Born in 1954 in Wheeling, West Virginia, Tim O’Brien grew up with bluegrass, the folk revival, and rock and roll–and Lawrence Welk to boot. In the late 1970s he joined a bluegrass band called Hot Rize that landed right in between progressive and traditional music and became one of the top ensembles of the time. He forged a sort of alternative cowboy-band identity for Hot Rize called Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers, and ever since Hot Rize’s breakup his solo career has been notable for its breadth of engagement with the roots of American music and for the ways he has made traditional music his own. O’Brien is hardly a household name, but he’s an underrated musical explorer.
O’Brien’s roughly twenty solo albums include an all-bluegrass Dylan tribute, a pair of releases delving into the Irish musical odyssey in America that go way beyond the stereotypical boxes into which that subject is usually put, old-time music performed by himself or with his sister Mollie O’Brien, electric folk-rock versions of traditional songs, and more. He penned a couple of country hits for Kathy Mattea–playing one once in Akron, he announced that it had paid for several large appliances–and even cracked the country Top Ten once in a duet with Mattea called “The Battle Hymn of Love.” And there are few wittier practitioners of the novelty song around these days. His bluegrasser “Running Out of Memory” is about computers, not love gone wrong.
The latest Tim O’Brien album is a gem. It came out under the name O’Brien Party of 7, a family group that includes Mollie, her husband, and several members of the next generation. The album is called Reincarnation: The Songs of Roger Miller, and it offers a dozen songs by the “King of the Road” master who slid off from novelty into a gloriously weird kind of country improvisatory freedom. Each one gets a joyous group arrangement of its own. Tim O’Brien has as many different concert lineups as he does musical arrows in his quiver. I don’t know how much of the Roger Miller material will be on the bill at his December 1 show at the Ark, but go and request “Hand for the Hog” for me.
Throw in O’Brien’s ability to play almost anything with strings, and you truly have something special. He’s a bluegrass treasure, one of those musicians who so often put forth great labors for little material reward. Not to be missed.