Sometime, probably around the middle of 2004, Tim O’Brien had an idea. As ideas go, this one wasn’t particularly novel, especially for O’Brien, a star of the acoustic music world. O’Brien decided to make an album of traditional songs.It is what O’Brien did with this unremarkable idea that is worth telling. O’Brien, a bespectacled redhead who sings and plays a slew of instruments including guitar, fiddle, mandolin and bouzouki, says, “it was several months of tinkering with that one idea.”In the tinkering, the idea grew. O’Brien realized that he had a handful of his own songs that fit comfortably alongside such ancient tunes as “Fair Flowers of the Valley” and “The Foggy Foggy Dew.” Then it struck him that he wanted to represent these songs in all kinds of arrangements: solo, with just O’Brien’s voice and one instrument; with a full band; in duets; even with electric guitar.After he began recording at a pair of Nashville studios, “it all sounded good,” reported O’Brien, speaking from Telluride, where he had just finished a day of skiing, and was looking forward to a concert the following night at the Sheridan Opera House. “I figured if I worked a little harder, I could make two full records.”O’Brien did the work, writing at least six songs and inviting an array of musicians to record, including bassist Edgar Meyer, dobroist Jerry Douglas, low whistler Seamus Egan, fiddlers Casey Driessen and Stuart Duncan, and singers Del McCoury and Mollie O’Brien (Tim’s sister). Last year, that simple idea of an album of traditional songs had culminated in two companion CDs, each with a flavor of its own. “Cornbread Nation” is “more Delta and electric and Southern,” he said. “Fiddler’s Green,” which last month earned the Grammy Award for best traditional folk album, is “kind of mountain and Celtic and acoustic.” “There’s lot of ideas,” said O’Brien, who turned 52 yesterday. “You pick them out and take your best shot.”O’Brien does, in fact, have lots of ideas floating in his mind. His recent discography includes an album of songs tied to the theme of traveling; an album of Bob Dylan songs; a live recording with his former bluegrass band, Hot Rize; and two Celtic-influenced discs. Like the notion that spawned “Fiddler’s Green” and “Cornbread Nation,” none of those projects reflects a groundbreaking concept. O’Brien, however, takes his time fleshing out these ideas, with the result that practically every album he makes carries a satisfying depth. O’Brien puts out a lot of music – witness last year’s twin CDs – in a range of styles, and he never seems to miss his mark. In addition to the Grammy award, O’Brien has been named vocalist of the year and, as a member of Hot Rize, entertainer of the year, by the International Bluegrass Music Association.”It seems like it takes a while to digest these ideas, for them to take shape,” he said. For “Red on Blonde,” the 1996 Dylan tribute album, O’Brien said, “I had to go deeper into the research. I knew it was a good idea, but I had to go into it.”The results of that effort are evident. “Red on Blonde” features not the obvious Dylan tunes, but well-chosen obscurities (“The Wicked Messenger,” “Tombstone Blues,” “Lay Down Your Weary Tune”) and inspired ideas (a sublime a cappella take on “Subterranean Homesick Blues”). Even the title is inspired, playing on Dylan’s landmark “Blonde on Blonde” album, and one of O’Brien’s nicknames, Red. (In Red Knuckles & the Trail Blazers, the country alter-ego of Hot Rize, O’Brien was Red.)In the process of researching, digesting and testing, the ideas get stretched and twisted. On “Cornbread Nation,” for instance, O’Brien’s concept of traditional music gets hauled into the present on “Runnin’ Out of Memory,” a humorous update on folk romance: “Well I got an e-mail from my darling,” is the opening line; the chorus, with Del McCoury adding guest vocals, goes, “My hard drivin’ went soft, my application coughed / And I’m runnin’ out of memory for you.” On the traditional spiritual “Moses,” O’Brien expands the idea of Appalachian gospel by including a vocal chorus borrowed from black gospel.”I’m always looking, when I go to the music store, or through a friend’s CD shelf, or on the radio, I’m always looking for something new,” said O’Brien, who performs Sunday night in a a sold-out show at the new Thunder River Theatre in Carbondale. “I want an extension of what I did before, but also