It’s been nearly a year since Tim O’Brien made his “Springsteen move” — releasing two albums simultaneously — so, needless to say, he’s not looking to “saturate” the market by putting out another new disc anytime soon.
Of course, we’re only being tongue-in-cheek when we pose the notion of a country-roots cult figure like O’Brien saturating the market. His music is way too steeped in authentic folk, bluegrass, trad-country and progressive newgrass to ever catch on with the mainstream-pop audience. That’s mostly because mass taste is too … well … massy to appreciate anything as genuinely soulful and deeply rooted as O’Brien’s wide-ranging take on traditional American music.
He appreciates the “saturate” joke, however, and quips, “Yeah, I’m not in a hurry to put another one out, that’s for sure.
“But I am doing a lot of writing, and I’ve got a couple of production jobs and soundtrack gigs coming up that I can’t really talk about yet, but they’re pretty good ones.”
That’s good news — because the more people who know about O’Brien outside of bluegrass/country-folk circles, the better. This is a guy who can knock your socks off on either the mandolin or the fiddle, and whose high-lonesome vocals sound like they were handed down directly from Bill Monroe or Carter Stanley.
And as evidenced by many of his solo discs, his songwriting talent is amazingly versatile, ranging from the lyrical incisiveness of the folk-music idiom to the broader country-pop style that, in the late 1980s, won him a Nashville major-label deal — before the whole thing collapsed when the folks who brought him into the RCA Nashville stable moved on to other gigs, leaving him high and dry. The disc that was to be his major-label debut was never released, but some of the tunes, like the swooning “Romance is a Slow Dance,” were rescued, and appeared on his actual solo debut, 1991’s Odd Man In, on Sugar Hill.
“In retrospect, it was the best thing,” recalls O’Brien, who plays Canton’s recently re-opened Colonial Theatre on Thursday, as part of the city’s 100th Labor Day anniversary celebration. “I remember when I landed that deal, a friend of mine said, ‘Oh, so this means you’re going to be really famous for a really short time?'”
As opposed to, of course, being “somewhat famous” for a very long time, which is usually the case with talented bluegrass/newgrass/country-folk artists, who may not sell more than 20- or 30,000 copies of each record, but whose fans stay with them for the long haul. Compare that with the fickle pop-music audience, which ardently laps up the flavor of the month, only to move on when the industry concocts a new flavor.
Opening fresh veins
But we digress. Back to O’Brien’s “Springsteen move” — when he simultaneously released Cornbread Nation and Fiddler’s Green last Sept. 13 (which, by the way, is Bill Monroe’s birthday). Together, the discs represent a sprawling survey of American music, traced back to its roots — in some cases, back to Ireland. Between them, the two albums span trad-folk, bluegrass, country, gospel, Celtic, old-timey, acoustic blues and the newgrass style that O’Brien helped to pioneer as the front man for Hot Rize from 1978-’92. (The band still does a couple of reunion concerts a year.)
Except, O’Brien didn’t start out thinking he would make two records. Instead, his intent was to plumb the roots of traditional American music, to trace its DNA to show how it’s all interconnected. He definitely succeeded, because Fiddler’s Green won a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album.
“Every record I ever made has had at least one traditional tune on it, so this time, instead of taking short dips in that giant pond, I decided I would dive in and swim around, because that vein is so rich, and there’s so much material,” says O’Brien by phone from his office in Nashville. “I wanted to make a record that had a wide spectrum — with some songs that were trad tunes, and some that had guitars and drums, and some with just my voice, and everything in between, from country to blues to Irish to gospel.”
It wasn’t until he’d recorded almost 20 tracks that he realized he had a two-disc “project” on his hands. “I guess you could say it went ‘too well,'” suggests O’Brien. “Everything was coming out great.” So, rather than release it as a pricier set, he chose to parcel the tunes into separate CDs, each with its own general theme. Cornbread Nation became the repository for the more electrified, Southern tunes — including some country-rock and rockabilly — while Fiddler’s Green bundled together tunes from the Appalachian, Celtic, old-timey and bluegrass realms.
