Tim O’Brien – An Exclusive Interview

Recorded on Feb 26 over the phone, abridged and edited for clarity.

HVBA: Hi Tim, I really appreciate the chance to talk to you on behalf of the Hudson Valley Bluegrass Music Association, which is a fine group of players and bluegrass enthusiasts between New York City and Albany. In fact, some of the questions I have are from other members of the HVBA.

I’ve listened to your new album many times commuting back and forth to work. To me, it seems like it’s – this is my personal interpretation here- it’s the most like Hot Rize of the Tim O’Brien Band albums, or the other Tim O’Brien solo projects, but it’s clearly not a Hot Rize album. How would you characterize this band as different from previous versions of the Tim O’Brien Band?

TOB: Well, it’s an all acoustic album. There’s very little mandolin involved. I played mandolin on a couple tracks and I think my partner, Jan, played on a couple tracks too. But I’m playing the guitar, which is kind of where I started in bluegrass, although I never really got to the national circuit doing that. I was always the mandolin guy.

But you know, I think it’s the same kind of formula of repertoire. Some originals and some traditional songs that maybe needed to be dusted off a little bit and brought back out, and a few covers. So it’s got some similarities for sure to Hot Rize’s music. One of the covers is by J.D Hutchison, who wrote songs that Hot Rize recorded. We actually ended up recording three different songs of his.

Let’s see who else? Norman Blake is kind of a no brainer there. It was kind of nice to pay tribute to Norman, who’s really not on the circuit anymore.

HVBA: So actually that relates into your comment about guitar and mandolin. I had a question from an HVBA member: Which came first, fiddle, mandolin or guitar? And are you equally comfortable and equally expressive on all three or do you feel like one of those is really your musical home?

TOB: Well, certainly in Hot Rise I was the mandolin player, in bluegrass, that’s my main contribution, I guess, with Hot Rize music. But I started with guitar. When I was 12 I got a guitar, friends were playing British Invasion stuff and folk stuff, and I just imitated that and got my own guitar soon enough. So when I heard Doc Watson, I really just kind of took to that. I didn’t really look away for a long time. I was learning gypsy jazz and that kind of thing as well, and I played some rock and roll, but Doc Watson sort of changed the tune for me. I got into the guitar through him, at least the bluegrass guitar, and went from there, but you know it’s people like Larry Sparks and Jimmy Martin . . .they’re as much my guitar heroes as is Doc or somebody like Clarence White or Tony Rice, I would definitely include all those people.

HVBA: It’s interesting you mentioned Larry Sparks. I’ve always felt, going way back, why isn’t Larry Sparks considered to be a big, huge bluegrass hero? He is such a great guitar player, and such a soulful singer. It seems like he was always in the second tier, but I always had a great admiration for him.

TOB: Every year in the IBMA awards, I’d vote for Larry Sparks for Guitar Player of the Year, just to. . . I just think he’s got something more traditional about him, but not just in a Stanley Brother’s kind of way, the way they prospected stuff, but also as a blues player. You know, like Bill Monroe was a blues player on the mandolin, Larry’s a blues player on the guitar, in a bluegrass way.

Also, in the bluegrass guitar world, the lead guitar is one thing, and then there’s the rhythm. Bluegrass can get a little bit too well-ordered for me, I kind of like the wild and wooly stuff where there’s a lot of guitar runs when you play a guitar solo, it sounds like a guitar solo and not a mandolin solo that you you kinda play on the lower strings. I just like that kind of angle and I think Larry’s is a good proponent of that.

HVBA: Great. Somebody else in the HVBA wanted to know where you first learned to play the fiddle. I don’t know if that means who you learned from or where geographically, but tell us about learning to play the fiddle.

TOB: I’d been playing guitar about three or four years. My aunt had played violin in the symphony orchestra in my hometown of Wheeling, West Virginia. She had given it up when she started a family, raising kids. She said, “well, you play the guitar, maybe you’d be interested in the violin.” So I got a violin and couldn’t make much sense of it for awhile. I tried to make a sound on it and figure out how to finger it, but I didn’t get very far.

