[10 October 2005]
Tim O’Brien lives in Nashville, but he does not wear a hat. He does, however, play the guitar, the banjo, the mandolin, the fiddle, and the bouzouki. Does he sing with a twang, you ask? Sure, if it’s what’s called for. But he also speaks with an intimacy and delicacy that would make, say, Tim McGraw blush.
In fact, there’s a decent argument that Tim O’Brien stands—happily and easily—at the exact crossroads of what makes American “country music” so great. Which to say, he’s not a commercial “Nashville” or “country” artist at all. He draws from gospel, old-timey, bluegrass, world, folk, blues, and swing music to create a vision of authentic Americana that is the equal of anyone recording today. Fiddler’s Green and Cornbread Nation are a pair of simultaneous releases on Sugar Hill Records (home to Dolly Parton’s excellent bluegrass projects as well as Nickel Creek’s genre-expanding work) that expose O’Brien as a wizardly singer, player and collector of classic tunes. The only problems with these records are: (a) deciding which one to buy, and (b) getting numbed by their eclectic shifts across O’Brien’s considerable range.
Cornbread Nation contains all kinds of great music, most of it traditional in origin but not necessarily given similar or traditional treatment. Some tracks feature electric guitar leads (“Hold On” and “The Foggy Foggy Dew”), but neither is either Garth Brooks modern country or even Presley-reminiscent rockabilly. Other tracks sound deeply traditional yet still defy category—such as “Let’s Go Huntin’”, which let’s O’Brien cry like a back country ol’ boy but also features a dash of Cajun-flavored accordion. “Busted” lays on the countrified pedal steel so O’Brien can dig into his trad-country bag, but “House of the Rising Sun” incorporates part of Alison Krauss’s “Union Station” band (Jerry Douglas and Dan Tyminski) to give the much-loved standard a bluegrass treatment, complete with stacked vocal harmonies that’ll clog your arteries with succulent richness.
Fiddler’s Green is a different affair, but only in the sense that its eclecticism covers a different swath of O’Brien’s mammoth talent. While Cornbread includes the electric guitar and occasional saxophone, Fiddler’s cops to including a dash of Irish whistle and more hand percussion. The title track is a sailor’s song where Tim sounds a mite like Gordon Lightfoot—a songwriter he covers with “Early Morning Rain”. This disc also gives the listener a dose of instrumental music—“Land’s End / Chasin’ Talon” and “First Snow” being Irish and bluegrass breakdowns that need no excuses and won’t have you reaching for a remote control. A more traditional affair, Fiddler’s includes a duet with classical/country master Edgar Meyer and two tunes on which O’Brien is accompanied only by his own guitar or fiddle.
But whether Tim O’Brien is laid relatively bare or decked out in slightly more contemporary duds, the artistry is the same. He’s a kid from West Virginia who headed west with the biggest ears any American could have. The kid found himself equally at home in a church in the American south, along an Appalachian ridge or near a bog in County Claire. He formed the band Hot Rize in 1978, then started recording solo six years later, rising to become the most versatile if not the most visible member of an Americana scene that probably wouldn’t exist if he wasn’t there to help fuel it.
So, if you dig Alison Krauss but you don’t know what other bluegrass is cool…. If you’ve heard Nickel Creek but liked their first, more traditional album best…. If you started as a Dylan fan and have gotten interested in his exploration of country and folk roots…. If you like a taste of The Chieftains or the hip almost-country vibe of Lyle Lovett…. If you think Nebraska is Springsteen’s best…. Then you owe it to yourself to get to know Tim O’Brien.
He’s not Tim McGraw. No hat. No synthesizers behind the fiddle player. No NASCAR bullcrap or cheesy songs bathed in commercially calculated patriotism. Just stuff like “Buffalo Skinners”—a guy with an acoustic guitar, a good story, and a voice as American and elastic as Louis Armstrong’s, if in a different bag.
That is to say: Just good music. Lots of really good American music.