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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1603

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Tim O'Brien: Chicken & Egg
by George Graham

(Howdy Skies 1005 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 7/14/2010)

Back in the 1960s, John Sebastian of the Lovin' Spoonful wrote a song called Nashville Cats that celebrated the great number of fine musicians who even then populated the capital of country music. And while there is plenty of perfectly dreadful commercial music coming from Nashville, Sebastian's song is probably more true today than back then. The business has attracted a plethora of outstanding acoustic as well as electric players, along with more worthy songwriters than you can shake a proverbial stick at. Most spend their time, toiling behind the scenes, backing up the country stars in the studio and supplying them with songs. But occasionally these Nashville infrastructure folks will step up and make their own recordings. We have a great example in this week's album: Tim O'Brien's Chicken & Egg. Actually, his own albums are not exactly the rare, occasional thing for Tim O'Brien. Chicken & Egg is his thirteenth solo recording. It combines bluegrass, folk, a bit of rockabilly, and maybe a hint of Celtic, and presents 14 songs that though independently written represent a kind of step by step consideration of the passage of time in one's life.

Fifty-six-year-old multi-instrumentalist, vocalist and songwriter Tim O'Brien is a native of Wheeling, West Virginia, growing up in a household where country and bluegrass music was an important presence. Both Tim and his sister Mollie O'Brien, who has her own career, were into music. Mollie started on the piano, while Tim went for guitar and banjo while growing up. He started on fiddle in college, and music became so much of his focus that he dropped out of Colby College in Maine to pursue music, taking off for Boulder, Colorado, where there was an eclectic bluegrass-oriented scene. There, he formed the bluegrass band Hot Rize in 1978, which attracted a considerable following and had a number of national album releases. The group also showed its eclectic side by appearing as their alter egos, Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers, doing old Western Swing and cowboy songs. The band went their separate ways in 1990, and with a family to support, O'Brien moved to Nashville in 1996, to be closer to the business, after some of his songs were recorded by country artists. O'Brien kept busy as a multi-instrumentalist, backing vocalist and especially songwriter, with Garth Brooks, the Dixie Chicks, and Dierks Bentley being some of the artists who turned some of his compositions into commercial hits. He also had a hit vocal duet with Kathy Mattea in 1990 on the song The Battle Hymn of Love.

Throughout this time, O'Brien has maintained a steady solo recording career marked by an almost whimsical eclecticism. In addition to his own songs, often with acoustic accompaniment, he did a great album of bluegrass and old-timey versions of Bob Dylan songs, and did a couple of recordings with Celtic musicians, exploring his own ethnic roots. He won a Grammy Award for best traditional folk album in 2005 for his CD Fiddler's Green.

After an all-solo recording in 2008 called Chameleon, O'Brien decided to get together with some of the great Nashville pickers with whom he has often collaborated in the past, and gathered a bunch of songs he had around, not only originals but a couple by friends, and some collaborative compositions, including one he composed to lyrics by Woody Guthrie.

As O'Brien was assembling the songs from the many he had accumulated, for the four-day recording project, it became clear that the primary focus was going to be a kind of consideration of going through life. His father had recently died at the age of 96, and his children have grown. He writes on his website "I'm 56 years old. I'm not the young kid on the scene – and I'm happy about that. I'm at a strange point in my life: my kids are growing up, while my parents and teachers are passing on. There's a lot happening; but it's just life, and that's what this album is about."

Stylistically, the CD will be familiar to long-time fans of O'Brien, there's his easy-going tenor vocals, the mostly bluegrass sound, and the bits of electric instrumentation. The CD is structured that it tends to get more electric as it goes along. This recording is also being made available on vinyl, it's arranged so that there is an acoustic side and an electric side. The main players are O'Brien on mandolin, banjo and other various stringed things, ubiquitous Nashville fiddler Stuart Duncan, Dennis Crouch on bass, and Brian Sutton on guitar.

The generous fourteen song album opens with something that goes back to the mythical beginning. You Ate the Apple is a collaborating composition with Jonathan Byrd. It's done in a kind of old-fashioned swingy style. <<>>

One of the non-original songs is Suzanna by Hal Cameron, which hints at the Stephen Foster classic Oh Suzanna, but this is about a homeless person at a bus station, perhaps trying to get to someone by that name. <<>>

That is a part of a kind of trilogy of songs, the next of which is Sinner, by Wayne Scott, done in a traditional bluegrass Gospel style, in which the protagonist is trying to reform himself. <<>>

And that leads an collaborative composition by O'Brien and Jimmy Stewart called Gonna Try to Make Her Stay, a swingy song in which the main character tries to win back his girl. <<>>

One of the more interesting tracks is The Sun Jumped Up, with lyrics by Woody Guthrie. In recent years Guthrie's daughter Nora has been inviting some notable songwriters to create music to some of a huge cache of lyrics that Guthrie left behind. Jonatha Brooke, Wilco, and Billy Bragg were among the artists to do so. Tim O'Brien received the these lyrics and created a song that, unlike some of the others, would be very much in Woody Guthrie's style. It also fits nicely into the CD's stages of life theme. <<>>

The electric side of the album includes a great new working song by O'Brien simply called Workin'" It's a highlight. <<>>

One of the most philosophical tracks is Not Afraid of Dyin'. O'Brien says the lyrics were things his father frequently said. <<>>

Another highlight of this fine album is Letter in the Mail, in which a parent receives a missive from a distant son or daughter. <<>>

The kind of broad flow of life is epitomized on Old Joe, the story of a cemetery worker for whom death is part of life. <<>>

The title of Tim O'Brien's new CD Chicken & Egg reflects the kind of circle of influences -- his being drawn to traditional styles, but making new music, and thinking about the cycle of life not sure where it begins or ends. It's another memorable album from one of the best songwriters in Nashville these days. The material is first-rate, including what he chooses from a couple of other composers, and the musicianship is uniformly tasteful. This is not the first album that O'Brien has done around a theme, but this one is perhaps a bit more subtle in direction and at the same time deeper, since he has a kind of personal stake in the what he sings about.

Our grade for audio quality is close to an "A." The acoustic instruments are well-recorded, O'Brien's voice has a nice warm sound, and there's less volume compression than the average Nashville recording.

Almost every one of Tim O'Brien's 13 solo albums over the past 26 years CDs has been a gem in one way or another. It's hard to pick a best or favorite album. And that's a nice artistic position to be in.

(c) Copyright 2010 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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