Martin Tim O’Brien 00-18

Larry BarnwellWe heard recently from Larry Barnwell, a regional sales manager with C.F. Martin, and a long-time bluegrass musician.

Larry was born in North Carolina and toured extensively as a member of the bluegrass band Monroe Doctrine in the 1970s, during which time he became well acquainted with a good many other performers who were, or would become bluegrass celebrities. Before coming onboard at Martin, he worked for Gibson where he worked with Bill Monroe on the Gibson Monroe model mandolin.

Though Larry’s current duties at Martin do not specifically involve marketing or artist relations, he has become their go-to guy when it comes to bluegrass, and was directly involved in the creation of the Martin Del McCoury model (D-28DM) in 2002. He tells us that he was both delighted and proud to have been able to offer such an honor to Del, and pleased that Martin saw the honor as well deserved.

“Bluegrass people are among our strongest supporters, but the truth is that they make up no more than 20% of the C.F. Martin customer base. Seeing the company recognize Del with a signature guitar was very gratifying.”

Martin 00-18 Tim OBrien guitarThe McCoury model has sold through (limited to 100 guitars), and Larry had contacted us with news about the new Martin 00-18 Tim O’Brien signature guitar which was debuted at the recent NAMM convention in Nashville. He and Tim worked together to design a model that would suit his needs and represent many of the things he loves about Martins. Each one is numbered and signed personally by Tim.

You can find more details about the O’Brien model, which carries a retail price of $5499.00, on Martin’s site. Larry said that about 30 of the 100 guitars that will be made have already been ordered by dealers, so this one should sell through quickly as well.

Larry also agreed to allow us to share the article he wrote about Tim and his signature Martin for Sounding Board, the official Martin owners newsletter, which is posted just below.

A Brother’s Giftby Larry Barnwell

Tim OBrien with his signature Martin 00-18 guitar"I’m not sure whether I was over there to see her or to play the Martin." Tim O’Brien recalled, with a chuckle, one of his earliest exposures to Bluegrass music and to Martin guitars. The father of his 8th grade girlfriend was into old instruments such as banjos, mandolins and guitars. He had a D18 and that was the first Martin Tim really had an opportunity to play for any period of time. But Tim’s interest in music began several years earlier in his Wheeling, West Virginia boyhood home. Tim’s parents, Frank & Amy, were supportive of whatever their children wanted to pursue whether it be sports, academics or music. They bought the kids season tickets to the Wheeling Symphony and the Summer Concert Series at Oglebay Municipal Park. As a young teen Tim watched great artists such as Van Cliburn, Itzhak Perlman, Ray Charles and Duke Ellington perform. Tim’s sister Mollie got into the music before he did, then in 1966 he began playing the guitar and together they learned the music of the Beatles, Peter, Paul & Mary and other popular music of the time.

CF Martin 00-18 Tim O'Brien Signature ModelTim looked up to his older brother Frank O’Brien III, whose nickname was Trip. Trip exposed him to scouting and the outdoors and was also a cornerstone in Tim’s musical beginnings. He was into artists outside the pop culture of the time and had recordings of Joan Baez, Odetta, Nancy Wilson, Miles Davis, Sam Cook and others. Trip served in Vietnam and the family would exchange tapes as a form of letter writing. They would record messages and music to send to him. Tim played the guitar and recorded it for his brother to show him his progress and in one of Trip’s messages, he suggested Tim listen to Segovia and Manitas de Plata. In Tim’s words, "He was a great buddy." In 1968 Trip was killed in combat. "My brother died in Vietnam and he left money to each of his siblings. My sister got a piano and I got a D-28. I bought a new D-28 when I was 14. It was like, I can buy this. This is what I want. I went to the music store, they had one and I bought it. I said that’s what I want, I’ll buy it." Throughout the years that D-28 suffered some major injuries and eventually Tim sold it to a good friend. "It was a good guitar and I recorded a lot with it over the years." Trip’s influence and his parting gift started Tim’s lifelong love affair with Martin guitars and music.

