Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott met several years ago when their publishers put them together to try co-writing. The song they came up with, “Daddy’s on the Roof Again,” wound up on O’Brien’s 1995 CD, Rock in My Shoe.
A New Year’s Eve jam session at Sam Bush’s house, as 1996 became 1997, further cemented their creative relationship. They found common ground on a Bob Dylan song, “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power).”
On O’Brien’s next record, When No One’s Around, Scott played guitar. The title track (a song actually titled “When There’s No One Around”) was co-written by O’Brien and Scott and ended up on Garth Brooks’ 1997 release, Sevens.
The duo finally locked in as a performing team in the spring of 1998, when O’Brien, scheduled to do a tour of England and Ireland, went looking for a compatible partner to split the bill with him each night.
“We ended up, on the second night, playing everything together, and it just kinda went from there,” O’Brien says during an interview at Scott’s house in rural Wilson County. “Of anybody I’ve ever played with, Darrell doesn’t really need to know the song. There was no problem getting it together. It was just play whatever you wanted to play and he would be on it, and I was able to follow along easily with the mandolin on his stuff.”
Now O’Brien and Scott have released Real Time, a 13-track collection of acoustic music recorded in Scott’s living room and issued on O’Brien’s Howdy Skies label. The collection features both original compositions and arrangements of traditional folk, country and gospel numbers.
The duo makes full use of the range of instruments they play. Among O’Brien’s arsenal are mandola, guitar, bouzouki, banjo, mandolin, fiddle, harmonica and toy trombone. Scott contributes mandolin, banjo, guitar, Hawaiian guitar, kazoo and toy fiddle.
Equally accomplished as singers, they entwine their voices on an a cappella version of the Hank Williams Sr. sacred tune “A House of Gold,” on Scott’s lascivious coming-of-age reflection “Helen of Troy, Pennsylvania,” and on the traditional murder ballad “Little Sadie,” among others.
“The approach is just playing music, as opposed to, ‘What are we doing? How should we position ourselves and how should we pose?’” O’Brien says. “You kind of strip away all those bothersome conditions.”
Both O’Brien and Scott have been through situations in which “bothersome conditions” prevailed. O’Brien, a West Virginia native, migrated to Colorado where he played in a number of bluegrass bands before winding up in Hot Rize from 1978-1990. He released his first solo album, Hard Year Blues, in 1984. Kathy Mattea had Top 10 country hits with two O’Brien compositions: “Walk the Way the Wind Blows” in 1986 and “Untold Stories” in 1988. Briefly, O’Brien was signed to RCA Records, but an album was never released. Hot Rize was named Entertainer of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association in 1990, the year the band called it quits, and O’Brien was named IBMA Male Vocalist of the Year in 1993.
Scott’s roots are in London, Ky., though his family moved to Indiana and settled in California while he was still a kid. In part, his musical versatility comes from years of playing in honky tonks in Alaska, Southern California and Canada. After earning an English degree at Tufts he moved to Nashville and he has played sessions with Martina McBride, Guy Clark, Randy Travis and Pam Tillis, among others. He released his first solo album, Aloha From Nashville, in 1997.
The two are a winning pair. In addition to the Brooks track, “When There’s No One Around,” they also have a cut, “Heartbreak Town,” on the Dixie Chicks’ new album, Fly. Those successes have allowed them to do other projects, like Real Time and like O’Brien’s recent solo efforts, The Crossing, which traced his Irish roots, and Songs From the Mountain, inspired by the award-winning novel, Cold Mountain. They also have toured with Steve Earle, playing bluegrass songs as The Bluegrass Dukes.
“That gives you freedom,” O’Brien says of their mainstream writing breakthroughs, “but so many writers don’t look at it that way. They’re writing specifically to get cuts, and a lot of them want to be artists on that same platform.”
“Neither was a song we sat down to write for the market,” adds Scott of the duo’s revenue-generating compositions. “We were truly chasing whatever portion of the muse we could summon.”
Real Time, O’Brien found inspiration in the memory of his late friend and former Hot Rize band mate, Charles Sawtelle and in some film footage of Bill Monroe walking through the Kentucky cabin where he grew up. The result was “I’m Not Gonna Forget You.”
Scott wrote “There Ain’t No Easy Way,” a dark, banjo-driven tune, five or six years ago using a traditional folk-song structure and driving it with his banjo. “With a Memory Like Mine” is about a father whose son returns home dead from military service. “I can see him as a baby/I can hear him call my name/I can feel him under fire/And see him rising from the flame,” Scott sings in one of the song’s most affecting passages.
Like the emotions of their songs, Real Time is honest and direct, an exploration of music at its most basic. “A lot of what we were shooting for is field recordings,” Scott says. “In field recordings, that performance is it. You hear the sound of the room. You hear the people breathe or you hear the people stomp their foot or you hear someone cough. That was an attractive sound to us.”
The CD also does a fine job of blending old and new material, traditional and original songs, in a seamless work. “To put it bluntly,” Scott says, “it’s what we do when we go out and play. It’s a concept album on some level, in that the concept is, ‘How about we make a record where we don’t really overdub and we record and sing and do solos and everything all in the time it takes to record it?’ Other than some shaping we did in picking songs and sequencing them, that’s what we do when we play.”