Tim O’Brien is up for top male vocalist at the International Bluegrass Music Association Awards Thursday (Sept. 30). But win or lose, it’s not likely to be the high point of his very busy year.
This past spring, he toured for five weeks with rock superstar Mark Knopfler and a few months later released what is perhaps the best solo album ever, Chicken & Egg. In October, he will return to the road with Hot Rize, the bluegrass band he co-founded. That reunion may also spawn an album, he reports.
Chicken & Egg, as the title hints, concerns itself with life’s imponderables — love and death, sin and redemption, exhilaration and world-weariness. O’Brien wrote or co-wrote 11 of the CD’s 14 songs.
He is backed on his cosmic explorations by some of the best acoustic players in the business, including guitarist Bryan Sutton, fiddler Stuart Duncan, bassists Dennis Crouch and Mike Bub, banjoist Charlie Cushman and drummer John Gardner. Abigail Washburn, Chris Stapleton, Darrell Scott and Sara Jarosz supply vocal harmonies.
Despite its generally somber themes, the album has a sprightly string-band effervescence that seems to propel it from the speakers like champagne bubbles.
Two songs — “Not Afraid O’ Dyin’” and “Letter in the Mail” — relate to O’Brien’s father, who died last October at the age of 96. He dedicates the album to him.
O’Brien, a youthful 56, concedes that his music now leans more toward intimations of mortality than it once did.
“When I got into my 40s,” he says, “I started thinking more about the whole picture than just what’s going on between you and me. I’m not thinking about mortality all the time. I’m also reading spiritual stuff. Like if you read about Crazy Horse or about Buddha — or even like [Mitch Albom's inspirational bestseller] Tuesdays With Morrie — you see that people who face death kind of learn how to live because they let everything fall away.
“It happened with my good buddy, Charles Sawtelle [of Hot Rize], when he was sick with leukemia. He let his foibles and fears about trivial things fall away. He was a much more open guy. That’s part of the spiritual [odyssey]. If you look at any religion, they kind of urge you to get ready to die,” he says with a chuckle.
“You Ate the Apple?” finds O’Brien speaking in the voice of an incredulous God who simply cannot believe he’s created such self-destructive dummies as Adam and Eve. “Sinner” seems like one long moan from the depths of despair.
But there are lighthearted tunes as well, notably “Gonna Try to Make Her Stay” and Woody Guthrie’s “The Sun Jumped Up,” for which O’Brien wrote the music.
Hot Rize, which was formed in 1976, began coming to Nashville from its home base in Colorado for TV appearances soon after TNN: The Nashville Network went on the air in 1983. This ultimately facilitated O’Brien hooking up with his fellow West Virginian, Kathy Mattea, just as her career was taking off.
“With Kathy, it was like, ‘I’m going to cut your song. Why don’t you play on the track? And sing harmony,’” O’Brien recalls. Indeed she did record his “Walk the Way the Wind Blows” and “Untold Stories,” both of which became hits.
“When Hot Rize hit its 10th year,” O’Brien continues, “I started looking around with the idea of getting a solo record deal. I had one with RCA briefly, but the record never came out. Kathy and I did some touring together, and they launched that single of the duet record ["The Battle Hymn of Love" in 1990] as a sort of teaser to introduce me to the country airwaves.
“Those were cool times. I got to be on Austin City Limits with Kathy. She was at the top of her form … about to get her Grammys and all that stuff.”
O’Brien finally moved to Nashville in 1996 and has since become one of the town’s most sought-after musicians.
Hot Rize now functions as an on-again, off-again band as each member pursues his own musical interests. “But we like [playing together] enough that we’re going to do a 10-day run this fall,” says O’Brien.
The band reconvened in August to play the Tonder Festival in Denmark. It will commence its fall tour Oct. 28 in Berkeley, Calif., and end it Nov.7 in Morgantown, W.Va.
O’Brien’s instrumental prowess netted him an invitation to join Mark Knopfler’s band for its North American tour this past April and May. “It was the holy grail of sideman gigs,” he says.
The job called for him to play fiddle, mandolin, acoustic and electric guitars, bouzouki and banjo, as well as chime in on vocals.
“I got the gig because my friend, John McCusker, was out on [paternity] leave,” O’Brien explains. “I think he recommended me, which was real nice of him. It was a glimpse into another world.”
That other world included three weeks of paid and posh rehearsal time in London and touring in a private jet. O’Brien admits he had some reservations about accepting the gig.
“Quite honestly, I wasn’t going to take it,” he says. “I saw the show [Knopfler] did in Nashville, and I tried to imagine it through the eyes of the guy I ended up replacing. I thought, ‘Why does he need that guy? Everybody wants to hear Mark play guitar and sing his songs, and they want to sing along to the songs.’”
There was another qualm, too.
“I didn’t know if I could be a sideman,” O’Brien admits. “It’s a much smaller cog than I’m used to being anymore. I haven’t been a sideman or worked for anyone else for close to 30 years, probably. It was a little bit scary to contemplate that. I thought I might do the wrong thing. I also thought I really like fronting the band, and I like playing a lot, and this is not going to be that way.
“I almost felt like telling Mark, ‘You don’t really need this. You don’t really need a fiddle on a song or a bouzouki. It’s totally full without it.’ But when I got to the rehearsals, after several days, I realized he just likes the textures. He’s been using folk instruments in recent years to sort of broaden the sound and keep him occupied, keep him interested. He’s expanding his vision.”
Further brightening O’Brien’s year have been his successes as a songwriter. “You’re Dead to Me,” which he jointly composed with Jon Randall and Dierks Bentley, appears on Bentley’s roundly-applauded acoustic album, Up on the Ridge.
“It’s meant to be just a classic bluegrass song,” O’Brien explains. “It’s the kind I like that Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin and the Stanley Brothers used to do. … We were kind of referencing some of those bluegrass songs [about killing one's lover].”
Documentary-maker Ken Burns will include O’Brien’s “Art Stamper” in his film, Prohibition, which is due out next year.
“It’s a little bit of irony there,” says O’Brien. “Art Stamper was a great old-time fiddle player, a great character and roots musician. He liked to take a bit of liquor. So it’s kind of funny that he gets a song named after him on the soundtrack to a film on Prohibition.” (Stamper died in 2005.)
Looking ahead, O’Brien says his next big project is to do an album of Roger Miller songs with his two sons, his sister Molly, her husband Rich Moore and their two daughters.
A prodigious blogger, O’Brien keeps his fans updated through his website with colorful accounts of his shows and of the family members, buddies and musical acquaintances he encounters along the way. He figures he will have done more than 120 shows by year’s end with a lot of travel days in between.
“The road is more bearable because you have friends wherever you go,” he concludes.