The moods of the two albums differ as well. Cornbread Nation is sprightly and energetic, while Fiddler’s Green is somber, probing topics like war, death, the afterlife, and hard times.
Some of the trad tunes O’Brien delivers on Cornbread Nation — adding his own, new arrangements — are a country-funky rendition of “Walkin’ Boss,” a sassy version of “Let’s Go Hunting,” a rousing, soul-stirring performance of the gospel classic “Moses” and an elbow-in-the-ribs rendition of “The Foggy Foggy Dew,” complete with a loungey-sounding sax part.
“Yeah, the version I chose was the arrangement Burl Ives used, and about halfway through I decided to make it sort of a send-up,” says O’Brien with a dry laugh. “I was sort of thinking of Dean Martin when we added the sax.”
He also tackles the challenge of bringing something new to “House of the Rising Sun,” and adds a few originals, including “Runnin’ Out of Memory” — in which he cleverly strings together a series of comical double-entendres that also lampoon computer-geek jargon.
On Fiddler’s Green, meanwhile, he rifles through the trad-music canon and also comes up with supple new arrangements for the plaintive “Foreign Lander,” the poignant “Pretty Fair Maid in the Garden” and the bittersweet “Fair Flowers of the Valley” — which he commingles with a few of his original tunes that sound so ancient you’d swear they were written 400 years ago.
“Yeah, there’s something pretty cool about imitating past forms, and doing it well, and even stretching ’em a little bit,” says O’Brien.
Fiddler’s Green also offers up a couple of covers, including a bluegrass take on “Long Black Veil,” a song written by Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin in 1959 and covered dozens of times — although probably best known to the rock audience via The Band’s haunting version in 1968. “That’s a good example of what I was talking about,” stresses O’Brien. “A lot of people think that’s an old traditional song that dates back 100 years, but it was actually less than 10 years old when the Band did it.”
It’s fitting that O’Brien should be playing Canton’s 100th-anniversary celebration, since the town is in the same county as Cold Mountain, and O’Brien produced and played on Songs from the Mountain, a CD that was a “pre-soundtrack,” if you will, for the movie Cold Mountain. (Songs was inspired by Charles Frazier’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.)
O’Brien’s calling card continues to be his versatility — the way he can turn on a dime and veer from one style to another and handle each with equal aplomb. When he was fronting Hot Rize, it would have been easy for the band to exclusively play straight bluegrass, but O’Brien and his creatively restless band mates also forged into the jazz-inspired progressive/newgrass territory, helping to expanding the genre’s musical vocabulary.
“Yeah, we were really inspired by Bill Monroe in that regard,” he effuses. “Today we think of him as a traditional-music guy, but at the time, he was a mad inventor — he was really breaking down the walls.”
Although he’s not working on a new record at present, O’Brien is always writing, and on this particular day, he has just written a satirical/political song, “The Water is Rising,” which he’s posted on the firmly left-leaning country-music Web site MusicRowDemocrats.com. (Other song contributors are Nanci Griffith, Darrell Scott, Shawn Camp, Raul Malo and The Mavericks.) “It all came to me in about 45 minutes,” reveals O’Brien.
“The tide has turned down here, and a lot of Nashville musicians are now a lot less nervous about coming out and declaring that they’re Democrats, and that they’re opposed to the war,” he continues. “That Web site is a good one. There’s about 20 songs you can download, and the way things are going with the current administration, I’m sure there will be a lot more up there in the months to come.”
[Writer and critic Kevin Ransom first wrote about Tim O’Brien in 1992. He can be reached at email@example.com]
As part of Canton’s 100th Labor Day Anniversary Celebration, Tim O’Brien plays the Colonial Theatre in downtown Canton (53 Park St.) at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 31. $8. Trevor and Travis Stuart, with Martha Scanlon (Reeltime Travelers), open the show. Call 646-3412 for advance tickets and more information.