Between the iconic bluegrass band Hot Rize and his solo or duo releases, Tim O’Brien has more than 30 albums to his credit. It’s an astounding career encompassing bluegrass, Irish music, rockabilly, country, Western swing, and the complete mastery of fiddle, mandolin, guitar, octave mandolin, not to mention twice being the IBMA Male Vocalist of the Year. He’s a songwriter who has written Top Ten country music hits and new bluegrass standards, and he’s got a new album, with the straightforward title “Tim O’Brien Band.” The new band is Mike Bub (bass), Shad Cobb (fiddle), and Patrick Sauber (banjo and guitar), and Jan Fabricius (vocal and mandolin) who, with the exception of Mike Bub, all either sing or play more than one instrument, so each song is a different combination of strings and voices. Bryan Sutton, who plays guitar with Hot Rize since the passing of founding member Charles Sawtelle, plays on two tracks.
With top-flight musicians on banjo, flatpicked guitar, stand-up bass and fiddle, you’d think “Tim O’Brien Band” would be a bluegrass album, and you’d be half-right. The opening song, “Diggin’ My Potatoes,” an old electric blues number from Big Bill Broonzy, gets the full bluegrass, push-the-beat treatment, and would not be out of place on a Hot Rize album. Neither would the second song, “Drunkard’s Walk,” by J.D. Hutchison, whom Tim describes as his “musical hero.”
The third track, the traditional cowboy lament “Doney Gal,” takes a sharp turn away from the high lonesome sound towards the borderline between folk and Western music, with just fiddle, guitars, and harmony vocal. From the West the album detours to Ireland, with two fast reels played on twin fiddles backed up by only banjo at first, with guitar coming in for the second tune. Next up is an original, co-written by Tim and his partner Jan Fabricius, a jaunty, folky song from the other side of infidelity, from the perspective of the woman who is always there to take back her wayward lover. It’s also the only track on which Tim doesn’t sing the lead; their harmony is beautiful, but her lead is perhaps not quite as strong as her ability to blend her voice with his.
Another original is “Beyond,” which has been compared to “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” if “Ghost Riders” was a Western-inflected bluegrass gospel tune with a somewhat gauzy and slightly psychedelic view of the afterlife. The optimism of rejoining our loved ones in the hereafter takes a dark turn in the decidedly old-timey “My Love Lies in the Ground,” written by Dirk Powell, in which the protagonist decides he’s better off dead in the ground with his love rather than merely tending her grave for the rest of his life. (Tim does love those death, graveyard and suicide songs, as he admits in our interview.)
We’re back to bluegrass with a driving version of “Pastures of Plenty,” written by Woody Guthrie, with its entirely timely political message regarding the migrants who work in the fields so the rest of us can have our bounty. It’s interesting that Tim adds nuance to the melody; the original was bare bones and unadorned, but Tim fleshes it out and makes it urgent.
The next song, “Wind,” is either a deep metaphor for . . . something, or it’s about the weather. I’m really not sure, but the music itself, with sweeping fiddle up front and cittern in the background, fits the subject. “La Gringa Renee,” written for Tim’s partner Jan, whose middle name is Renee, was described by him as “Bolero meets klezmer,” but could also be described as “great pickers noodling in a minor key,” and is best described by the truism that it’s the kind of thing you’ll like if you like that kind of thing. YMMV.
From the abstract to the very particular, “Amazing Love,” another original, displays Tim’s great talent for writing new songs that sound like old songs. If somebody told me the Carter Family had recorded this, I might believe them, and just assumed the Tim O’Brien Band had speeded things up a little. It’s a sweet, old-fashioned, timeless love song, that could be folk, mountain music or Tin Pan Alley.
This record contrasts one song with the next; after a light paean to “Amazing Love,” the band covers “Last Train From Poor Valley,” the Norman Blake classic of love lost and mourned. Their version is rich and arranged just right, with banjo returning to remind us that this is a song about a particularly Appalachian heartbreak. I’ve heard bluegrass bands speed this song up, but Tim’s got too much taste for that.
The album concludes with “Crooked Road,” an O’Brien original that returns us to the bluegrass at the beginning and practically begs an autobiographical interpretation for a life-long road musician: it speaks of the crooked road that “leads me to tomorrow” and the support of family, friends and the music itself along the way.
In our interview Tim said he wants this band to be the “keeper of the repertoire” but also one that sticks together for new projects and takes the music to new places. I think his fans will want that, too. “Tim O’Brien” band is not a perfect album – because this band can do so many things, there are a few combinations and ideas that aren’t his best, but it’s a rich mix of acoustic Americana, revealing the undimmed creativity of a man still taking in music from Ireland to Elko and making it his own.
If this album is the new Tim O’Brien band, I’m all for it. Let’s just hope that Red Knuckles doesn’t show up and steal his thunder.
Visit Tim’s website.