Tim O'Brien Interview

by Sue Kavanagh (2005)
Photos by Steve Edge

Tell us a bit about the young Tim O’Brien. When, for example, did you first pick up an instrument, and what were the circumstances?

I was 12 years old and my sister was taking piano lessons and I had started fooling with the piano, so my parents offered to give me lessons. I learned a few Christmas songs that November and then got a little Harmony guitar and taught myself from a beginner’s guitar book. “Go Tell Aunt Rhodey” and “Down in the Valley” with one the one finger C chord and the one ginger G7 chord. My friends had cheap electric guitars and I’d been learning riffs on one string – like the theme from Peter Gunn - from them before I got my own guitar.

As a child, did you ever want to be anything other than a musician – you know, the usual – truck driver, fireman, pilot etc?

I wanted to be a cowboy for sure. One of my earliest memories is running into the kitchen to tell my mom that the cowboys were on TV.

Have you had to do other jobs to support yourself along the way to where you are now, and if so, what was the most interesting or the most odd?

I worked in the public park in my hometown, picking up trash, then graduated to more responsibility. I taught skiing there, believe it or not, and at one point I drove tourists around on a little train. After I quit school, I worked at a tree nursery to save money to buy a car and go on my walkabout. There was some hard physical labour there and I didn’t hold up to too well. After unloading a truckload of flagstone one day, my back told me to work harder on my guitar playing.

If for some reason, you absolutely could not make music now, what would you do instead?

I’d be a teacher or a short order cook.

You’ve put out a few CDs with your sister Mollie. Are there more in the works?

We haven’t planned anything. I was able to get her to sing harmony on two songs on my next record.

Is musicality rampant in your family?

My sister started singing and playing before me, and my oldest brother sang some doo-op for fun. My parents sang for fun, just a verse or two in the middle of doing something else. My mom’s brother played piano well, and there are various cousins on my dad’s side that play and sing, though I wasn’t much aware of that fact until much later. My cousin Tony Ames plays first chair percussion in the National Symphony in Washington DC, he’s about ten years older than me. He taught me a Latin beat on the bongos before I learned guitar. He wasn’t around much when I was growing up, but we’ve since become really close.

Please talk about musical chemistry with other musicians – instant karma versus learned synergy, versus family familiarity or something like that.

Singing in church or at camp, I was always able to find harmony parts. And soon after I learned a few scales and chords, I could make up simple lines to go with stuff. I guess as a result, I wasn’t afraid of making mistakes. That set things up so I could make lots of them! Then you really learn. That was a great thing in the mid 60’s and after, everyone was playing music informally. The stakes were low, and we just had fun. I reached into any situation I could as a guitarist, though, not just because it was fun, but because it was something I could do. I was lame at sports, so music helped my self-esteem. It was safe and rewarding.

Later, especially after becoming the front man in Hot Rize , I started paying more attention to precision and direction. You watched for the right chemistry and then you used it in your favour. Certain things work and certain other things don’t. Some people really click when playing together and some don’t so much. As a result, you tend to do more with the stuff that works naturally, and you keep heading in the same direction together. After a while, those musical friends can make music they’ve never made before, with less work and almost no discussion, because they know each other’s language better.

My sister knows my phrasing better than anyone -she probably taught it to me. Some people, you meet them and play a few bars together and know immediately they’re kindred spirits. I had that experience with Darrell Scott in Nashville, and with Steve Cooney in Ireland when I met him.

Sometimes I need to find somebody that’s got their own thing, some new thing, that I can learn from and respond to. It becomes very important to set up some sort of process to work through, in order to keep evolving.

Would you comment on being described as a self-taught musician?