Then I went out to college for a year. I just lasted one year, but while I was there I met a guy that had a mandolin. He also had a “Sing Out” magazine which had some mandolin tabs in there and so I learned two songs, “Fisher’s Hornpipe” and “Rickett’s Hornpipe,” which I kind of knew on the guitar. I learned them on the mandolin, from the Sing Out magazine, and then I went home to where my fiddle was and I started working it out. I figured out how the fingering worked just from those two tunes, because the mandolin’s the same. I didn’t own a mandolin for a long time, so I worked on the fiddle. I guess I was 19 and 20, I would really woodshed a lot. I went out to Jackson Hole and spent the winter playing in bars and trying to earn enough money to ski. But mostly I was learning the fiddle, I was at it two, three hours a day. I came out of that year, that winter time able to play with other people. So I just went from there. And I was definitely into the gypsy jazz stuff and the western swing stuff of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, but also bluegrass, Texas fiddle stuff, and then Irish stuff soon after it too.

HVBA: So for you the progression was guitar, mandolin, and then fiddle?

TOB: Yes, but I didn’t own a mandolin for a long while. So I borrowed one, but the other thing is my Dad had a banjo mandolin that I started getting out, I played that in college. So I had a mandolin, it wasn’t the best thing to play in a bluegrass band, but it was something to learn on.

HVBA: Let’s get back to the new album, which is pretty interesting. I have a couple of questions about some of the songs. With some of these songs, the more you listen to them, the more you begin to think about them differently. First question: I did a little research and for the life of me I can’t figure out what a Doney gal actually is.

Is that [the Doney gal] the guy’s horse or is that his woman?

TOB: Well, I think it’s referring to his horse, Doney gal. I think it’s a term of affection. It might come from Spanish, from the vaqueros who became buckaroos, it might be from donia, my horse, meaning “Mrs. Horse,” donia, something like that.

HVBA: You gotta figure that cowboy was pretty lonely out there!

TOB: A cowboy and his horse, they’re pretty close to one another out there. You know your horse better than you know those cattle, if you’re lucky, I think. I like this song a lot. I first heard it recorded or sung by a guy named Buck Ramsey [check it out here] . I was out at the Cowboy Poetry Festival in Elko, Nevada and somebody said Jack Elliot was playing in this motel room and you can probably go in there and jam. I went in and, you know, I met Jack and I end up playing some music with those guys. There was a guy in a wheelchair, Buck Ramsey, he was a well known poet, and a musician. Prior to a car accident in his 20’s, he was a working cowboy. He sang the song, I thought it was a beautiful thing, and I’ve heard it over the years by people like Don Edwards [recording here] and also by another gentlemen by the name of Jeff Davis, that’s a great version of it. So I just thought it would be a good one. My partner Jan and I sing it around the house, I like the song, so when it came time to record, I said why not do “Doney Gal?”

HVBA: Another song that I think you put a new spin on is the Norman Blake song “Last Train From Poor Valley,” which a lot of people have covered. I’ve listened to the Norman Blake version many times, which is so plaintive. Yours is a little more upbeat, so I’ve begun to think of the characters a little differently. My question is: why didn’t the guy just get on the train, and go to Richmond with Brown-Haired Becky?

TOB [laughing]: That’s a good question. I don’t know. I bet he’d be less lonesome.

HVBA: When you sing it, it seems like he’s just not that unhappy that his woman left him and he’s not doing much about it.

TOB: Yeah, I think that’s a tragedy of the mining communities, you have generations of people working in the mines. Then all of a sudden the price of whatever you’re mining goes down. And then everybody’s out of work. They don’t know what else to do. We’re still having that problem. And maybe that’s his motivation. In between the lines of the song, the mining thing is a is a kind of an addiction. It’s a mono-economy in those communities. There’s no other gainful employment so you move away or not, but yes, it’s surprising he didn’t get on the plane, or the train to wherever.

