Bluegrass Luminary Tim O’Brien on Touring, Songwriting and the Future of Bluegrass

Music Features

In both traditional and progressive bluegrass, there are few musicians still performing today who have had a more lasting and wide-ranging impact than Tim O’Brien. The West Virginia native is representative of an era, as his pioneering early work as vocalist for the prog bluegrass band Hot Rize helped define a new style of bluegrass in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.

Beyond those early accolades, however, O’Brien’s solo career has produced nearly 20 sterling albums in the course of the last two decades, including a 2005 Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album. Now 60 years old, he hasn’t slowed his output, even as he becomes increasingly involved in the production side of the bluegrass scene, helping young artists such as Sarah Jarosz break through as crossover stars in the world of pop music.

Nor has O’Brien forgotten his roots. In 2014, Hot Rize reformed to release When I’m Free, their first album of new material in 24 years, and they are now embarking on their first tour in the same amount of time. Paste caught up with the multi-instrumentalist and singer as he prepared to get back on the road.

Paste: How prominent was bluegrass/old-time music in West Virginia where you were growing up? Were you exposed to it often?
Tim O’Brien: Old-time music was kind of there, but it was sort of under wraps. When I was 13 or 14, I started getting interested in it, but just like anyone else, it took Doc Watson or Flatt and Scruggs to really hook me. Guitar was my first instrument at 12, around 1966. I was kind of interested in the British Invasion stuff at the same time.

Paste:You eventually went west. To someone who wasn’t there or never saw it, how can you describe the Boulder, Colorado music scene in the ‘70s when prog bluegrass was beginning?
O’Brien: Boulder’s a college town, so there’s a lot of kids who would go out and drink a lot of beer and listen to music. The musicians, they were like the service industry for that. It wasn’t a big scene, but it was enough of a scene to feed someone like me and give me something to go on—it was forgiving, and there was room to mess up and learn. The fusion and experimentation were in the water. That’s what Telluride was like at the time as well; they put a ski area up and when the festival started, we realized just how many people were into the type of music we were making. It was an yearly affirmation and reunion.

Paste: How much of that feeling is still there today?
O’Brien: I would say it’s pretty different, but that probably a lot of it has to do with me being a lot older. Boulder used to be kind of a Western town, fairly conservative, with a lot of dirt streets. Now it’s booming and property values are high. You sort of have to seek out the grittier stuff. But it’s still a really good, open-minded audience for music.

Paste: One thing I’ve always admired in your writing is that you’ll write songs about modern issues but with very traditional instrumentation. Like, you once wrote a song about “phantom phone syndrome,” but if you didn’t speak English, you’d think it was 100 years old.
O’Brien: I think in a perfect world, I would leave any kind of identifier about when the song was written behind. Hopefully there’s something timeless or universal you can address in all of them. I think most songs, no matter who wrote them, are really about the same human longings, trials and tribulations. Those songs kind of get rewritten by each generation of people who come along—they need to be refreshed that way or they would die. You do your part while you’re around, and then other people take it up.

Paste: Your solo career has worked its way through a winding road of paying tribute to different aspects of your background. You’ve written about your Irish ancestors, Appalachia, and influences like Bob Dylan. Is there any part of yourself you haven’t explored in music?
O’Brien: Oh wow, I’m not sure what that would be. I might find it, though. There’s probably something. It’s funny how things occur to you to do them at specific moments. I kind of follow my nose when something grabs my attention, so I really don’t know where it will go next. You might build a frame or have an apparent subject, but then you put your own style of ornamentation in there anyway, so all the albums sound like me in the end. Maybe I worried about that at one point, but now I embrace it.

Paste: Does playing with Hot Rize scratch a different type of itch than what you’ve been doing for the last 20 years?
O’Brien: It’s a whole different ballpark. When we first got together in ‘78 it was like our grad school of music; time to put something together and make a statement. These days it’s so much more of a collaboration. I always think I know my collaborators really well, and then they go and blow me away. It took a lot of work to make this record and get back to where we were before musically, and I’m hoping that next we can push it into really new and unique material from here.

Paste: Is there anything you’d forgotten about touring with them that has now come back to you?
O’Brien: Well, they keep me honest, I really have to come up with the best stuff. I can’t just BS it and try to figure it out later. To tell the truth we’re all a little bit nervous about doing it again, because we want to do the best we can. There’s history in Hot Rize that is sort of a little scary—we haven’t played very much in years, so you worry if it will even stack up to your memories and the memories of the audience. We’re just about to get on a bus and go on a real tour for the first time in 25 years.

Paste: It seems like you’ve helped a lot of younger groups along. Every bluegrass band I’m interested in always says they’re working with Tim O’Brien.
O’Brien: People do ask me to help, and I’m always flattered that they think I can help. The record producer job is a great job; you get to help them shape some music and get where they want to go, but really you’re just another helper. You can only do so much. I love seeing people like Sarah Jarosz and Chris Luedecke do well, because I just adore their music. They’re doing things I’ve never heard before.

Paste: Where do you think performers like Sarah Jarosz will continue taking traditional music in the future?
O’Brien: It’s very exciting to see how the younger generation is evolving the music. When Chris Thile started with Nickel Creek that was spectacular, and then when he did Punch Brothers I thought “wow, who would have thunk that?” I just want to encourage all of them, and I have no idea where it’s going to go. But that’s what’s required for the music to stay alive.

Paste: What haven’t you done in music that you still want to do?
O’Brien: I just get deeper and deeper into music and realize that I can still get better at it. I want to keep learning—I’m not sure what it is I want to learn, but I want to get better at music and get closer to the real me. David Grisman, he was one that when he started, the music was pretty ornate and his playing was pretty flowery, but as the years went on he sort of trimmed away the unnecessary stuff and became more direct. I want to get there, and I hope I’m getting closer to that.

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