A Short Order Session With Tim O'Brien

“A festival in John’s honor reminds us that he changed everything.” Tim O’Brien told  this to me a little while back, concerning the John Hartford Memorial Festival. Tim O’Brien, to me, is a living legend in acoustic music. Yep. A living legend. Why? Well, he’s been changing and improving the way folks perceive folk music for most of his life, just a little longer than I’ve been on this slow moving spaceship we call Earth. Tim met John Hartford when his band, Hot Rize, also a  legendary icon in Bluegrass Music, was in Nashville. Tim performed at the very first John Hartford Memorial Festival, and we are tickled to have him back, with Hot Rize and Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers.
 “John, a Scruggs fan, heard about this band called Hot Rize. We met and became friends.” Tim said John had the uncanny ability to connect with the audience.
“He looked like a leprechaun, dancing and playing. You know he was known for Pop music for a little while, then Bluegrass, then it was realized that he could do it all. He was very supportive. He told me, ‘I play a song the first time for the audience, if that doesn’t catch them, I play another for them, then after that, every song is for the band.”

Tim O'Brien was born on March 16, 1954 and raised in Wheeling, West Virginia.  At the age of 12, he heard a Bob Dylan record and decided to take up music as a career. He taught himself to play guitar, fiddle and mandolin. As a boy he had his ears wide open to the Country and Bluegrass on the local WWVA show, as well as the Beatles on the radio.

In 1973, he dropped out of college to pursue music professionally. He wrote to his mother at the time, saying, "I'm heading west. I know 200 songs now, and I figure if I keep learning more I should be all right."
He eventually moved to Boulder, Colorado, where he met the late guitarist Charles Sawtelle, banjoist Pete Wernick and bassist/vocalist Nick Forster, with whom he formed Hot Rize in 1978. Over the next twelve years, the quartet earned recognition as one of America's most innovative and entertaining Bluegrass bands. The members of Hot Rize created an alter-ego group, Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers, complete with costumes, splitting their stage time with a set of classic, off the wall Country and Western music. The band would walk off stage, change clothes, and reappear as a different band (O'Brien assumed the mantle of "Red Knuckles"). Hot Rize was the International Bluegrass Music Association's first Entertainer of the Year in 1990, and in 1993, O'Brien took the IBMA's Male Vocalist of the Year honors.
In 1990, Hot Rize disbanded as a regular touring and recording band. Folks, with Bryan Sutton on guitar, Hot Rize and Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers are back and rocking the Bluegrass and Americana/Roots scene again. The JHMF family is thrilled to have them grace the stage at the 2015 festival. Legends on a legendary stage, “The House That Bill Monroe Built.” 
Grammy winner Tim O’Brien has released more than ten studio albums, in addition to charting a duet with Kathy Mattea entitled "The Battle Hymn of Love", a No. 9 hit on Billboard Hot Country Singles & Tracks (now Hot Country Songs) charts in 1990. Tim's song "Walk The Way the Wind Blows",recorded by Mattea also hit a #10. In November 2013 he was inducted into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame. His Bluegrass songs from the Hot Rize early days, such as “Midnight On The Highway,” and “Nellie Kane” are now certified Bluegrass campground jam songs and they are widely covered. Tim O’Brien is a living legend, bona-fide, and he is also a really nice guy.
A friend asked me one time, “If you could sing like anyone who would that be?” Tim O’Brien and Doc Watson immediately came to mind. Doc’s voice was really cool and clear. Tim’s voice is whatever he chooses for it to be. Tim has uncanny range and control, and sounds like he sings effortlessly. That’s just singing. His musicianship is literally second to none on fiddle and mandolin, although he excels at any instrument he chooses to pick up and play. I once heard him say, “After awhile, you move into that  level where it takes less effort.” Not me. I’ve attempted to be smooth for decades and in the musical track meet of life, I’m a shot putter. Tim is in a different world when it comes to music, and he is one of the most prolific and tasteful songwriters alive today. About songwriting and music, I asked Tim a few questions.