HVBA: To put it another way, it wasn’t until I heard the new version of it that you guys put out, that I began to have some sympathy for Becky, and say, okay, I might have left him, too. But it’s a great version, and I do think you put a very different spin on it than some of the other people who’ve recorded it. Moving on, I’ve also noticed that the song [“My Love Lies in the Ground”] is not the first song you’ve either written or recorded where the guy’s so in love that he wants to commit suicide and just go to death to be with his lover. That seems to be kind of a theme for you. In “Where the Wild River Rolls” doesn’t he throw himself in the river at the end?

TOB: Yes, that’s the one, “My Love Lies In the Ground,” that’s actually a Dirk Powell composition. And yes, I like those graveyard songs, and I liked that it could be kind of a fiddle tune. I wanted to feature the fiddle, and get some fiddling in on the record, so that was a good excuse. And that, and the Irish fiddle tunes which we kind of made into a bluegrass instrumental, for another example. I really feel like instrumentals in bluegrass are a whole ‘nother category. It used to be, you’d put out a bluegrass LP, you’d have to have one or two instrumentals, it’d be standard-issue, and fiddle tunes, especially. So it’s kind of like going back to that. I hope my stuff holds closer to a traditional line, in that there’s fiddle tunes where the melody is played over and over.

I’d like to think I’m trying to put in some of the elements I miss in bluegrass when I hear it on the radio. I’m really liking some of the new groups like Po’ Ramblin’ Boys because they kind of go back, they’re retro, but they are also expressing themselves in new ways, like Del McCoury always has. I applaud that direction to bluegrass, it helps evens things out.

HVBA: That’s another one of my questions. Who do you think is up and coming or really interesting in the bluegrass or the Americana scene? If someone was a Hot Rize fan, or a Tim O’Brien fan, who would you say, hey, these guys are also worth your interest?

TOB: There’s so many great proponents. It seemed like Mile Twelve really came up a couple notches this last year, in direction, they seemed to just be more sure of themselves. They’ve got so much potential. It’s really interesting to watch them, because they’ve got so much ability and-

HVBA: Mile Twelve? See, there you go. I hadn’t even heard of them. I’ve got to look them up now. [Ed. Note: Mile Twelve has played two concerts for the HVBA]

TOB: Yeah it’s a pretty new group. They came out, most of them, of the Berklee College of Music, they’re college educated. There’s a whole stream that has developed out of New England Conservatory and Berklee School of Music in Boston. They have a traditional program in both places. For students, traditional music is a possible curriculum that kind of feeds a certain fire.

HVBA: I think Della Mae came out of that scene.

TOB: Yeah, Della May came out of that. Brittany Haas comes out of that scene . . . and Aoife O’Donovan, so you have all that stuff and then there’s another group I like, The Lonely Heartstring Band, and like I said, I like the Po Ramblin’ Boys. And I like people like Del McCoury, and I like the Earls of Leicester even though I’m not in the band anymore!

There’s a new group opening for us in Colorado, called Masontown, it’s one of just a lot of new groups that are coming up with good new music. Good new original songs as well as just new ways into it. You know, we need that.

HVBA: Yes, absolutely. So speaking of other musicians, we’ll take a little detour and then come back to the new album. This is a question I’ve asked other musicians I’ve had the privilege of speaking with. If you could record an album with any other musician, living or dead, who would it be?

TOB: Living or dead? Boy, that’s a tough one. I’d love to have sat in with, I’d love to have been the guitar player when they couldn’t get Freddy Green in Count Basie’s band. I’d love to have had the job to just play rhythm guitar in that band, although they never had a better guy than Freddy Green. Ry Cooder’s another guy, we’ve talked from time to time that way, we’ve talked about [making music] together. It just hasn’t happened yet.