something new. I like expanding and contracting. How many times can you make the same record?”O’Brien’s open-mindedness toward the music didn’t come from his hometown of Wheeling, W.Va. He was introduced to music there, especially at the famed WWVA Jamboree, where he saw country stars Jimmy Martin and the Country Gentlemen. When he started to become seriously interested in music, he saw the West Virginia scene as overly respectful of tradition, and lacking in innovation.O’Brien found plenty of fresh ideas in Colorado. Initially, he came to the Rocky Mountains for the mountains themselves, as a Boy Scout with a fondness for hiking. Around Boulder, however, he saw a vibrant acoustic music scene with a healthy dose of irreverence.The first key contact O’Brien made in Colorado, in the mid-’70s, was with the Town and Country Revue. A member of the group owned a music store, and gave O’Brien work there, as a music instructor. O’Brien went on to play in the Ophelia Swing Band, with Aspenite Dan Sadowsky, for three years.In 1977 came a fortunate coincidence. O’Brien and Pete Wernick, a transplanted New York banjo player, released solo albums around the same time. The two were acquainted from the Denver Folklore Center, where they both worked and where they played together Tuesday nights in the Rambling Drifters. O’Brien and Wernick had also contributed to each other’s records. Figuring they could best promote their recent releases by teaming up, they formed Hot Rize, a quartet with late guitarist Charles Sawtelle and bassist Nick Forster. The idea was to play traditional bluegrass, gospel and old-time tunes, but what came out was a step beyond tradition.”When we played traditional music, the basic stuff, ” said O’Brien, “we found we didn’t sound the same as the people we were imitating. We tried. But there was something different happening, and it was cool. Especially Charles’ guitar playing. That was the window to find our sound, going back to those basics.”Hot Rize was also O’Brien’s door to becoming a presence in acoustic music. The band, the first to feature O’Brien as lead vocalist, was a sensation and went a long way to making Colorado a hot spot for forward-thinking bluegrass.When Hot Rize ended its run in 1990, O’Brien took the opportunity to follow a multitude of paths. Among his projects over the last 15 years are the O’Boys, an eclectic combo with guitarist Scott Nygaard and bassist Mark Schatz; duets with his sister, singer Mollie O’Brien, and Darrell Scott; and the Tim O’Brien-Jerry Douglas Band. With John Hermann and Dirk Powell, he recorded “Songs from the Mountain,” a CD of old-timey music inspired by the Charles Frazier novel “Cold Mountain”; his last CD before last year’s pair was the exceptional “Traveler,” built around the theme of moving around. O’Brien is producing an album by the Duhks, a rising contemporary acoustic band from Winnipeg, and is looking at producing a CD by his current band member, banjoist Danny Barnes.For O’Brien, such projects are in an endless state of flux. At the moment, he is focused on his band, featuring Barnes, bassist Dennis Crouch and fiddler Casey Driessen, so that he can perfect and promote the music from “Fiddler’s Green” and “Cornbread Nation.” But he does the occasional gig with Hot Rize, and with his sister Mollie (who will join O’Brien and the band for a private benefit concert for the National Jam Foundation tomorrow at the Woody Creek Store). He recently did some songwriting with Darrell Scott.And when O’Brien returns to his various projects, he often brings a new idea with him. Among the projects he intends to revisit is the Celtic-inspired The Crossing. But since the 2001 release of “Two Journeys,” the last recording by the ensemble, O’Brien has been taken by the notion of exploring a few more tributaries in the intersection of Celtic and Appalachian cultures.”I want to continue that – with gospel songs, somehow,” said O’Brien, who has lived in Nashville since 1996. “Put some more elements of American culture – the black gospel, and the Latin and native American influences. These need to come in, because they’re important parts of our makeup.”Expect O’Brien to give the idea proper thought. “That’s what it takes to make it seem like it hangs together,” he said. “Spending the time.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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