When Tim O’Brien plays guitar, mandolin or fiddle, the result could generally be described as Bluegrass. But it also represents the breadth of his myriad influences (Bluegrass, Folk, Country, The Beatles) and his startling ability to incorporate them into his personal style.
O’Brien heard his first Bob Dylan album at 12 years old and subsequently taught himself his three primary instruments; by high school, he and older sister Mollie were gigging at local churches and coffeehouses in their native West Virginia. In 1973, O’Brien dropped out of college and moved to Boulder, Colo., where he meshed perfectly with the scene.
O’Brien founded Hot Rize with Charles Sawtelle, Pete Wernick and Nick Forster in 1978, and for the next dozen years the quartet blended traditional Bluegrass and Pop melodicism for a sound steeped in history but burnished to a contemporary shine.
O’Brien had released two albums on his own before Hot Rize’s 1990 dissolution; he signed with RCA in 1991 and recorded his first real solo album, Odd Man In, but the label shelved it and dropped him, ending his major label association.
For the next six years, O’Brien released an album annually with Sugar Hill (he was the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Male Vocalist of the Year for 1993 and 2006), then put out a trio of albums before returning to Sugar Hill for the bookended Cornbread Nation and Fiddler’s Green in 2005, earning a Traditional Folk Album Grammy for the latter.
O’Brien’s last studio album, 2010’s Chicken & Egg, gave him his highest Bluegrass chart slot yet at No. 4. Then came the release of this year’s self-deprecatingly titled live album, We’re Usually a Lot Better Than This, which reached No. 3. Labels hardly matter to Tim O’Brien, though; in his hands, it’s all music and in his translation, it’s all good.
TIM O'BRIEN performs Thursday, Nov. 29 with Honey & Houston at 20th Century Theatre in Oakley. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.