Stuck in a rut along the songline
Tim O’Brien is a virtuoso of sorts. Whether it be on guitar, bouzouki or his more familiar, signature instrument the mandolin, O’Brien’s restrained but inspired play has earned him quite a reputation in Nashville and his former home of Boulder, Colorado.
O’Brien first gained acclaim for his role in the innovative bluegrass band Hot Rize (From 1979 to 1990) and has played with the likes of the Ophelia String Band, the Flattheads, New Grange and his own group, the O’Boys. Most recently, he added a compelling layer to some of most complete songs on Scott Miller’s Upside Downside, an album that achieved mixed results.
Yet, O’Brien’s solo work hasn’t been quite as rewarding as his contributions to other records. His mix of bluegrass, jam band and traditional country and folk is nice enough, but seldom rises above unnoticeable background coffeehouse fare.
Two Journeys (2002) explored O’Brien Irish heritage, melding the not-too-different Celtic and Bluegrass styles into a sound that while distinctly O’Brien, did little more than offer a somewhat interesting footnote to his career. In 1999, he unveiled The Crossing, which also had an Irish influence, with the help of stalwarts like Earl Scruggs, Del McCoury, and Guy Clark. It was an album comfortable in its bluegrass traditions while still seeming to forge new ground. The distinction between traditional and modern may have been slight, but it was there.
The same can be said for Traveler, an album with one foot planted in the past and the other stepping into the “now”. It’s a nice enough effort with undeniably pleasant songs. It’s a comfort album. But it suffers from the same affliction of most of O’Brien’s solo work—its passion and its diligent consciousness of the genre’s roots are both the album’s strength and its weakness. O’Brien, like a lot of bluegrass/jam band hybrid, musicians believe strongly in his craft and the culture that surrounds it. It’s comfortable ground for those not looking to break out from the genre’s definition, but it does little to excite or inspire.
“Kelly Joe’s Shoes”, the album’s opener, is a perfect example. A song about how O’Brien came to wear his signature black top sneakers, it’s both a musical and cultural statement. It’s about traveling, of course, and learning about where you’ve been and what you’ve learned by the frayed and worn nature of Chuck Taylor’s. But it’s a maddeningly predictable song, lyrically and musically. It meanders without much direction. What do we learn by the end? Traveling is good. Chuck Taylor’s are good.
In the liner notes of the CD, O’Brien explains how this record was inspired by trips to Italy, the Delta, his garage office and his old hometown. And while explaining all of this, which really makes little sense when you put it all together, he manages to throw in a well-placed aside about how is wife just bought a new VW Beetle convertible. That aside points, though, to significant issue in O’Brien’s solo catalogue—he lives in a world that is comfortable, banal and cliché and it shows up in the music.
On “Forty-Nine Keep on Talking”, for instance, he sings of driving from Memphis across the Mississippi state line. The chorus does little more than repeat the bluegrass/hippie mantra: “Some roads are made for drivin’ fast, some roads are made for walkin’ / Some roads are made to ease my mind, forty-nine keep on talkin’”. Things don’t get much more complex on “Travelers”, a song that again is more about a life aesthetic than anything that feels real or authentic: “We are but travelers on a road without end / Searching for signs that the spirit may send / There are few answers in this life I’m afraid / Only more questions from this world that he made”.
O’Brien is someone that believes in the soul and the beauty of the world. It’s refreshing in this Age of Iron(y), a place as J.D. Salinger wrote in Franny and Zooey where “anyone over the age of 16 without an ulcer is a goddam spy.” But it also is over simplistic viewpoint, one that doesn’t seem to make room for the ugly alongside the divine. And it’s not just a lyric problem. The music is antiseptic, too clean and perfect. Maybe that’s one of the problems with being as technically proficient as O’Brien is or maybe it’s a reflection of that life view. In the liner notes, he talks of learning from Australian Aboriginals about how life is a “songline”. “You go on your walkabout,” as O’Brien says, “and you become that line. It defines you, and that’s your song.” It’s a thought that may be comforting for him, but it doesn’t add much to an art form, one that relies on seeing things in a new and enlightening way each time out. Unlike his pleading in those same liner notes to “leave room on the itinerary for the unplanned,” O’Brien seems stuck on the same walkabout, the same line of the song.