Restless bluegrass troubadour
One of the most versatile, creative and restless talents in bluegrass music today is coming to Corydon.
Tim O’Brien, a singer, songwriter and instrumentalist from Nashville, Tenn., will be the headliner on Saturday, June 25, in the first of three Bluegrass on the Square concerts. The third annual series of concerts ‘ the others are July 23 and Aug. 27’ is sponsored by Main Street Corydon, the Harrison County Community Foundation, and the Harrison County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
O’Brien, 51, will share the Hurley D. Conrad Memorial Bandstand with three other accomplished musicians, all well-regarded Nashville session artists: Dennis Crouch, Bryan Sutton and Stuart Duncan.
Bluegrass 101 will kick off the June 25 program at 4 p.m. O’Brien and the others will come on at 6 p.m.
O’Brien is a native of Wheeling, W.Va. He acknowledges that bluegrass is his ‘base’ or foundation, but his music spreads out and includes or ‘brings to the front’ his interest in rock ‘n’ roll, pop, country, folk, blues, Celtic, zydeco and jazz. ‘It’s ‘roots’ music, with bluegrass instrumentation,’ he said during a recent telephone interview.
Listen to his ‘Traveler’ album (August 2003) and you might hear the influence of folk music, Bob Dylan, Steve Goodman (‘City of New Orleans’), Doc Watson, John Denver, Celtic musicianship and Appalachian mountain music. As you might guess by now, O’Brien doesn’t like to set boundaries or get pigeonholed. He said he resists the old ‘cabin on the mountainside, gospel music’ bluegrass forumula. Listen to him play the guitar, fiddle, and octave mandolin (also known as the Corrado bouzouki), and you wonder how one person can be so accomplished in so many different ways.
O’Brien’s restless road songs on his autobiographical ‘Traveler’ CD are as much about spiritual and emotional trips as they are about real journeys. His spare ballads about relationships gone bad are forthright, painful and full of insight.
‘You have to accept yourself through your art,’ he said. ‘If I reveal stuff about my own life and the audience is able to relate it to their own lives, then I’ve done my job.’
His whimsical song about a pair of black Chuck Taylor basketball shoes is Cajun at heart and delightful.
O’Brien said he hasn’t played any ‘town square’ gigs in a long time but Sean Hawkins insisted he come to Corydon. ‘I hear it’s a pretty little place,’ O’Brien said. Hawkins, the community development manager for the CVB, is a diehard bluegrass music afficianado who’s seen O’Brien in venues all over the country. It was Hawkins’ idea to have O’Brien perform here with Crouch, Sutton and Duncan.
O’Brien said Crouch is an upright bass player who took up where the legendary Roy Husky left off. Sutton is a studio guitar player who grew up in the bluegrass world. Duncan is an in-demand session player, ‘a real phenomenon on the fiddle with extraordinary credentials,’ O’Brien said. Duncan is also a founding member of the Nashville Bluegrass Band.
‘We are all kindred spirits,’ O’Brien said. ‘We’ve worked here and there together. It should be a lot of fun.’
O’Brien will do a smattering of traditional songs whose authors are not known, some Dylan material (from his popular Dylan CD, ‘Red on Blonde’), and some of his new music, which will be released this fall on two CDs, ‘Cornbread Nation’ and ‘Fiddlers Green.’
O’Brien has written scores of songs, recorded 30 albums and appeared in hundreds of other artists’ records, Hawkins said. Over the past 30 years O’Brien has been nominated for three Grammys, and he won the 1993 International Bluegrass Music Association Male Vocalist of the Year. His songs have been covered by the Dixie Chicks, Garth Brooks, Kathy Mattea and Nickle Creek.
O’Brien grew up in Wheeling listening to the Beatles, Dylan and then folk music. As a teenager, he became aware of the ‘accessibility’ of folk music. He saw Doc Watson on TV and bought a Flatt and Scruggs instrumental album. He began to realize that this music was ‘the real deal’ and his interest was intensifed by attending the WWVA radio jamboree in Wheeling.
He started college in Maine but soon realized that he loved music more than studying ‘Beowulf.’ He took off for points west and, along the way, met Goodman in Chicago, who encouraged and validated his choice of careers.
In 1978, O’Brien met the men with whom he would eventually form Hot Rize, which recorded six albums together and was a well-respected bluegrass group for 20 years.
In ‘Songs from the Mountains’ (released the summer of 1999), O’Brien and two other musicians, Dirk Powell and John Herrmann, pay tribute to traditional music and Charles Frazier’s best-selling novel, ‘Cold Mountain.’ O’Brien’s music can be heard in the soundtrack of the movie of the same name.