Varieties of tradition
by James M. Manheim
A singer, songwriter, and player of almost anything with strings, Tim O'Brien started out in the late 1970s as cofounder of a bluegrass band called Hot Rize that contained its own western alter ego, Red Knuckles & the Trailblazers. He landed a few compositions on country albums by the likes of Garth Brooks, plowing the profits back into musical terrain with American and Irish roots still deeper than bluegrass. By now there are few others who approach traditional music with his breadth of vision. When he visits the Ark on Thursday, October 27, he'll come with a pair of brand-new albums ready to sell, and new musical thinking ready to realize in sound.
Releasing multiple albums simultaneously can be a self-indulgent move, but O'Brien's Fiddler's Green and Cornbread Nation have interesting things to say to each other. They're neither two parts of what's really one album nor two independent releases. Instead, they represent differing approaches to a question that has plagued folk music ever since Pete Seeger "turned a bright purple" and began "kicking his feet and flailing his arms" (per Robert Shelton) as Bob Dylan took the stage at Newport on July 25, 1965: how can electric instruments be used in the service of music rooted in tradition?
Cornbread Nation is the "electric" album, with electric and pedal steel guitars and a variety of percussion so gently integrated into the texture that they come out quieter than O'Brien's mandolin or acoustic guitar. Fiddler's Green has some bluegrass pieces and some sparer old-time textures, including a couple of numbers on which it's just O'Brien with his fiddle or guitar. He does a magnificent, irregular fiddle-and-vocal tune from British religious tradition called "A Few More Years," cut from the same cloth as Ralph Stanley's "O Death."
Yet both albums are made up mostly of traditional music, with a few O'Brien originals and songs from other sources artfully dropped in to vary the pace. Cornbread Nation inclines toward
funky rhythms and songs drawn from African American tradition - "Moses," "When This World Comes to an End," and "Let's Go Huntin'" ("When your dog bark, it don't mean nothin' / When my dog bark, he done treed somethin'"). But there's a grand variety of material, including "The Foggy Foggy Dew," to which O'Brien restores some bawdy lyrics that earned Burl Ives a night in jail in the 1960s. Fiddler's Green is likewise heavy on traditional songs of travel and death but holds various ideas together. Taken as a whole, O'Brien's new music seems to be reaching for a point where electric instruments are simply an option among the many ways of making musical sound in American tradition.
How will it play out in concert? That's a question you can ask a master musician by getting tickets and getting on down to his show.
[Review published October 2005]