Tim O’Brien –Profile
Colorado, Ireland, Music
By Rodger Hara
In a homecoming of sorts, Tim O’Brien and his partner Jan Fabricius played to packed houses at Swallow Hill in Denver and The Armory in Ft. Collins for two nights at the end of March. There his many fans heard old and new songs in Tim’s open, relaxed and eminently accessible style with Jan’s lovely harmony supporting many of them along with stories told in his humble, self-deprecating way.
After leaving West Virginia with stops in Chicago and Wyoming, Tim had first come to Colorado in early 1973 to visit friends and returned in the Fall of 1974 and worked at a record store in Boulder called Folk Arts Music. Having played guitar since he was 11, he had picked up the fiddle, learned mandolin and become a multi-instrumental song writer and singer by then. (In a recent interview on KGNU, he said that being left-handed, he was glad that he learned to play right-handed because it’s a lot easier to borrow a right-hand guitar than a lefty.) Along the way, he recognized that the country fiddle songs he had learned in West Virginia as a Doc Watson fan had Irish and Scottish roots. In the KGNU interview, he spoke of hearing songs that he knew like McLeod’s Reel in the background of Barry Fitzgerald and Bing Crosby movies and how hearing Kevin Burke playing Sailor’s Bonnet on a friend’s Arlo Guthrie album led him to discover the playing of Joe Burke and the Bothy Band.
In the summer of 1976, Tim traveled to Ireland and spent several days at the Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann at Buncrana, County Donegal then made what he called an epic journey to Galway in a Volkswagen bug that a friend had bought for 50 Punts then on to Dublin where he met and played with Joe Burke. In 1977 he recorded a solo fiddle album on Biscuit City Records in Denver that included his first Irish tunes. He formed the bluegrass band Hot Rize (and their country/western alter ego band Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers) in 1978, played with that band until 1990 and in 1994 began what became an annual tour of Ireland where he made many friends across the country. While in Ireland in 1998, he visited County Cavan to explore his roots. His great grandfather had been born in a small townland called Muff, in the east of County Cavan between Kingscourt and Bailiborough, which, for you Irish geography buffs, is east of Cavan town and northeast of Balleyjamesduff and is known for an annual horse fair that has been held there since the 17th century. There, Tim had encounters that he described in a humorous Dylanesque track called “Talking Cavan” from his 1999 album “The Crossing.” On that album, Tim and his guest artists showcase the roots of Irish and Scottish songs in the music of Appalachia in 16 tracks of traditional and original music. A fine storyteller in the seanachie tradition, the songs “The Crossing” and “Lost Little Children” written by Tim eloquently describe the experiences of Irish immigrants.Two years later, he released another album with more Irish tunes called “Two Journeys” that included an interesting mix of traditional Irish, original compositions and “Norwegian Wood.” A bluegrass song about another trip to Ireland called, appropriately enough, “Me and Dirk’s Trip to Ireland” is a highlight.
When asked on the KGNU interview what his favorite experience was in Ireland, he told of a time when he and his sister Mollie were playing for Tom Stapleton in Roscrea, County Tipperary before the smoking ban. They asked that no one smoke in the first three rows and near the end of the show had played a few requests and Tim said that he wanted to play a tune of his own at which point someone in the first three rows said, “Does that mean we can smoke now?”. Tim said that it’s the people who make Ireland great, not just the things that you see. His advice to people going to Ireland is to find a pub and visit it more than once and you’ll have friends there the second time you go in. He observed that, “There’s a festival in Baltimore where I like to play and when I’m in Dublin I like to drop into Hughes’ for a nice session – and Teddy’s is a nice bar in Hollywood.”
His latest album, “Where the River Meets the Road” is his sixteenth solo album and each of the 12 tracks has a connection to his home state of West Virginia. Ten of the songs are ones that he has played as a member of the house band for the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame (into which he was inducted in 2013) that he decided to record with friends since he was playing them and wanted to memorialize them. Two of the songs are his original compositions – “Guardian Angel” pays homage to an older sister who died when he was a toddler and the title track, “Where the River Meets the Road” tells the story of his great-grandfather’s arrival in Wheeling, West Virginia from Ireland in 1850 and work in the steel mills there.
Tim left Colorado in 1996 and has settled in Nashville where he writes, records and produces recordings for other musicians. From that base, he also tours, plays reunion gigs with Hot Rize, sits in with Lunasa and has his own band. He says he misses “…the weather and the scenery and the people” here.
In response to a question about how many songs he’s written, he said “I’ve written more than people have heard. Some of them you won’t hear because they just aren’t that good. I write maybe 5 or 10 a year and I’ll end up liking 3 or 4 of them.” Regarding how he writes, he said that like all writers, “I’m always observing – always on input about the quirks of life and our situations as human beings. And you need a little phrase that draws it all together and crystallizes it. Like when I came up the phrase “Walk the way the wind blows”, I knew that guy had the blues and was just going to go the way the wind took him. Sometimes a phrase will suggest a melody and every once in a while, I’ll have a musical idea that just won’t let me go and I wait until I find the right tune to go with that lyric. I just keep doing this – it started a long time ago. I loved the music and making music and the art of it and wanted to learn more about it in any way I could do it. It didn’t matter what the situation was – I’d be eager to play. Now it’s really evolved over the years – it’s more about the people I meet – the people I see and play for. It’s less internal and more external. I’m more interested in communicating with them from the stage and off-stage. It’s a little more complicated – more holistic and feels more right. I feel like I’m in a pretty good zone right now and performing is like having a communal experience.”
He returns to Colorado often for shows and festivals – like Telluride in June with the Tim O’Brien Band and Rockygrass in Lyons in July with Hot Rize. And in a manifestation of his eclectic interests and talent, he is working on a project here with jazz guitar greats Dale Bruning (with whom Tim had studied guitar and music theory in his early years in Boulder) and Bill Frisell. Stay tuned for the next chapter – it’s sure to be entertaining and very, very good – like everything Tim O’Brien does.