For the better part of his American roots-music career, Tim O’Brien has kept some impressive and sizeable company.
First came the progressive bluegrass ensemble Hot Rize, which introduced O’Brien to string-music audiences three decades ago. Folk and country duets with sister Mollie O’Brien followed, as did work with The O’Boys, a combo that featured guitarist Scott Nygaard and bassist Mark Schatz; hits with country star Kathy Mattea; worldly folk explorations alongside guitarist Darrell Scott and fiddlers Kevin Burke and Dirk Powell; a record with the all-star string music collective New Grange; and, in support of his Grammy-winning 2005 album “Fiddler’s Green,” a tour accompanied by fiddler Casey Driessen, banjoist-guitarist Danny Barnes and bassist Dennis Crouch.
That’s quite a Christmas card list. So when it came time to record his new album, “Chameleon,” who did O’Brien decide to pal around with? Well, nobody.
Instead of more fearsome acoustic exchanges or stylistic adventures, O’Brien packed up an assortment of prized instruments - including a 1937 Martin guitar, a 1922 Carlo Micelli fiddle, a 1924 Gibson Lloyd Loar mandola and more recent models of mandolin, banjo and bouzouki - and a batch of new songs. Then he went to work. By himself.
“A solo record is just a really good way to present the music,” said O’Brien. “The music is up close to you. There’s very little between you and the listener.”
There is also very little to hide behind. It’s one thing for a folk singer accustomed to performing casual vocal narratives and confessionals to perform alone. In that setting, songs are essentially stories that are communicated better without a lot of accompaniment.
O’Brien is an expert songwriter and vocalist - he won International Bluegrass Music Association awards in both fields in 2006 - but he also is an immensely skilled instrumentalist. He has shown off all these artistic traits in solo concerts for many years. But cutting a studio record in which songs, singing and playing are on equal ground without any outside help presents a new and somewhat frightening challenge.
“Yeah, it’s a little scary,” O’Brien said. “Just starting out, I was like, `Gee, how am I going to do all this stuff?’”
O’Brien pointed to a “Chameleon” tune called When in Rome as an example of how he managed to find common ground for contemporary phrasing and rootsy vocabulary in a solo setting.
“On `When in Rome,’ I was trying to play a rock ‘n’ roll groove but was pretty shy of it. Then I realized if you played like (bluesman) Gary Davis - you know, that old-timey, finger-picking guitar sound - it gives you some of the same thing without turning what you’re doing into a rock song.
“I just tried to find something in each song we did that would make for a good solo arrangement.”
It’s also easy to get caught up in the ageless clarity of the instruments and musicianship on “Chameleon.” In fact, much of the record has such a fluid yet rustic sound, especially when the vintage instruments are employed, that you tend to overlook the often-contemporary slant of the lyrics.
A prime example is “Phantom Phone Call.” The tune is performed on the Micelli fiddle and possesses a striking, almost antique tonality. No other instrument is present to battle with, so the solo fiddle sounds even more ageless - until O’Brien warps the old-timey mood with a parable about missed cell-phone calls.
From there, the songs alternate between worldly and whimsical and run from the darkly political to the richly celebratory. Still, after a listen to “Chameleon,” that one word is left hanging in the air - bluegrass.
It’s a sound that helped establish O’Brien’s career. But like most of the solo albums he has recorded in the wake of Hot Rize, it’s simply one of many components that make up his music.
“I continued to play to the bluegrass crowd after I left Hot Rize,” O’Brien said. “And they’re a great crowd, too. I wouldn’t have a career without them. So in that regard, I’m pretty lucky.
“But what I’m doing isn’t particularly bluegrass. I just like to play music that cooks along, you know? I’m always looking for variety, so I keep changing things up. But it always comes back to the basic elements of American roots music. It’s the blues and bluegrass, country music and jazz, a little of this and little of that.
“The songs come through the instruments. They adjust to the instruments. These old guitars and mandolins, they’ve just got some kind of story they want to tell you. There is a soul inside of them waiting to come out.”