Tim O’Brien wants you to get into something — anything really, just “dirty those hands and get stuck in,” he tells me as he sips his first pint of the day. We’re at the Yazoo brewery in Nashville, a ploughman’s lunch between us, talking about his new album, Chameleon. There are no gimmicks or special guests on this release, just his voice and one instrument. Of course, the instruments change. There are eight to be exact.
It’s an unexpected move from someone who made a name for himself fronting Hot Rize, one of the finest bluegrass bands in recent years. They made eight albums together before he left Colorado for Nashville, made 13 albums under his own name, toured with great musicians and became a mainstay on the bluegrass festival circuit. After winning a Grammy for his 2005 album, Fiddler’s Green, O’Brien decided to leave the road to those who were hungrier for their next award than he was, spent time with his family and wrote the songs for a record that may well prove to be career-defining. For some musicians, the prospect of recording a real solo record, with no overdubs, might be intimidating. O’Brien sees it no differently than recording any other project.
“It’s just a different kind of work,” he says. “You have to decide which instrument fits each song the best way. I was also concerned with getting enough texture on the record since it’s just one guy and an instrument.” O’Brien honors the tradition of singing fiddlers when he plays a beautiful harmony line on top of his vocal. He describes it as “slick,” an unusual word to describe something so old-fashioned, but it fits the bill perfectly. That’s one of the things Tim does well: blending the past with the present to show how folk music can deal with modern-day issues. Few artists can pull off a haunting old-timey melody while singing about the dangers of phantom phone call syndrome: “You feel it vibe and you reach for the cell/There’s no one there, that’s how you tell/You felt that phantom phone when it calls.” Meanwhile, his performances at festivals like Rocky Grass and MerleFest have become near-compulsory bookings. During a Sunday morning gospel set in Telluride, Colo., one year, O’Brien stripped down to his bare essentials and ran into the lake as the congregation followed him. In other words, he is not afraid to let his guard down in front of these folks. “On a big stage, you’ve got to grab them, and with two or three other people there’s still no insurance,” he says. “It comes down to a good song, a good presentation and a good performance of it. It keeps everything fresh. You can draw on any song you think you know, any you may not know it, but you can try it!” As a songwriter, O’Brien has enjoyed considerable success from mainstream artists covering his songs, such as Garth Brooks (“When There’s No One Around”), the Dixie Chicks (“More Love”) and Kathy Mattea (“Untold Stories”). While this isn’t the ultimate standard to judge a writer by, it is a testament to how well O’Brien combines simplicity and integrity. Not surprisingly, the process of how to get these results is something he has thought about.
“The quiet time is essential,” he notes. “You’re always on input as a writer, and if you don’t stop to let it come out. … I don’t get any songs until I stop. You can’t be distracted. You’ve just got to let it happen. Actually, sometimes these little distractions will help you write — like cooking or driving, where your mind is not completely engaged. It’s always good to keep the notebook there because those ideas come up when you’re doing other things. Your mind is unoccupied and it’s left to dream, and then it can get to these ‘profound truths.’”
At his most recent show at Nashville’s Station Inn, he sang “Get Out There and Dance,” leading the audience to jive in the aisles as he skipped merrily around the stage.
“There’s a certain amount of sermonizing when you’re a songwriter,” he explains. “A lot of times I say stuff in songs I wish I did! But onstage, this song is fun. I get to dance around. It’s just one of the ultimate truths: If you want to live life … if you want to participate, you’ve got to participate. You’ve got to give to get. You’ve got to stick it out there and let it happen.” O’Brien finishes Chameleon very gently with “Nothing to Say That Hasn’t Been Said.” If you’re looking for a sermon, you won’t find it here.
“More and more, I’m convinced that the best way to help the world is to make a song that people want to sing along to, dance to and take their minds off what’s going on,” he says. “Political songs can be divisive — and I’ve noticed this more and more in the last five years — but a funny song is a better way into politics. Just point to the foibles of our situation. I wouldn’t presume to know solutions, but the artist’s job ends up being, to a certain extent, just reporting what’s going on. You see what’s happening, and you reflect on it, mirror it and imitate it in a song.”
Just because he occasionally dirties his hands with heavy topics, that doesn’t mean his lively spirit gets stuck in his music. Of course, his live show is far from heavy.
“When you play a gig, you play the fast song, the slow song, the sad one, the happy one,” he says. “You do the gospel song, play a fiddle tune, let people dance, tell the joke, call up God and country, get people to cry — and then, it’s over. You play ‘Orange Blossom Special’ — and you’re done!”
Eamon McLoughlin plays fiddle in the Grammy-nominated band, the Greencards.