On multi-instrumentalist Tim O’Brien’s Web-based tour journal, he tells the story of how an equipment malfunction worked to his advantage. The roots musician was playing Glasgow, Scotland’s Celtic Connections Festival with roots-fusion group the Duhks. During an encore that ended with Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love,” “the batteries on my mandolin preamp died, resulting in one of those perfect rock ‘n’ roll accidents. The mando suddenly sounded like it was coming though a Marshall stack turned up to 11.”
And now, O’Brien is on the phone telling Xpress exactly how low fidelity his new album, Chameleon (Proper American, 2008), is.
“I wanted to bring the music into the kitchen, sort of,” he explains, bringing to mind those fabled kitchen jams that warm up long cold nights in the British Isles and Canadian provinces. “Just across the kitchen table from you, or in the living room, or back porch, or that kind of thing.”
That said, it seems appropriate for O’Brien to make an early tour stop at Asheville’s Grey Eagle, a club, he says, that, “reminds me of the old folk clubs where it was just an idea that took hold. It feels right in there.” In keeping with that vibe, the low-key, all-acoustic solo album boasts nary a Marshall stack and is as far from a rock-star endeavor as a roots musician could hope to get. Yet, the 16 tracks are not without rock sensibility.
“Fast, slow, rock ‘n’ roll, bluegrass, country. You just kind of look for the right balance of all those elements,” O’Brien says. His process for crafting the album, his 16th in a career spanning 30 years, was similar to performing on stage.
“You don’t have to talk with anybody about how the arrangement goes, you just do it,” he chuckles. “You’re kind of playing all this stuff and singing all this stuff. I do that on stage for up to two hours at a time, but doing it in the studio, there’s a little bit of work there. I was definitely tired at the end of the day, but it was good fun.”
The big question, he says, was always what instrument to play to achieve the intricate layers and textures found on Chameleon. Besides being an accomplished singer/songwriter, O’Brien (who cut his teeth with bluegrass band Hot Rize in the 1970s) plays guitar, fiddle, mandolin, mandocello and bouzouki—a Greek-derived big brother to the mandolin.
“This is a way to play the mandolin but it’s better for solo performances because it’s lower range and more supportive to a vocal,” the musician explains. Often the bouzouki is linked to traditional Celtic music, but O’Brien sees it as an up-and-coming choice for acoustic instrumentalists. “It sounds like a 12-string on a lot of songs,” he says. “It’s surprising how much it’s used. You hear it on all kinds of records, whether it’s John Mellencamp or some country release out of Nashville.”
Though O’Brien grew up in West Virginia, he now calls Nashville home. Still, his music is a long way from the slick commercial country associated with that city. “In Nashville, there are people making appointments to write together all the time, and their aim is to write for the marketplace and write these love songs you hear on country radio. It leaves a lot of the spectrum out,” he explains. Of his own songs, he muses, they’re “more in the introspective realm of subject matter.”
But being able to write and sell those personal songs isn’t something O’Brien takes for granted. He gives props to his “small but loyal following,” crediting them with “hanging with” his proclivity for jumping from Irish to old time to traditional styles. “They’re also ready for more original songs. It’s kind of a nice luxury. I’ve maintained this audience, and they’re really supportive and forgiving, and they’re willing to take a chance. That’s freed me up to do all kinds of things, including this.”
Also credited for supporting his newest endeavor is his newest label, the British-founded Proper American. O’Brien explains that the European attitude toward traditional music is more inclusive. “In the U.S., country music means what’s on country radio,” he explains. “Abroad, it means the whole spectrum. And they’re actually just as interested in the old stuff as the new stuff … When [Brit folk musician] Elvis Costello came to the Ryman Auditorium to play the [Grand Ole] Opry, he sang all these old Bill Anderson songs. He showed a real knowledge of the history that even some of the Opry performers these days don’t know.”
Similarly, Proper American, though a small label, has rereleased the recordings of songwriters Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, the minds behind mega-star Aretha Franklin’s hit tunes. The label also released the O’Brien-produced disc Always Lift Him Up, a tribute to West Virginian Blind Alfred Reed. “It’s a valuable thing they’re doing,” the songwriter says.
who: Tim O’Brien
what: Roots and folk multi-instrumentalist
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Friday, Mar. 28 (9 p.m., $20 advance, $23 day of show. Info: 232-5800)