Tim O' Brien

by Frank Goodman
Here is a national treasure in the making. Although he's already a staggering 21 CDs into the game, that's probably half of what he's going to do in this lifetime. Lord only knows how many records he has appeared on with other artists.

Tim O'Brien's such an American classic that most descriptions of who he is or what he does almost inevitably sound like cliches. He is a consummate self taught musician, adept at many instruments: guitar, mandolin, fiddle, and bouzouki, an instrument which he and luthier Mike Kemnitzer are revolutionizing. [Find out more at mandolincafe.com]

He's already lived a number of what could be called musical lives. He made six records with his legendary bluegrass ensemble Hot Rize (including a brand new one, So Long of a Journey, on Sugar Hill records. It's smokin.). Their alter-ego group, Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers, recorded two CDs. Then there are three beautiful records with his sister Mollie, a bluegrass figure in her own right. Add a CD with the O'Boys, one with his buddy Darrell Scott, two that best exemplify a cross pollination of Irish and American artists, and you're up to fifteen. There's an excellent old timey record originally meant to accompany the brilliant Civil War novel Cold Mountain, called Songs from the Mountain which we discuss in the interview. Lastly, there are 5 solo CDs. Pardon me, but I haven't met that many people who have 21 albums out and probably over 20 years to go, by the looks of him.

I'm listening to the new Hot Rize CD as I write this, it's a live concert from the Boulder Theater in 1996, and they didn't know anybody was taping. It's one of the last flatpicking testaments of the much revered and beloved guitarist Charles Sawtelle, who died of cancer a few years later. Do yourself a favor, take this link to the Sugar Hill website and buy it. It's hard to believe that all this music happened in two nights in front of a hometown crowd, it's phenomenal bluegrass. All three surviving members of the group contribute liner notes that made me feel like a member of the group, and Tim O'Brien's say a lot about him and how he felt about his dear departed friend.

Tim took the most of an hour out of his very busy schedule to talk with Puremusic about his career and some of the musical paths he's been down. We met at 9 a.m. at his place over coffee; in an hour he had to be at a rehearsal for a gig that night. It's a beautiful home, full of instruments and the sound and feel of family. You certainly couldn't tell from the outside that one of the finest acoustic musicians in the country, or in the whole world, lived there. For that matter, you couldn't tell that from the demeanor of the man who was bringing you a cup of coffee.

Check out some clips of Tim's music on our Listen page. We will include two from the recent Hot Rize CD, two from Two Journeys (part two of the Irish-American project), one from Real Time with Darrell Scott, and the title song from a great solo record, When No One's Around. That way, you can figure out which facet of this great American artist you may want to check out first. Most all of Tim's recordings are available for purchase at his website.   continue to interview