For someone who considers himself or herself self-taught, I got a lot of instruction! I learned some of the basics of music in grade school and then in high school, I took the chorus elective and learned some challenging harmony. I took about a dozen guitar lessons from a couple people at the time, but mostly it was watching others and learning stuff from records, slowing the 33rpms down to 16rpms on the turntable. Later I took lessons from a guy in Denver named Dale Bruning. He showed me a real discipline for learning the guitar fingerboard that I transferred to the mandolin and fiddle. At a later time, I studied harmony with him, which was mind boggling. He’s the guy who inspired Bill Frizzell to play guitar. Basically, you learn if you want to, and if you want to learn, you’ll find an avenue to learn it in. You have to teach yourself to do things, in the end, by doing them. That self-esteem thing enters into it – there was fire burning and I just fed it.

How would you weigh the advantages and disadvantages of being self-taught?

No matter what, you have to apply yourself to the subject. But a teacher can put you on the right track. It’s good to get a check-up now and again even if you don’t take a regular regimen of instruction. I was playing fiddle on the street in Minneapolis when this woman came walking by. Without stopping, she came over grabbed my left hand and said, “Get your wrist down.” I wonder if she was a violin teacher and she’d seen me before and just had to do something. If she’s reading this, I’d like to say it helped!

I’m assuming since you did a tribute CD to Bob Dylan, he was a pretty big influence on you. Your work here was well received -- a Grammy nominee in fact. Is Bob your ultimate musical hero and have you met him?

 I’ve not met the great man. I’m just reading the Robert Shelton’s biography, and have tickets to see Dylan in Nashville on June 28. I was never the kind of Dylan fan that had every record and bootleg, but he had the depth that few had. You could keep going back to the stuff you had and find new things. Bill Monroe’s that way for me. I put him Dylan up there with Monroe and Hank Williams and Ray Charles and others. He just has it. He’s always interesting and often provocative. Now that I have money to spend, I’m always there to buy the new record when it comes out. And since making Red On Blonde people give me stuff, bootlegs and interviews and stuff. I never get tired of it.

Did it take a lot of courage to publicly tackle the material of one of your heroes, or had you already had enough positive feedback from fans to make you comfortable?

Once I thought of doing a whole project, I realized I couldn’t treat his material lightly. The iconic nature of Dylan and his body of work demanded my respect. I tried to do justice to the material and tried to pick songs that represented the spectrum of his career. Once the record came out, I was blown away by the power his music holds. I found many new fans, and grabbed some of my old fans a little tighter.

Who would you love to jam with?

Ry Cooder. Stuart Duncan. Snooks Eaglin.

You did a rendition of Lennon / McCartney’s “Norwegian Wood” on your Two Journeys CD. Could you explain how / why that came about for you?

 I think that’s a John Lennon song, though I’m not sure. I love McCartney’s stuff too of course. His melodic and harmonic sense is amazing. In the case of “Norwegian Wood” I wanted to show how Celtic instruments fit a Beatles song, or any pop song for that matter. Two Journeys was the follow-up to to The Crossing where I underlined the relationship between the Celtic homeland and the American new world. Lennon and McCartney have Irish backgrounds, but they also show how American music crossed the sea backwards to England. They remade it. One last comment on that song. I’ve heard it called the best Bob Dylan song that Dylan didn’t write.

Tell us about a few of your favourite musical moments.

The Crossing played live for the first time in Dublin and it was an incredible thing. After sweating to get that record together and to do the subject of being Irish American justice, I finally assembled a caste that could represent it on stage. Darrell Scott and I plotted to get legends Danny Thompson and Kenny Malone to meet and play together. And Paul Brady and the members of Altan joined in. There was a tangible excitement in the room. I’d been up in Donegal a week earlier for the Frankie Kennedy week and I think the word got around the country among the traditional crowd that a cool event was going to happen in Dublin that night. The place seemed to lift off the ground. January 15, 2000.

Another time, I asked Doc Watson to sit in on my set at Merlefest. I let the other band members sit out while we played two guitars. I got to be Merle for a few minutes. I’d like to do some more playing with Doc. He’s such a formative influence.

I’ve often thought musicians and bands should keep a list of every concert they ever play and post it on their websites – separate from the list of upcoming tour dates. This is such an important part of a professional history and would no doubt be of great fascination to die-hard fans. Do you keep a record of such information and do you know of any reason why this isn’t done more?

