Tim O’Brien is a seminal bluegrass artist and a founding member of the band Hot Rize. After moving to Boulder in the 1970s, he quickly found friends in the local picking scene. After a run-in with Charles Sawtelle and Peter Wernick, Hot Rize was formed and they began their storied career. They toured the globe and eventually became known as “the greatest show in bluegrass.” Their love of Western music made way for the inclusion Red Knuckles & The Trailblazers as part of the live Hot Rize show. Tim O’Brien would don sunglasses, a cattleman shirt and belt out his signature baritone as Red. It’s just one of the many antics that drew fans to Hot Rize in the first place. Perhaps O’Brien is best known for penning songs such as “Nellie Kane” and “The Sweetest Song I Sing,” but his career has given him countless opportunities for unique collaborations. O’Brien has a new group and a new album — both go by the name Tim O’Brien Band. With songs penned by Norman Blake, Woody Guthrie and Black Keys’ drummer Dan Auerbach, this new endeavor is sure to be an eclectic mix from this acclaimed musician. The album is out March 15 and Tim will perform with his full band at the Armory in Fort Collins on March 31. We caught up with Tim to talk about his new band and his amazing career.
Questions by Nicholas Stock
Answers by Tim O’Brien.
NS:You grew up in small-town America listening to Bob Dylan and Jamboree USA on WWVA. How did hearing both the country and the pop of your generation simultaneously shape your approach music?
TO: I listened to and learned from every kind of music I could find. My parents bought me student-priced season tickets to the Wheeling Symphony. I heard jazz and folk music at the Oglebay Park Amphitheater summer concert series. Mom took me and my sister to see the Beatles in Pittsburgh. My brother brought home Ray Charles and Joan Baez records from college, and my sister pointed out that Dylan wrote the Peter Paul and Mary songs we sang together. Dad would drop 14-year-old me off at the Jamboree, where I’d buy a cheap seat and stay for both shows. So I guess I just followed my nose on some invisible path between Van Cliburn, Count Basie and Merle Haggard. Still following it.
NS: You are naturally left-handed, but you play your instruments right-handed. Why?
TO: A sixth-grade friend and his brother had guitars before I did, and I just imitated them. I learned how to fret the low string lick on the Peter Gunn theme and never looked back. Glad I learned right-handed. You gotta use both hands anyway, unless your Eddie Van Halen, and it’s a lot easier to buy or borrow an instrument.
NS: You started performing live with your sister at a pretty young age and have since made a number of albums together. What was it like to work so closely with family?
TO: Mollie and I were the youngest two of five, we were the red-headed ones, and the left-handed ones, and the most musical ones maybe. She used to write and put on plays early in grade school, and she had me play various little parts. In church, I’d sing harmony and she’d look at me funny like, “What are you doing?” Then when I started playing guitar, we sang Beatles and Peter Paul and Mary for fun. When she followed me to Boulder in the ’70s, we were just continuing on.
NS: Hot Rize has become a seminal influence on the bluegrass scene. What was it like to come together with Pete, Nick, and Charles? Did it feel big at the time?
TO: It was a step up. Charles was very soulful and Pete had his best-selling banjo book and they’d both recorded and toured nationally. We struggled to find our voice and our place as a band, but it seemed like it was possible to do something good and keep doing it.
NS: I’m sure you’ve been asked before but what was your initial reaction when you learned that Phish was covering “Nellie Kane?”
TO: Did you ever hear what Bill Monroe said to Elvis Presley when he sang “Blue Moon on Kentucky” on the Opry when he was first coming up? Elvis was worried Monroe wouldn’t like the way he’d changed it up, but Bill told him that if it would help him, he should do it. I don’t know if he had an inkling about what Elvis would become, or if he winked. Phish ain’t Elvis but they’re nothing shabby and I had the same reaction as Mr. Monroe.
I met Mike Gordon at Telluride Bluegrass one year, and he said he had a rock band that played at the Fox Theater and they played “Nellie Kane” sometimes. A couple years later, I rode with him to Red Rocks, through lines of cars waiting to get in, and then got up on stage and played the song with them in their first set. After the break, I went out to watch them jump on trampolines and thought well, this is working!
