TUCSONANS WILL GET to see some new sides of singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Tim O'Brien this week--a bit of his family, for starters. In contrast to his solo performance at the 1988 Tucson Folk Festival, this show will feature his sister Mollie and his acoustic band the O'Boys. That, in turn, allows O'Brien to showcase the stylistic excursions he has taken since the superb bluegrass band Hot Rize dissolved in 1990.
Since last we saw him, O'Brien has been on a hilly road that has taken him through Nashville for a close try at major-label success, to the formation of the O'Boys and the chance to do his music his way, and back to Boulder, along the way hooking up with Mollie for a trio of acclaimed duet albums. The act that began as children in West Virginia has come full circle.
"There's a couple reasons for it," O'Brien said by phone recently. "One is we have another person to handle the division of labor, the silly tasks you have to do to stay on the road...from the concessions down to the mailing list.
"But the other thing is that she adds an amazing thing to the show just as a solo performer, and people really like the duet singing. It's just an added bonus that I get to have her sing on the stuff that I've written and played on my records. She's been singing harmony on those things for a long time.
"With the O'Boys we've got plenty of instrumental punch," he added. "The vocal punch was the only thing that I wondered about, and now it's all there, I think."
The O'Briens prove once again there are no harmonies as sweet as siblings'. Their voices soar, dip and criss-cross like a pair of playful swallows, with plenty of unexpected epiphanies of phrasing.
The O'Boys are Scott Nygaard on guitar and Mark Schatz on bass. O'Brien--the International Bluegrass Music Association's reigning male vocalist of the year--plays mandolin, bouzouki, fiddle and guitar. "Mark also does a little clog dance, hambone routine, and plays a little clawhammer banjo," O'Brien said. "So there's kind of variety there just in that." Mollie brings a background mostly of jazz singing, but together she and Tim concentrate more on "the traditional country kind of vein. You know, from the Carter Family to George Jones. A real folk program."
Over two albums on the independent Sugar Hill Records label, the O'Boys' sound has jelled into an eclectic but cohesive mix that includes the bluegrass roots while pulling in more exotic styles as well. "It's like you cook something down and correct the spices," O'Brien said. "That's where we're kind of at right now--ready to serve."
O'Brien is excited about their next effort, due in April and tentatively titled Rock in My Shoe. The CD was produced by Jerry Douglas for Sugar Hill.
"It's definitely got a different sound," O'Brien said, including the strains of Cajun-flavored accordion and clawhammer banjo. "I guess I'm moving away from the bluegrass thing. It's got all that on it, but it's kind of modern. The songs are new, and the ideas and attitudes are a little newer.
"I think I've gotten in my own sort of groove now, and that's what I was after. I felt restricted in the bluegrass marketplace. With Hot Rize, we were really good at being Hot Rize. We weren't real good at being other things" (although fans of the band's C&W alter egos Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers might take issue with that).
"This independent label thing has given me the freedom and time to develop that over a period of a couple years...I think I really ended up in the right place."
This after a rough couple of years during which O'Brien recorded more than a dozen tracks for RCA Records that never saw the light of a CD player. After Kathy Mattea's success with O'Brien's songs "Walk the Way the Wind Blows" and "Untold Stories," and in the wake of Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith's entry onto the major-label scene, RCA was grooming O'Brien for the same niche. He even recorded a duet with Mattea, "Battle Hymn of Love," that squeaked into the Top 10. But when RCA underwent a management shakeup, O'Brien's album--all dressed up and ready to go--fell through the cracks.
"Actually, I've had more freedom because I'm not hooked up with the country radio market. I'm back in the sort of folk market where I really belong anyway, just playing the things I like to play. I've been lucky that enough people have responded that they make it all work. You're bound to last longer if you're doing something you really like doing."
At Sugar Hill, "I get to call up the president of the label and talk about (old-time fiddler) Gid Tanner and stuff," O'Brien said. "You couldn't do that with most any record label guy. I mean, you can just call him on the phone. That's where it starts and ends."
It's telling that the label's ebullient leader, Barry Poss, appeared in a recent newsletter on his knees, kissing Mollie O'Brien's hand, backstage at a music festival.
O'Brien occasionally sits in with ex-Hot Rize bandmates Nick Forster, Pete Wernick and Charles Sawtelle individually, and they all reunited for a show in August. "That was fun," O'Brien said. "It was like falling off a log, getting it all back together." But so far, there are no plans for a reunion recording.
"We haven't really thought too much about it," O'Brien said. "Some people have been asking me why there's not a best-of CD. Maybe what we should do is record a few new songs like they do and then put it all on the best-of.
"I'm interested in playing some more traditional bluegrass," he added saying the solo and O'Boys material was just a diversion. "Now I can go back to the hardcore stuff as a diversion."
Tim and Mollie O'Brien and the O'Boys will perform at 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 3, at the Berger Performing Arts Center at the Arizona School for the Deaf and the Blind, 1200 W. Speedway. Advance tickets range from $11 to $14, with a discount for TFT, TKMA and KXCI members, available at Hear's Music, The Folk Shop, Bentley's, Workshop Music and Sound, Good Time Music and Piney Hollow. Tickets will cost $1 more at the door.
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