Tim played in a variety of bands throughout his teenage years, but seeing Doc Watson on television piqued his interest in flatpicking the guitar and playing Bluegrass music. He was given a fiddle by his aunt when he was 16, but it wasn’t until several years later, after someone loaned him a mandolin, that he started learning the fiddle in earnest. "I started trying to learn Doc Watson’s versions of fiddle tunes on the fiddle and pretty soon I realized that he was copying a fiddler! Then I started listening to fiddlers, but Doc Watson kind of sealed the deal on Bluegrass for me." Tim and Mollie played at clubs and ski areas in a several state area during his last years of high school. Mollie had gone on to college, but the two would meet on weekends to play gigs.

After high school Tim attended college in Maine with his sights set on majoring in English, all the while playing with a local traditional Bluegrass band. The first year of college went well, but in the second year he began to realize that music was taking hold of his future. "I remember we started with Beowulf in sophomore year and I went, I don’t think so. Meanwhile I was just playing the guitar and fiddle, mostly the guitar, all day." Tim soon made his way west to Jackson Hole, Wyoming where he’d worked as a counselor at a summer camp during high school. There he became a ski bum and supported his habit by playing banjo, mandolin, guitar & fiddle at Calico Pizza and the Stage Coach in Wilson. When ski season ended he went back to Wheeling for a brief stint, before heading to Boulder, Colorado at the invitation of a friend.

1974 found Tim working in Boulder at Folk Arts Music, mostly as a teacher. He grew deeply ensconced in the local music scene and it wasn’t long before Tim became an integral part of a popular Colorado swing band called The Ophelia Swing Band. He was known as ‚ÄòHowdy Skies’, a stage name he used during his tenure with the band. That name lives on as the name of Tim’s publishing company, Howdy Skies Music. It was in the next couple of years that Tim met and courted his future wife, Kit Swaggert. Tim & Kit were married in October of 1977 and have raised two sons, Jackson & Joel.

Tim had recorded with The Ophelia Swing Band and in 1977 he recorded and released on the Biscuit City label his first solo record entitled Guess Who’s in Town?. One of the guest artists Tim asked to play on this record was Pete Wernick who was also releasing his first solo album Dr. Banjo Steps Out, for Flying Fish. Tim was a guest on Pete’s album. In January of 1978 Tim & Pete started a band as a vehicle to promote their solo projects. The next twelve years would be a tremendous ride for the group known as Hot Rize. Tim (mandolin & fiddle) and Pete (banjo) were joined by Charles Sawtelle on guitar and Nick Forster on electric bass. The success of this progressive band from Colorado spread throughout the United States and overseas. Their influence was pervasive among young musicians everywhere. Hot Rize appeared frequently at Bluegrass festivals, on NPR’s "Prairie Home Companion" and on television’s Nashville Network. Their zany alter-ego country swing band known as "Red Knuckles & the Trailblazers" gained prominence as an important part of their shows. Hot Rize was known for doing traditional material in their own distinctive style and also for performing original songs many of which were penned or co-written by Tim O’Brien. The band produced six recordings from 1979 through 1990. The group disbanded in 1990 and remained friends, each of them pursuing solo careers. Hot Rize reunited for shows over the next several years. Sadly, Charles Sawtelle was diagnosed with leukemia in 1994 and died in 1999 from complications related to a bone marrow transplant.

Some of Tim’s best loved recordings are with his older sister Mollie. They released three projects on Sugar Hill and toured the US from 1990 through 1996. The two also traveled to Ireland and the United Kingdom, as well as to Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean, and Latin America for the US Information Agency.

Ready to move forward with his career as a song writer and performer Tim and his family moved to Nashville in 1996. Over the previous ten to fifteen years he had established himself as a writer of great songs. Between 1986 and 1988, rising country music star Kathy Mattea released three of Tim’s Hot Rize songs. Two of them, "Walk the Way the Wind Blows" and "Untold Stories" both made it into the top-ten on the country music charts. When asked how it makes one feel to hear your own song recorded by someone else, Tim mused, "It’s incredible. Hearing somebody else sing your song ‚Ķ it’s more than just something you did ‚Ķ it’s something that exists, it lives on its own ‚Ķ you hope for it, but you never know ‚Ķ it’s intoxicating." Describing the act of writing he says, "When I’m in the process of writing, I don’t know of anything that’s more exciting. It’s not like it’s mine, it just shows up. You can practice the craft, but when you get inspiration it’s like a download. It’s so exciting I start laughing like Amadeus did in the movie." Tim lists among his influences as a writer a variety of stylists including Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, E. Y. Harburg, Bob Dylan, Gordon Lightfoot, Tom Paxton, The Beatles, Hank Williams and Jimmie Rogers to name just a few. "The main reason I write is so I can have the opportunity to play and sing those songs and of course I enjoy playing and singing other people’s songs too. I really like playing music."

