Interview: Tim O’Brien on dealing with COVID and the greatest bluegrass artist ever

COVID is proving to be a challenge for all musicians. Americana UK thought it would be an idea to catch up with one of bluegrass and americana’s leading musicians to see how COVID affects even those who are well established. The term americana could have been invented for Tim O’Brien who was born and brought up in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in Wheeling, West Virginia. In his early musical career he moved to Boulder, Colorado, and helped establish that vibrant musical scene that continues to this day with bands like the Cheese String Incident. He is a leading acoustic session musician playing guitar, fiddle, mandolin, banjo, bouzouki and mandocello with everyone from Mary Chaplin Carpenter to Mark Knopfler, one of the founding fathers of newgrass as an original member of the genre-redefining group Hot Rize, a multiple award winner with Grammys and International Bluegrass Music Association awards to his name. We haven’t even mentioned his songwriting yet, both as a solo songwriter and as a partner with among others Darrell Scott, Hal Ketchum and Gary Nicholson, finally there are his twenty-plus solo albums and his duet albums with Darrell Scott. However, to the cognoscenti, his greatest achievement is as his alter ego Red Knuckles in western swing and honky-tonk band Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Tim O’Brien to discuss the current impact of COVID, get the inside track on who is the best bluegrass musician of all time and why there is still hope for americana music once we are finally free of the pandemic.

How are you, I hope you and your family and friends are all OK and coping with the challenges of COVID?
Touring money obviously dried up, but Jan and I have kept our heads above water from savings and some incoming royalties.

In the UK, the Americana Music Association UK is running virtual seminars and providing guidance on how to deal with the challenges of COVID from a technical, legal and financial perspective. The Music Venue Trust, a charity, is supporting and lobbying on behalf of grassroots music venues but the UK americana community is finding it tough. What is happening in the US?
I just loaded some pictures of an instrument I donated for an auction benefitting the National Independent Talent Organization, who are lobbying in DC to get help for venues and musicians. Mark Knopfler gave them a cool guitar. There are a bunch of folks working in similar ways. We’re all down in a hole, and it’ll be a different scene when we come out of this. We all have to be scrappy and creative right now, though of course, that’s nothing new!

How are you using your own time during COVID and are there any hidden benefits?
The first three months were like a wonderful, unexpected vacation. We saw the seasons change from our own house! I read some great books, we grew a garden, a friend sent an old Gibson mandocello for safekeeping so I learned the bass clef and wrote a mandolin quartet arrangement of an Irish harp tune. We did some streaming shows and learned how to run them from home, but it’s not the same as having a live audience. Then in the last four months, I wrote some songs and now I’m starting to record a new project. Earlier this month, I worked on the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame induction ceremony which was really cool.

Do you think the recent Presidential Election will have an impact on the americana scene in the US?
The election is just one dot on the pointillistic picture! I hope the Biden crew can help the arts more, but it’ll take more than that. The crazy division here remains as something to write songs about, but nothing to write home about!

Does having your own music company, Howdy Skies, make it easier or more difficult to deal with the COVID fallout?
Nobody’s telling me what to do, so I have to do more soul searching about my next move. But the profit margin is better for sure. I can’t be the new kid on the block, but I can lasso my fans in pretty well.

There were a few eyebrows raised in the UK when CMA seemed to ignore the deaths of John Prine, Jerry Jeff Walker and Billy Joe Shaver at the recent awards show. What was the reaction in the US?
I couldn’t believe that. All three broadened and deepened the audience so much. Artists like Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell sell really well but country radio doesn’t play them. It’s indicative that most folks I know didn’t tune in. CMA is more the Country Music: tire sales division.

What was behind the re-release of your 1999 record ‘The Crossing’ earlier this year?
The original label folded, then the new owner went bankrupt, so it went out of print. I’m proud of that one and wanted it available.

Your latest solo record ‘The Tim O’Brien Band’ seemed to reconfirm your purer bluegrass tendencies. If COVID hadn’t happened would we have seen more of this approach or was it simply the 2019 Tim O’Brien record and more of a one-off?
My records are an eclectic collection of eclecticism, but I’ve stayed on the bluegrass circuit. The acoustic string band is still the most comfortable for me and my audience, so it felt good to underline what I present onstage.

How are the Hot Rize guys doing and are there any plans for a new record at some point in the future?
I keep up with the guys but there are no plans at this time.

Hot Rize

Some time ago you recorded ‘Red On Blonde’, a great album of less obvious Bob Dylan covers. Has this year’s Rough and Rowdy Ways’ tempted you to think about recording a follow-up?
What a fantastic set from Mr. Dylan. Somewhere I have a DAT tape of guitar voice demos from that, and there are several that didn’t make the final list. But I probably need to work on my own writing.

You have written quite a few songs during your career with a number of co-writers. Who are your songwriting inspirations that have remained with you throughout your career?
Yip Harburg and anyone he co-wrote with. Randy Newman. Mose Allison. Dylan, Joni Mitchell… I’ve been lucky to sit in the same room with David Olney and Darrell Scott.

Tell me about the ‘John Hartford Fiddle Tune Project 1’ album released earlier in the year and what does John Hartford mean to you as a musician?
Hartford’s the template for the singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist of a certain age who comes from a bluegrass background. His fiddle tune writing was just one of his manias, and it’s really cool that he’s still pushing out new music.

You were a member of Jerry Douglas’s Flatt and Scruggs tribute band  The Earls of Leicester. If I were to push you, who would you say was the greatest bluegrass act, Bill Monroe or Flatt and Scruggs?
Monroe was a true artist/inventor, and he invited those guys into the lab to see what could happen. Lester and Earl were great businessmen and they streamlined the formula, but I’ll give it to Bill. Today anyway.

Bluegrass has always recognized and applauded musicianship. Billy Strings and Molly Tuttle seem to be grabbing the headlines at moment, are there any other musicians who you think are about to breakout?
I’m prejudiced, but Sturgill Simpson is the bluegrass songwriter of 2020. There’s a pool of incredible young pickers and l can’t wait to see what they come up with.

What do you hope to be doing in 2021?
Bring people together through music.

At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?
Danny Barnes, Peter Ostroushko’s Mando Boys, Rosetta Tharpe.

Finally, do you want to say anything to our UK readers?
Remember to lift your head from the screen, just listen to some music.

 Tim O’Brien’s ‘The Crossing’ is out now on Howdy Skies Records and is available here.

About Martin Johnson 378 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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