Those records probably exist somewhere, but I don’t have them. It can be instructive to view the past, but what’s happening now seems more important. As far as keeping those kinds of records, I usually forget this kind of thing until it’s too late. In the last several years I guy has tried his best to archive live tapes of my performances. It’s kind of cool what he’s done, and you can pull a lot of the shows off his website. NashPhil.com. Sometimes it’s good to go back and check up on what’s changed and what’s stayed the same. I love history, though I feel my own history is less interesting than most. Might be my perspective, but then again… maybe not.

In addition to covering other people’s material, you write some of your own. Paint a little picture if you will please, about your journey as a songwriter.

First I wanted to be a great guitarist, then a great multi instrumentalist. When Pete Wernick said I should be the lead singer, I had to learn songs I would like to sing for a long time. I’d written stuff all along, but when I got in a band that wanted to record, I applied myself more to writing. So I modeled my own songs on others that I was singing, and I tried to write in the genre. When you sing the same song night after night, you figure out more why you liked it to begin with. If it’s a good one, it lasts, you keep singing it. So you learn what makes them good by singing them.

After writing songs for that specific band, I got interest from other singers. And a few folks in Nashville started asking for songs. Then I started trying to write for Nashville, and I got a few cuts by people. The thing is that the songs others liked the most were ones I wrote because I almost had to. Where the subject just wouldn’t let me alone, or the melody would keep after me to get a lyric.

The subject matter has changed some over the years. I get more introspective as I get older. I’m more interested in saying something that matters to me and to the world than I am in making a living. Ironically, that attitude has helped me make a better living. So the old adage “be true to yourself” really works.

You play a variety of instruments such as the guitar, mandolin, fiddle, and bouzouki. Will you bring all those on stage with you when you play Vancouver?

Traveling by air, I have to limit it to three instruments, and when I play solo I need the guitar. The other ones that work best in that situation are the bouzouki and the fiddle. I if have a band, there’s usually another guitarist, so I leave the guitar at home and bring the mandolin. I play banjo and piano strictly for fun.

If you were playing in your hometown, would you play (even) more instruments on stage since you would not have to drag them such a distance?

It’s hard to get to all the instruments in a show! It’s good to change the texture with a different instruments, but mostly the set is song driven. I could do a 90 minute show with just a guitar or a bouzouki.

I see there is a Collings brand Tim O’Brien mandolin in the works. How much input have you in the design?

It’s made after my original blacktopped Nugget A model. Nugget mandolins work with Collings on the production. I had a fair amount of input on the original. I wanted a mandolin that sounded like an old Loar F-5 but didn’t cost so much. That’s why I got an A model to begin with back in 1976. Their Collings/Nuggett Tim O’Brien model has some differences from the original – the fingerboard is not quite as wide, and it’s radiused or curved. It also has better tuners. Collings and Nugget make them sound really good and quite like the original.

Do they come signed by you?


I guess it’s a little too early for you to know this from personal experience, but from what you’ve heard from your contemporaries, which do you expect will be the larger -- the honour of having your name attached to a make of instrument, or the financial reward from the sales?

Having the instrument named after me is more significant. I’m amazed at the impact that little A-model had. It’s the first mandolin I ever owned and it’s the one I keep going back to.

Have you been to Vancouver before?

My first visits to Vancouver were with Hot Rize, playing the Vancouver Folk Festival. That’s an amazing event, and it’s in a beautiful spot. That was about 1982 or so, and it was the first time I saw white kids with dreadlocks. We stayed one year in a college dorm. Each floor had four suites of three of four rooms each. Our floor had Alex Eppler’s balalaika band, a Newfoundland group, Townes Van Zant and Mickey White, and Hot Rize. Not your standard bluegrass festival.

Well, an advance welcome to Canada. Are there any local sights you are itching to see?

I’d like to find a really good restaurant and sit and eat there. I’ve never been to Vancouver Island, so I’m looking forward to the gig in Victoria.

Thank you very much for taking the time to answer my questions Tim. And best wishes to you for continued success with your musical career.