And play he does. Tim has a full schedule of traveling with the Tim O’Brien Band, traveling as a solo artist, collaborating with other artists on stage or in the studio and recording his own projects. In September of 2005 Tim released two great recordings, Cornbread Nation and Fiddler’s Green and in December of that year Fiddler’s Green was nominated for a Grammy. February 8th, 2006 Fiddler’s Green won the Grammy award for Best Traditional Folk Album at the 48th Annual Grammy Awards. A great thing about Tim is his humility. "It was my fourth nomination. What was mind blowing when I was there, was that people came up to me and said, ‚ÄòI voted for you’. People I didn’t think even knew anything about me." He was the recipient of the prestigious IBMA Male Vocalist of the Year Award in 1993 and in 2006. Tim O’Brien’s recordings are numerous and his latest, Chameleon, was released on March 25th, 2008. The new CD features intimate solo performances ‚Äì just one voice and one instrument ‚Äì of sixteen new originals. Surely Trip would be proud of his little brother’s accomplishments. Visit Tim’s website at

Charles Sawtelle once told Tim that "a good instrument will find you." A 1937 Martin 00-18 found Tim some years back and in his own words he said, "I play this gem on lots of Tim & Mollie recordings. It’s punchy and sweet sounding." When approached about the prospect of Martin creating a Tim O’Brien model his humility shone through. "It is an honor to be associated with Martin Guitar. It’s solid stock. I just want to say that Martin is not like most companies of today. There is no planned obsolescence with Martin Guitars. They certainly make guitars as well as they’ve ever made them. They’ve kept that integrity. They define the whole thing. There’s none finer than a Martin."

The Martin Guitar Company is proud to pay tribute to a great talent in the world of acoustic music. The Limited Edition 00-18 Tim O’Brien model is based in tradition, but incorporates some features not previously found in the Martin line. Tim had some specific ideas about what he wanted in a signature model. He chose the "00" body and the "18" styling which on his model includes solid mahogany for the sides and back and Adirondack spruce for the top. The top is supported with scalloped ¬º" Adirondack braces & tone bars and a maple bridge plate. The thin bracing and the stiffness of the Adirondack spruce produces a clear bell-like tone with volume suitable for both fingerpicking and flatpicking. The soundhole is adorned with a simple vintage style 18 rosette, however the center ring of black has been replaced by an elegantly thin strip of select abalone pearl. A beveled polished tortoise style pickguard protects the top below the strings. The top and back are bound in black Boltaron and the center back strip of Madagascar rosewood matches the headplate overlay which displays the historic Golden Era style Martin decal. In a show of support for the use of alternative woods, Tim chose solid Spanish Cedar for the full thickness "V" neck, attached to the body with the traditional "dove-tailed" neck joint. The ebony fingerboard features Martin’s pocketed fret slots, G300 fret wire and is dressed out with Diamonds & Squares inlay pattern of select abalone pearl. Its width at the nut is 1¬æ". Nut and saddle are bone. A unique feature of the 00-18 Tim O’Brien is its 25¬?" scale length, which is typically reserved for Dreadnoughts and Orchestra Models. This feature will add to the power and volume of this specially designed instrument. The guitar is detailed with a highly polished nitro-cellulose finish and comes in a Geib-style deluxe case. Tim O’Brien will personally sign the interior label of each guitar. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of each Tim O’Brien Signature Model will be donated in support of Catholic Charities Refugee and Immigration Services.

The 00-18 Tim O’Brien Signature Edition is limited to no more than 100 instruments. Once ordering is under way, a list of participating Martin Dealers will be posted on the Martin website.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.