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(Sugar Hill 3978 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 8/6/2003)
In bluegrass music, the emphasis has traditionally been on instrumental prowess. Bluegrass bands all used to play the same standard songs, and where original music was created, it was usually something to highlight the picking. But in recent years, some fine singer-songwriters have emerged from a bluegrass background. And probably the most respected is Tim O'Brien, whose new CD is called Traveler.
Tim O'Brien grew up in Wheeling, West Virginia. Although like most people his age, he was enthralled by the Beatles when they emerged, he was also in an area where country and bluegrass were strong. An instrumental recording by Flatt and Scruggs proved to be very influential to his musical development. It also helped that he came from a musical family. He still occasionally performs and records with his older sister Mollie O'Brien. Though his academic major was literature, he found the pull of music too great and he dropped out of college in Maine and started working as a performer, eventually settling in Colorado, where he was one of the founders of Hot Rise, serving as their mandolinist and vocalist. He was soon writing a good deal of material for the group which went beyond the standard bluegrass repertoire. They were the kind of songs that a folk singer-songwriter might do, but in a bluegrass setting.
After Hot Rise broke up -- though they still occasionally get back together -- O'Brien moved to Nashville to try his hand in the country music capital, and was soon making his mark both as a performer and studio musician, and as a songwriter whose compositions would be recorded by such country stars as the Dixie Chicks, Garth Brooks, and Kathy Mattea as well as the bluegrass sensation band Nickel Creek. O'Brien also worked as a producer for other performers.
O'Brien's own career has been rather wide-ranging. In addition to his bluegrass-tinged singer-songwriter recordings, he also did an fun collection of Bob Dylan songs in old-time country style, and at least three joint albums with his sister Molly of other people's music. His two most recent projects were Celtic-influenced recordings, inspired by trips to his ancestral land.
So Traveler is actually O'Brien's first regular singer-songwriter release in about six years. And its title serves as its theme. O'Brien said that he had a reservoir of songs he had been performing live, which co-incidentally revolved around travelling, literally or in spirit. Although it's a subject addressed by many hundreds of songwriters in the past, O'Brien outdoes himself on this new release, with some of his finest songs yet, full of his literate observations, philosophical reflections and good humor, backed up with the kind of tasteful musicianship for which he has been known, with some fine regular players and special guests including Béla Fleck, Edgar Meyer and Jerry Douglas. And of course, dominating the sound are O'Brien's quickly-recognizable and appealing throaty tenor vocals
Among the regular players on the CD are Nashville stalwart drummer Kenny Malone, bassist Dannis Crouch, guitarist John Doyle, formerly of the Celtic band Solas; fiddler Casey Driessen, and banjoist Dirk Powell, who usually plays in the old-time clawhammer style, rather than with a bluegrass approach. Powell is also heard on accordion. Dobro virtuoso Jerry Douglas is heard mainly on electric lap steel guitar. Together, they create some eclectic arrangements that range from old-time country to zydeco to more conventional bluegrass, though there is never one particular sound that dominates.
The CD gets under way with one of its most charming songs. Kelly Joe's Shoes is apparently a true story about a pair of sneakers that a friend gave to O'Brien, and they became his travelling shoes. The arrangement is typically eclectic with a zydeco-flavored accordion and a bluesy harmonica mixed into the happy folk sound. <<>>
Somewhat more inward-looking lyrically is Let Love Take You Back Again. The travelling context here relates to two people drifting apart. <<>>
The travelling motif turns to the passage of time on the song Turn the Page Again, which O'Brien wrote with one Lucas Reynolds. The slightly wistful lyrics are set in one of the most upbeat arrangements on the CD. <<>>
There is one non-original song. I've Endured was written by Ola Belle Reed, and it fits nicely into the theme of the album. Dirk Powell's clawhammer-style banjo helps to give the song an appropriately old-timey feel. <<>>
Another song that grew out a real experience in O'Brien's life is Restless Spirit Wandering, inspired by rumors of a Civil War-era ghost in the house into which he had recently moved. <<>>
Béla Fleck makes his appearance on the song simply called Another Day, one of the finest pieces of songwriting on this album of worthy songs. The philosophical lyrics consider the passage of generations. <<>>
A genuine travelling song is Forty Nine Keep on Talking, about a spur-of-the-moment road trip. The trip moved into the Mississippi Delta, so a little Cajun-style accordion seems appropriate. <<>>
The CD ends with another of its most appealing songs, Less and Less is a combination travelling song and bit of philosophizing on the search for a simpler life. <<>>
In many ways, Tim O'Brien has been influential to a whole generation of bluegrass-oriented singer-songwriters, who take acoustic music beyond just the fancy picking and into the literate lyrics of the folkies. O'Brien remains one of the best in the genre, creating some memorable songs with tasteful acoustic backing. After pursuing some different directions on record for the past six years, O'Brien has returned to making a singer-songwriter record that is one of his finest to date. The theme of travelling gives considerable unity to the songs, which in a way help to reinforce one another.
Our sound quality grade is close to an "A." The mix is very nice, as is the quality of the acoustic instrumentation, but dynamic range could be better.
Who would have thought of a bluegrass "concept" album. That's the sort of thing they used to do during the art rock days of the 1970s. But in Tim O'Brien's skilled hands, Traveler is just that, and it works exceptionally well. O'Brien has underscored his position as one of Nashville's finest contemporary songwriters.
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