NS: Who are Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers? How did you meet them?
TO: We were driving north through Wyoming and stopped at the border with Montana for lunch. They were playing along with a Faron Young song on the jukebox. The next song was by Hank Thompson and they played along with that, too, and just kept on as the records switched. We looked at each other, thought, that’s weird. When we came back through, we stopped again and they were still at it. Seemed like we needed to help them get out of there.
NS: Hot Rize recently embarked on a 40th-anniversary tour that bookended with shows at The Boulder Theater. It’s my understanding that Hot Rize has no further tours planned. Is this the end of Hot Rize?
TO: We’re not saying never ever again, but we’ve got various things going on in our own careers. We put in a fairly strong four years in the middle of all that, making two records and reviving the brand. I think we’re all proud of what we did but don’t see the need to prove anything right now.
NS: You’ve been a frontman and a sideman, but your career has been full of interesting collaborations. How did your collaboration with Kathy Mattea come about? How did you meet Kris Drever?
TO: Kathy and I met and collaborated when we both taped a Mountain Stage radio show in WV in 1985. She was just coming up as an artist, and she soon recorded three of my songs in those early years, and we even released a duet single in 1990. She called a year and a half ago and asked if I could help produce a new record. It was going to be just her and her guitarist, as she performs in the format a lot these days. But as we went along it becomes more of an Americana sounding thing with various other players. She worked hard on it and it shows.
I met Kris Drever when he was playing bass on a show with Kate Rusby and John McCusker in around 2002. He is a lovely musician and I loved recording his record with McCusker in the producer chair. I played the Orkney Folk Fest with him in 2009, which was a dream because I had long wanted to go there, and Kris is a native.
NS: Who are the Earls of Leicester? Tell me about your involvement with that project.
TO: The Earls is the brainchild of Jerry Douglas. He did a session with Charlie Cushman and Johnny Warren, and was inspired because the three together sounded like the front line of his favorite bluegrass band – Flatt and Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys. I was recruited to sing Curly Seckler’s tenor parts and play the mandolin. Barry Bailes, from AKUS, joined to play Jake Landers on bass, and Sean Camp was drafted to do Lester Flatt’s parts. Jerry gets to play Josh Graves. We all knew those parts already, but playing together with that intention was like playing an old record, except you’re actually down in the grooves of it. It was really fun to record and play shows, but I had to choose between Hot Rize and them because Hot Rize’s record was just coming out. Jeff White is now filling my former role.
NS: You have a new album coming out this month. Tell me about it.
TO: The record’s title is “Tim O’Brien Band.” I know it’s pretty catchy! I’m the guitarist in this band, which brings me back to when I was 18 and learning how to play the music. My band is killer – Jan Fabricius sings wonderful close harmony, Mike Bub is the old standby on bass, Shad Cobb has his own voice as a fiddler, and Patrick Sauber is a wonder on banjo. We do gospel, blues, an old cowboy song, some Irish tunes, and some of my songs, all within a bluegrass lineup. It’s a very versatile band with so much potential. I feel like I’m able to expand the palette and still be true to bluegrass and its fans.
NS: What are the Short Order Sessions?
TO: Jan and I started that three years ago and we released singles every month for two years. I liked the immediacy of it, plus I was inspired by old field recordings where you just capture a nice informal snapshot. It’s mostly dormant now, but it was fun to be able to record something and release it within a few weeks without a lot of hassle or pressure. It has nearly paid off! You can listen to the tracks on iTunes and read about them at timobrien.net.
NS: You have a solo show coming up at the Armory this month. What can we expect? What comes next for Tim O’Brien?
TO: The band will be there at the Armory so watch out! It’s gonna be a joy. We’re excited to play the new record material for folks. I don’t know what’s next, but I do want to write a bunch of songs. It’s time again.
Lear from Tim Monday 4/1/2019 / 5:30-8:00 pm MST at a Master Class with The Tim O’Brien Band Recycled Songs and Making Old Music New, Music District Fort Collins, CO.
See Tim live at the Armory Sun · March 31, 2019 Doors: 6:00 pm / Show: 7:00 pm.