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Tim O'Brien: Cup of Sugar
(Howdy Skies Records, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 8/30/2023)
Many bluegrass bands spend much of their time playing traditional music, or tunes that have become bluegrass standards in a way. But one bluegrass artist who has become one of the most respected songwriters in Nashville is Tim O’Brien.
A native of West Virginia, O’Brien became known for his work, including songwriting, with the Colorado bluegrass band Hot Rize. Based in Nashville since 1996, O’Brien has written songs recorded by Garth Brooks, the Dixie Chicks, Kahey Mattea, and the bluegrass band Nickel Creek. O’Brien has also released a diverse collection of solo albums, from bluegrass oriented to Celtic, to a collection of Bob Dylan Covers, with some electric instrumentation along the way. He has also collaborated on four albums with his sister Mollie O’Brien, and released some one-off projects with the likes of producer Darrell Scott and with a group called the Tim O’Brien Band.
Tim O’Brien has released a new solo album, his 19th, called Cup of Sugar, and it reflects O’Brien’s diverse career stylistically, with bluegrass influence and some more slightly electric treatments. Lyrically, the songs reflect O’Brien’s high standards, often bringing in a new way of looking at things that have been addressed by other songwriters. O’Brien writes that he is now in his latter 60s, so there are some songs in which he addresses mortality, and some inspired by the state of the world, sometimes in an allegorical way.
The varying personnel on the album includes some top Nashville and bluegrass players such as a cameo by bluegrass luminary Del McCoury, plus bass players Mike Bub and Dennis Crouch; Richie Stearns or Cory Walker on banjo, Jamie Dick on drums, and O’Brien’s wife Jan Fabricius on mandolin and vocals.
The fairly generous 13-track album opens with a song called Bear, with the bear being the symbol of Russia, but also inspired by the story of a dancing bear. <<>>
Let the Horses Run is a straight, traditional style bluegrass tune, with a guest appearance by Del McCoury. <<>>
With more of a country direction is Stuck in the Middle, a kind of classic Nashville heartbreak song, about one’s significant other suddenly up and leaving. <<>>
The title track Cup of Sugar is a kind of appeal for people to get along, as neighbors setting aside the political and cultural differences. <<>>
One of those songs inspired by thinking about his age and perhaps the friends he has lost is called The Pay’s a Lot Better Too, touting the advantages of staying alive. <<>>
One of the more interesting songs in terms of its inspiration is Shout Lulu inspired by a rich man to died and left his money to his dog Lulu, and who was also responsible for putting up a statue praising the Ku Klux Klan. <<>>
Another of the lyrically distinctive songs is The Anchor which is about the late television newsman Walter Cronkite, recalling the era when the truth and political balance were the hallmarks, indeed the requirements of broadcast news. <<>>
O’Brien’s wife Jan Fabricius, does the lead vocal on a song that she and O’Brien co-wrote, called She Can’t, He Won’t, and They’ll Never. A song of apparently irreconcilable differences. <<>>
The album ends with Gila Headwaters, about taking a spiritual journey to a sacred place. <<>>
On his new album Cup of Sugar, Tim O’Brien underscores his position and of the finest contemporary Nashville-based singer-songwriters. The new album was created with his age, in his upper 60s, in mind, and he considers the subject of age and mortality with his usual mix of wit and poignancy, all in the context of a classy acoustic setting, often influenced by bluegrass, where he got his start. But the album has a nice variety of other musical influences, from more contemporary country to old-timey. The backing musicians are first-rate, and the album conveys a sense that the musicians are enjoying themselves, in a relaxed-sounding session.
Our grade for sound quality is close to an A. The acoustic instruments are well recorded and the recording captures the intimate spirit of the music.
Though Tim O’Brien has written songs recorded by some of Nashville’s stars, his best output has always been on his own albums. Cup of Sugar is his 19th, not counting his collaborations and his work with Hot Rize. And it’s another gem from a singer-songwriter still at the top of his game.
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