Tim O’Brien talks bluegrass, Hot Rize, and more

Tim O’Brien can be credited with helping to define bluegrass within the realms of modern music by bringing popularity to a genre that reaches well beyond the hollers and hills of Appalachia, to the vaster realms spawned by its immediate appeal. An exceptionally talented singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist, his musical arsenal includes guitar, fiddle, mandolin, banjo, bouzouki, and mandocello, as well a vast recording catalog with nearly two dozen albums both on his own and with his sister Mollie O’Brien, as well with Darrell Scott, Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers, NewGrange, The Earls of Leicester, and, most significantly, the band Hot Rize, a seminal ensemble that brought bluegrass to a new and impressionable audience in the 1980s. 

Naturally, he’s achieved any number of kudos along the way. His duet with Kathy Mattea, The Battle Hymn of Love, hit Billboard’s Top Ten on the country charts. He’s also the recipient of two Grammy Awards — one for Best Traditional Folk Album for his album Fiddler’s Green, and the other for Best Bluegrass Album courtesy of The Earls of Leicester — with several other Grammy nominations as well. Other honors include an induction into the West Virginia Music Hall Of Fame, and accolades from the International Bluegrass Association— notably, the initial Entertainer of the Year award that was accorded to Hot Rize and individual honors that recognized him as Male Vocalist of the Year.  

Bluegrass Today recently had the opportunity to speak with O’Brien prior to an appearance at Knoxville Tennessee’s historic Laurel Theater, and in speaking with him about his storied career, also heard his thoughts about bluegrass, its past, present and future.

You were one of the preeminent musicians in the Colorado progressive bluegrass scene back in the ’80s and early ’90s. What was it about those Western environs that you believe contributed to that seminal scene…and, in the process attracted you initially?

Visiting the mountain west as a 14 year old Boy Scout was eye opening, and I fell in love with the light, the air, the scenery. I went back the next summer to a summer camp, riding horses, canoeing, backpacking, and then worked there three summers. Meanwhile I was diving deep into music. So, being adrift after dropping out of college, I decided to join some friends in Jackson Hole, Wyoming and to try my luck playing bars during the ski season. I woodshedded, playing the fiddle with a clothes pin on the bridge to soften the sound, and skied when I could afford a lift ticket. In the spring I hitched to California, and then Colorado, where I met a lot of fine musicians. The next fall I was back there, working in a music store and playing in several bands in the college town of Boulder. 

Other than the scenery, what was the lure?

Lots of folks were finding their way to the Rockies for similar reasons. They were looking for the best things in life, and were also pretty open-minded and ready for anything. That made a good audience. I knew I would be a musician, but I was wary of any kind of commercial rat race, and the pressure to succeed in a place like LA, New York, or Nashville. Colorado was a comfortable, affordable place to find my musical identity. 

The band you were a part of there, Hot Rize, was, of course, a legendary ensemble. How would you describe what you took away from that experience?

Hot Rize was my musical grad school. Charles [Sawtelle] and Pete [Wernick] were more experienced than Nick [Forster] and I, but we were all four learning together about how to be a band, how to make records, how to write songs, and how to find an audience. We never pretended to know what we were doing, and as we started traveling nationally we still kept that attitude. The result was, we made a lot of friends. 

That band opened a lot of doors, did it not?

It was a heady thing to us to open for Bill Monroe or Ralph Stanley, or to play alongside Peter Rowan. We were acolytes sitting at the guru’s feet. Then to play on Prairie Home Companion or the Grand Ole Opry, to see the Telluride Bluegrass festival flower and grow and to become a part of all that was amazing. All those experiences worked their way into my DNA. That DNA has recombined continuously since then, but it’s all still there, and I can easily call it up. It’s always just beneath the surface. 

So what led to your departure and move to Nashville?

After ten years with Hot Rize, I started looking for a new chapter. I’d started a family, and Nashville beckoned as a better base to support them. Moving here was like moving to a new hometown; I saw music folks and friends I’d made on tour at the grocery store or the post office. Within a year, I’d had Garth Brooks cover a song I’d written with a new friend named Darrell Scott. Plus, being around a more concentrated music community really ups your game. There were just lots of opportunities. If I’d stayed in Colorado, I never would have gotten to record with the Chieftains or tour with Steve Earle. Writing for Forerunner Music was another great thing. It was a real supportive environment. 

Have there been Hot Rize reunions? Is that still a possibility? 

There were many ongoing reunions after we disbanded in 1990. Eventually Bryan Sutton replaced the late great Charles Sawtelle, and in that lineup we kept paying tribute to him. We had a 40 year reunion show and after the 41st the next year, we decided to call it a day. We played at Rocky Grass for their 50th annual fest last July, but that was a special case. 

How is you sister Mollie doing? Might you work with her again in the future?

It’s hard with Mollie living in Denver and me in Nashville, but it’s always a possibility. Mollie is my very first performing partner.

So how would you sum of the current state of bluegrass today, given its growth and infusion of certain populist precepts?

Bluegrass is like a venerable old tree that’s healthy. The roots are growing just as well as the branches. New technology has enabled a new breed of young players, myself and my contemporaries to stand on the shoulders of the generation before us, and this new crew is emerging that stands on the shoulders of folks like Chris Thile. It’s exciting to see where they’ll take it — the trad side as well as the progressive side. 

That said, how do you think bluegrass has been able to expand its audience as a result?

There’s a lot more diversity onstage and in the audience. The worry that the music would die with the older folks is no longer a concern. There are people of every color, every age, every persuasion. My own place in the community is pretty secure, and that feels good. I’ve never been slavishly traditional, but have  always featured that side along with various hybrids. There’s a good part of the bigger community that supports my stuff. 

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About the Author

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman has been a writer and reviewer for the better part of the past 20 years. He writes for the following publications — No Depression, Goldmine, Country Standard TIme, Paste, Relix, Lincoln Center Spotlight, Fader, and Glide. A lifelong music obsessive and avid collector, he firmly believes that music provides the soundtrack for our lives and his reverence for the artists, performers and creative mind that go into creating their craft spurs his inspiration and motivation for every word hie writes.