HVBA: You’ve written so many songs for so many people. What song have you written that’s the most meaningful to you or are you the most proud of?

TOB: Well, I’m really proud that Kathy Mattea chose some of my songs to start a career with. She’d had one hit, a track by Nancy Griffith. And then followed with one of mine and then later another one. It’s a great honor when somebody records your song. People always ask me if I approve of their version, and I really don’t have any qualms. I mean, whatever they want, do it. No one has changed anything at all, really, and even if they did, I’d still be flattered. So I think Kathy, she gave me a license to have a solo career because of that, and gave me a cushion financially as well as the confidence to stick my own nose out there.

HVBA: For the record, I do think “Late in the Day,” both her version, and the Hot Rize version is one of your better songs, and one of my favorites over the decades.

TOB: That’s a true life kind of song, those are the best ones, it feels real, that song, and I still like singing that one.

HVBA: What’s your go-to fast fiddle tune and go-to slow fiddle tune?
That question also came from the internet audience.

TOB, laughing: Go-to fast fiddle tune? Probably “Wheel Hoss”, I like “Wheel Hoss”. And for a go-to slow fiddle tune, well, I’ve been working on Irish tunes, so the go-to tune is usually the one I’m learning. I’m learning one called “Money Musk” right now. I got a bunch of manuscripts from a friend’s attic, actually some mandolin orchestra and old fiddle tune books. I always wanted to learn “Money Musk,” a lot of people play it. I didn’t know what the name meant, but there it was in this book. Another one was “Speed the Plow.” “Speed the Plough” is a tune you read about it in a book, like in some literature from the 1800’s. I’ve heard people play “Speed the Plough” and everybody goes dancing, but I’ve never heard any bluegrass players play “Speed of Plow.” So I’m trying to learn that one too.

HVBA: And what does “Money Musk” mean?

TOB: Money Musk refers to an estate near Aberdeen, Scotland, it’s the lords of that estate. And I always wondered what that was and that’s apparently what it is.

HVBA: So I’m going to ask you one more historical question, then we’ll look back to and conclude with the new album because that’s what we’re trying to get word out about. I hope to phrase this in a way that’s sensitive, but there was such a huge change in your life, and in Hot Rize, with the passing of Charles Sawtelle, who had such a unique guitar style. When I heard the new Hot Rize album, and when I saw you guys here in New York last year, it seems Hot Rize has a very different feel to it with Bryan Sutton.
There’s something more straight ahead and a little less crooked about it. I’m not sure what the right words are, but I’m curious what your experience is playing with two monstrously talented but very different guitar players.

TOB: Well they’re night and day, those two guys. Charles’ sensibility, his approach to the music is kind of fundamental to Hot Rod’s identity. And it’s kind of hard doing it without him. . . it continues to be difficult. We need to reach in our souls to find the parts of him that we know are there, to kind of bring it back out. He really had so much to do with the way we recorded the music, the way we performed it it on-stage, and the kind of music that we did. So we try to do everything faithful to his vision, because it was so much a part of the makeup of the band. But, you know, we also just have to go with what we got, and we’ve got a great guitarist with Bryan. We did try to stress with Bryan when he started out that the guitar role was very important, and it wasn’t the same as it might be in other bands. And I think he took that to heart.

But there’s no getting around the fact that he’s a much more modern guitarist. Charles was so idiosyncratic, talk about about playing on the low strings. He would do that and make people gasp. The dynamic range was so giant that every once in a while he’d hit a big note and people would kind of gasp. Bryan’s much more of a controlled guy.

HVBA: This is just my personal take on things, but sometimes you listen to a Bill Monroe mandolin solo and it goes past you- and then you think, wait a minute, wait a minute, back up. That was weird rhythmically, and what he did with the melody, what was that? I thought the same thing with Charles Sawtelle, sometimes his solos were just so interesting and not anything I would’ve predicted from where the rest of the song was going.

