Tim O'Brien, Making Music His Own Way

Tim O'Brien

What I love about Tim O'Brien is his willingness to experiment and take chances with his albums. Where the River Meets the Road came out earlier this year and is his 16th solo release. Each of the tracks on the album is connected to his home state of West Virginia, and he covers everyone from the Bill Withers the Bailes Brothers.

Bill Frater: What got you started in the music business, when, and why?
Tim O'Brien: I spent my one year in college mostly playing guitar and learning songs, so the next year I made a stab at going pro. I was playing Doc Watson and The Band and Hank Williams and whatever came to mind. Some friends planned to winter in Jackson, WY, so I worked at a tree nursery to save money, bought a car, and joined them there in November of 1973. I played in Calico Pizza and lived in the house behind with the manager. I ate the burned pizzas and practiced the fiddle a lot that winter. 

What have you done since then? 

After that winter in Jackson, I visited some friends who lived in Boulder and ended up moving there in the fall. I worked in a music store teaching lessons and played in a bluegrass group — the Town and Country Review — before joining up with the Ophelia Swing Band. We made an LP and I made a solo LP for a local label. I also was a sideman on Pete Wernick's first solo LP, and when they came out, we formed Hot Rize. That group kept me busy for 12 years, touring and recording. I started writing songs and got some recorded in Nashville in '88 and '89 by Kathy Mattea, who was a new artist then. I was making more solo records and records with my sister Mollie, then left Hot Rize in 1990 to go solo. Fifteen solo discs and counting since then. 

What do you do now, and how do you describe it?

I'm a folk and bluegrass troubadour, I guess. I write and record so that I can go around and play for folks that like that kind of thing. My partner, Jan, and I have a cottage industry like a lot of folkies. We run a record label, sell CDs from a website, book travel, and arrange logistics from a home office on the off days between gigs. I also produce other artists. I'm working right now on projects by Peter Rowan and Kathy Mattea. 

How do you describe your music and/or songs to someone who's never heard you?

My music draws from country and rock and jazz, but it sounds bluegrassy because I use mostly mandolin and guitar to play it. I hope that the music feels comfortable, maybe a little familiar, and that the lyrics help folks connect to one another. 

What was the first artist or album that got you into Americana or roots music? 

Were the Beatles Americana? I would put them and Doc Watson and Roger Miller as major influences. I'd also put Ry Cooder in there as someone who remade the music in his own way, which is about the best I can hope to do. 

Who are your favorite artists of all time? 

I'm crazy for Doc Watson because he took his influences and shaped them into his own thing. His delivery was always clear and friendly, easy access, and he was able to bring some pretty diverse music together and make it all sound like Doc music. There are so many I could list as favorites, but lets add Los Lobos, Duke Ellington, Bob Dylan, and Bill Monroe. I've been on a Mose Allison jag since he passed away. He's got all the tasty juices from growing up in Mississippi and he writes his own very personal lyrics from that standpoint. 

What does Americana music mean to you?

Americana is made up of the classic roots forms that never go out of style. Tony Bennett says his music is multi-generational because quality never goes out of style and it just lasts longer. It's funny to think of Americana as a trend since it's made out of things that are tried and true. 

Where do you see Americana radio, or radio in general,  going in the future?

I hope radio formats don't make the border fences too high. One reason I like the PBS freeform DJs is they surprise you, jar your perspective now and then. I'm not sure a nationwide Americana format can take hold because each market needs to cater to their listeners, and those needs are way different at WDVX in Knoxville from what they are at KPFA in Berkeley. 

What recent albums or artists are you excited about?   

Lake Street Dive, Western Centuries, and Dan Auerbach. 

What are your most memorable experiences or memories from working in the music industry?

Having Doc Watson sit in on my show. I couldn't believe he said yes. Of course he sat in with a lot of folks at MerleFest. 

What projects are you working on next?

I need to write some songs. My palms are itchy to do it but I'm touring too dang much. There's a new Hot Rize project starting soon, so I'm focusing on that mostly. 

What inspires you or what keeps you going?

I listen for good music and read a lot to learn more about the human condition. There's no end to the research! Nothing inspires like a group of fine musical collaborators and an audience that's waiting to hear what we might do. Visiting new places and learning about them keeps the road from getting boring. 

What are your most proud accomplishments?

I'm very proud to have won a couple Grammys and International Bluegrass Music Association awards. The people that vote for these are my peers and there's no better feeling than knowing they've been listening. 

Do you have any other interesting hobbies or interests you wish to share?

I read a lot and I like to cook. I can be hit or miss in the kitchen but nothing cuts through the dislocation of touring like making a mess in the kitchen. Jan and I got some kayaks this summer so we're getting out on the water when we can.  

How do you want to be remembered?

Don't remember everything please, just the good parts. 

I love that guy!

Tim is definitely one of the good guys, musically and otherwise.

Nice piece, Bill. It makes Tim seem more accessible than I've heard or seen him. He has always seemed to me to be a little difficult to find inside his performing shell, but you reached into something that feels authentically him. Thanks.


Tim is an excellent and eclectic musician.  I think more and more musicians are coming around to these views.   Among other things, I really enioy his under-stated fiddle playing.




Tim is an excellent and eclectic musician.  I think more and more musicians are coming around to these views.   Among other things, I really enjoy his under-stated fiddle playing.



One of my favorite Dylan tribute albums is Tim O'Brien's 1996 release "Red on Blond." Not only was it great to hear Dylan's songs arranged in O'Brien's bluegrass style and performed by amazing musicians but he also chose less covered but excellent Dylan songs like "Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)" I gave my sister a copy of the CD and she in turn gave a copy to her grandson who was studying music in high school. His reponse reminded me of Salieri's reaction to Mozart. He returned the disc to my sister saying, "Grandma, I can't listen to this--it has too many notes."