though—I mostly distribute my CDs myself, selling them at gigs. That's always been the case with me. Store sales help to feed the fire, but now it's more about web marketing and keeping in touch with the audience that way. Luckily after thirty plus years of doing this, I still have loyal fans waiting for me to come around to their town."

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