Tim O’Brien Cooks Up Some Business

Tim O’Brien performs at the 2015 DC Bluegrass Festival - photo by David MorrisTim O’Brien, apparently, never sits still. But Bluegrass Today was fortunate to catch up with him twice in recent days, once over the weekend before his solo set at the DC Bluegrass Union festival in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, and on the phone a few days later.

You can hear him singing and playing on two top-drawer records on the charts: The Earls of Leicester, the bluegrass supergroup assembled by Jerry Douglas and When I’m Free from Hot Rize, the band O’Brien has been with since 1977.

But that’s only the start of what he’s up to in 2015. He just produced a CD for West Virginia pal Todd Burge, on which O’Brien played (gasp!) a bit of electric guitar. That one, Imitation Life, will be out in the spring. He also played a major role in Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project, a just-released CD from Borealis Records that features songs collected by legendary folklorist Alan Lomax. He’ll do a 10-day tour with Stone at the end of April before the Hot Rize tour resumes.

Wait, though. There’s more.

There are some shows with his family band, O’Brien Party of Seven.

And there’s a four-show gig with Andy Statman, who can wow audiences on bluegrass mandolin and klezmer-style clarinet. “It’s kind of an on-stage happening,” he told me. “He’s really spontaneous and inventive. I’m challenged to play with him.”

But the project that might be closest to his heart is the one that is also closest to home: Short Order Sessions. New offerings are served up on his website (timobrien.net) on the first and third Tuesday of every month and are available through the usual digital outlets. You might hear Tim alone or jamming with friends in his studio, or perhaps a little-known live performance.

“I kept thinking I’d like to do some stuff that wasn’t commercially attached to an album,” he said. “It wasn’t so much about making a profit. I like the low-keyedness of it. I like the idea of just recording something with people who stop by the house. I’m just trying to do a simple thing that’s just kind of spontaneous.”

Tim O’Brien leads a workshop at the 2015 DC Bluegrass Festival - photo by David MorrisThe Short Order Session O’Brien cooked up for fans this past Tuesday was Waiting On Tomorrow. Hot Rize recorded this O’Brien orginal about the karmic payback for cheating, but it didn’t make the record. So one day, while hanging around at David Ferguson’s Nashville studio, The Butcher Shoppe, he cut a bluesy, rockabilly rendition with Kenny Malone, Dave Roe and Pat McLaughlin.

“I’m waiting on tomorrow, livin’ my life today
My hands and feet are restless since you went away
The damage has been done now, my heart and soul must pay
I’m waiting on tomorrow, livin’ life today.”

But his main gig, he made clear, was the Hot Rize tour. “We all wanted to grab back our place in the music,” he said, noting to my astonishment that it’s been 25 years since that band last released new material. “We were being lazy, and we needed to get off our butts.”

He said he thinks the band “measures up to the old Hot Rize material.” The sentiment was similar when he talked about the Earls, with whom he recorded but is no longer touring because of Hot Rize obligations.

“There’s no point in doing it if you don’t measure up,” he said. “People said we were pretty good. But can we measure up? We kind of worry. You’ve got to work at it.”

There’s something refreshing about a guy who can seemingly play anything, sing with command in multiple styles and write songs that have universal appeal admitting that he wonders about measuring up and talking about having to work at music.

But before I can tell him that, our time is up and Tim O’Brien is off and running. There are new songs to write, new music to learn, a roomful of instruments to practice on and – for good measure – a kitchen renovation project to complete.

I was right. Tim O’Brien never sits still.

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About the Author

David Morris

David Morris is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist, songwriter and upright bass player. He has spent much of his career as a wire service political reporter, including nearly 14 years with The Associated Press and a stint as chief White House correspondent for Bloomberg News, and has recently retired as senior editor for Kiplinger Washington Editors.