Ernie-At what point in your life did you realize that music was going to be your calling for your livelihood?
Tim-Music was a way to express myself completely. I wasn’t athletic but I could express  myself with music.
Ernie-Did you have other directions to take, a trade? A regular job?
What was your background, growing up in West VA?
Tim-I worked in a nursery long enough to make enough money to get out of town, went to Jackson Hole WY, learned fiddle, moved to Boulder. Got involved in that scene. Through jams, I met up with Pete (Wernick) and Hot Rize happened.
Ernie-About songwriting, You’ve been writing great music and lyrics for years.
What came first for you, picking or writing?
Tim-Every songwriter has a different approach, so...writing stories and songs in the third grade.
Ernie-What gets you started on a song?
Tim-The music is always there. My head is full of music all of the time, so space and quiet time is essential, time off the road, knowing it’s time to record an album.
Ernie-Do you make yourself write?
Tim- No.
Ernie-When folks say to you, “You oughta write a song about that”, do you? 
Tim-A couple of times. “Brush My Teeth With Coca Cola” is one, another, about the “Cornbread Nation” song. So, yeh, every now and then.
Ernie-There’s this trend taught in workshops about hearing a tune, loving it and making it your own. How do you feel about this?
Tim-I don’t really think too much about it. It’s a model, a place to start for some. There is nothing new under the sun. But, you don’t want to take someone’s tune note for note. 

Tim and Ernie at JHMF 2015, photo by Jimmy Riddle

Ernie-How about when a tune comes out of your head, you put it down, play it back to yourself and you recognize that it is something that’s already been done by someone else, somewhere else in time, but you love your concept of this ear-wormed tune, what do you do with it? 
Tim-Work it or change it completely. If I write a song and play it a bunch and I realize it’s too much like something else, I change it.

Back in January, Tim O’Brien launched “Short Order Sessions”. This is one cool concept. In order to stay afloat and continue to make a living in non-mainstream music, one must travel, record, observe and adapt. Tim realizes the impact that the digital age is having on music and musicians. Tim knows that in order to be heard these days, you have to modify your means for access. 
“Short Order Sessions” is a great idea. O’Brien says he hopes to develop a new record label model with Short Order Sessions. “I’ve seen LPs, then cassettes, now CD’s, come and go. The traditional album set of 10 or more songs is less viable, so is the record store that sells them. Single song releases and downloads have taken over, so Short Order Sessions is my quiet, folky way of staying current. I’m excited to record and release one-off songs with various friends, to keep new ideas flowing. “
  Available on all digital music outlets including iTunes and Amazon, the label’s debut release was “Brush My Teeth With Coca-Cola”, a humorous look at the Freedom Industries chemical spill one year ago that contaminated the water supply of 300K West Virginia residents.”Brush My Teeth With Coca-Cola” features Kathy Mattea on background vocals. Both West Virginia natives have already taken musical stands on coal and the environment, Mattea with her CD “Coal” and O’Brien with last year’s Grammy nominated song “Keep Your Dirty Lights On” in collaboration with Darrell Scott.
Proceeds from “Brush My Teeth With Coca-Cola” benefit West Virginia environmental organization AWARE. (www.awarewv.org)
 Short Order Sessions  releases new singles on the first and third Tuesdays of each month (shortordersessions.com). Tim says the initial release is timely.
“Last year’s chemical spill in the Charleston area woke many of us to the fragile nature of the environment. My song is one of many written in the wake of the tragedy. There’s no easy fix, but one year later, it’s more important than ever to remain vigilant and to hold industry accountable. We take tap water for granted, so imagine three hundred thousand people suddenly scrambling for enough water to cook and bathe with, a whole community stressed and afraid. The guy in my song wonders what to do, hoping to catch rain in a bucket. Meanwhile he brushes his teeth with what’s handy.”

You can also go to Tim's official web site or follow this link to Tim’s FaceBook page, to see what it’s all about and to keep up with Tim’s latest Short Order. Each Session features a live performance video of anything from stage shows to jams in someone’s living room. You really feel like you are part of something with this concept. Enjoy the short show, then shop the downloads.

“I’m a folk musician,” Tim says humbly. “I gravitate towards the old sounds and I still sing a good bit of traditional material. My songs come out of that well of folk music. If you do it long enough, you can’t always tell the old from the new – it blends together. It becomes what happens between the chicken and the egg: I don’t know which came first, but it contains the whole of life.”