TOB: Often time we’d be wondering if he could make it to the end of it!

HVBA: Going back to the new album, what does this band allow you to do? This is a more acoustic version of the Tim O’Brien Band although you had some very stripped down, old timey versions of Tim O’Brien Band. What are your plans with this band or this configuration that will allow you to do things that you’ve been wanting to do with a new Tim O’Brien band?

TOB: Well, I’d like to get this band up to speed and I think they can do justice to old material that I’ve recorded- I’d like them to be the keepers of the repertoire. I’d like to present it in this format and just have a regular band. It has been so long since I’ve had a regular band, other than playing with Hot Rize. So I have people for a year or two and it changes. But other than Patrick Sauber, they’ve all played with me off and on, Mike Bub and Shad Cobb for the past five years anyway. I’d just like to hold it together and have a regular identity and be able to, you know, let people call out requests and do that stuff. That’s one thing.

But I also just love being in an acoustic band, and I’d like to channel into this, and leave it that way for a while. I think the context is, everybody’s so versatile in this band. Patrick played some guitar on this record, and he played some great mandolin on a track. He also plays the accordion really well, plays the Cajun accordion. And I’d like to broaden it out, I’d like to do more stuff with two fiddles. I’ve mentioned that instrumentals are a big part of bluegrass, but it gets ignored. I’d actually like to make an instrumental record. I’d like to make a fiddle and mandolin record sometime. And maybe I’ll do that with these guys.

HVBA: That’d be great. I’m in line to buy it if you do.

For all the mandolin players out there, tell me just a little bit about the history of your famous black face mandolin. In retrospect would you have, if you had the money back then, would you have bought an F model or did you buy an A model for a reason?

TOB: Well I bought an A model because it was much more affordable and it turned out the mandolin that Nugget made me back in 1976 is really an exceptional one. It kind of became a calling card for him, as well as for me. So I never felt the need to change. He made a collaboration with a Collings and made a Tim O’Brien model and that’s actually what I play on stage mostly these days. It’s a little more modern, with a radius fingerboard. That old one has a really wide fingerboard, this other one’s kind of narrower. I actually realized it’s kind of more workable in general. It’s a great ax but that old one is kind of iconic. Whenever I would play an F5, no matter how good it was it always felt neck heavy because of that scroll. They would kind of tilt down to the left. I had an F5 for a short time, I played it with Hot Rize for a year or two. But I went back to the old one because it sounded better.

HVBA: Well, you’ve given inspiration to A model players everywhere to say you don’t need a scroll!

TOB: Yes, you know it is a beautiful thing, a Florentine mandolin with a scroll and everything, but like I said, I just never felt the need!

HVBA: Anything else you want fans to know about the new album or about your plans for the coming year?

TOB: Well I’m excited to play this music for people. And we’re about to embark on a promotional tour and play out in the midwest and Colorado. So I hope I get to the Hudson Valley. I will be certainly be at Grey Fox. I’ll definitely be there, but I’d like to get there more often and I love coming up there and playing at Helsinki or Diego, wherever. At the Town Crier, it doesn’t matter. So just watch out for me and the band and hopefully we’ll see you soon.

HVBA: Great, last question. There’s some disturbing material on the Internet about Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers. Is any of that actually true?

TOB: Well, I’m sure if it’s bad, it’s worth looking into! I don’t really know much about those guys. We don’t see them except for when they pass us by on their way to the stage. They’re getting pretty old and decrepit. If they’re doing something kind of questionable it wouldn’t surprise me.

HVBA: Tim, it’s been an honor speaking with you. Great luck on your tour. Really appreciate it and hope to see you live again soon!

Neal Loevinger

Neal Loevinger is a hospital chaplain who loves things that start with the letter B, like bluegrass, bourbon, bikes and books. He is the proud father of two kids who may yet learn to appreciate bluegrass like he does.

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