Tim O’Brien

Trailbrazing Triple-Threat
Trailbrazing Triple-Threat

If Tim O’Brien was a ballplayer, he’d be at least a “triple threat.” He’s a superb songwriter, a stellar mandolin player, a unique singer, and a powerful live performer. Born in Wheeling, West Virginia, Tim emigrated to Boulder, Colorado, in the early ’70s where he quickly became part of the music scene.

In 1978, he joined the Hot Rize bluegrass band made up of Charles Sawtelle, Peter Wernick, and Nick Forster. Hot Rize also had a spin-off band that played western swing. Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers were just as popular as Hot Rize, and often audiences at concerts were divided between Hot Rize and Red Knuckles fans. We’re probably not giving away any dark secrets in revealing that Tim O’Brien was Red Knuckles.

Hot Rize garnered its share of awards, including the International Bluegrass Musicians Associations’ first “Performer of the Year” award in 1990. O’Brien received the IBMA’s male vocalist of the year award in ’93. After Hot Rize disbanded in ’90, O’Brien began his solo career. His songs have been made into huge hits by both Kathy Mattea and Garth Brooks. He is also much in demand as a sideman and has played on albums by Laurie Lewis, Maura O’Connell, Kathy Kallick, Jerry Douglas, Dwight Yoakam, Robert Earl Keen, David Grier, and Kate Rusby. Finally, his steady stream of solo albums shows that he’s not just an exceptional performer, but an truly innovative musical artist.

Vintage Guitar: When did you first take up an instrument?
Tim O’Brien: I was 12 years old, that was in 1966. I had a cheesy Sunburst Stella Harmony. I played my friend’s guitars for awhile. That’s why I play right-handed even though I’m left-handed.

You still play right-handed?
Yeah. They had right-handed guitars. I was just learning to play, so it didn’t dawn on me that maybe I should’ve tried it left-handed.

When did you take up mandolin?
Let’s see…I had a fiddle when I was 16. Then, when I was 18 my dad said, “Here’s a banjo mandolin I used to play. You might want to mess with it.” So I did.

Your father was a musician?
He didn’t really play. He was in a band in college, I think they kind of recruited him, but he claims he never really knew how to play the mandolin. He learned how to play a few songs, but he wasn’t really very into it, ever. He was the kind that took it to a music store to have it tuned. Good singer, though.

Were other members of your family musical?
My mom played the piano. Her brother played piano, I guess, quite well. On my dad’s side, his cousin and uncle were pretty musical. But in our immediate family, no one other than my sister was musical. I guess the two of us were enough.

How did you end up in Colorado?
I’d worked at summer camps and was into the mountains, backpacking and that kinda’ stuff. I worked at a camp in Jackson Hole for three summers, then in the fall of ’73 I went out there and spent the winter, then visited some friends living in Boulder, Colorado. One of the them was a banjo player – Ritche Mintz – and he was in a band with Ned Alderman. Basically, they wanted me come and live there. Ned had a music store and offered me a job clerking and teaching and what not. Also, I could play in their band.

When was that?
That was in February of ’74. The store was called Folk Arts. Now it’s called HB Woodsongs. Same store really, same phone number and everything. I ended up in the Ophelia Swing Band. I also played in another band called The Bluebirds. Boulder and Denver were a vibrant music scene back then. I ended up moving there in September of ’74.

Shortly thereafter, you met Charles Sawtelle at the Folklore Center?
Soon after I moved, I did. I remember I got a job playing with him. He was in a band called the Ramblin’ Drifters…

…or Driftin’ Ramblers, depending on which week it was.
Right. I did the jams, and some paid gigs with them. Every once in awhile I’d get paid for their Tuesday night or Wednesday night jams. Mostly, it was just for fun. It was a good way to stay in the bluegrass scene. That was a good band really. A good traditional band. The band I was playing with was called the Town and Country Review, and they were also pretty good. But not as good as the Driftin’ Ramblers.

Were you still teaching at Folk Arts?
Yes. But I when got into the Ophelia Swing Band with Dan Sadowsky, that started taking up a lot of my time and I quit working. I still taught lessons, but I stopped working behind the counter.

At that point you were a professional musician?
Yeah. I was amateurish, but I was making my living doing it. Actually, I was doing that before in Jackson Hole. But Boulder had more of a music scene and there was more of to learn, more people to learn from, and more things to do.

How did Hot Rize begin?
The Hot Rize band began in ’78. Actually I moved away for a short bit – my wife-to-be was going to school in Minneapolis, so I moved there. We went to Minneapolis for awhile, got married, and on January 1, 1978, moved back to Colorado.

So Hot Rize occupied you for the next 12 years?
Yeah. We were together full-time for 12 years.

Was ’92 the official breakup?
No. It was on the first of May, 1990. We played Merlefest. That was our last gig together full-time. We’ve done some reunions off and on since.

Nashville and Songwriting
You moved to Nashville in ’96?

It’s just the real music capitol. There’s a lot of infrastructure here.

It made a lot of sense for me, especially with the publishing and songwriting. I make about half my living from songwriting. It’s closer to the sources to get stuff recorded.

When did you write your first song?
When I was 14 or so, but I didn’t really take it seriously. It became more serious when I was in a band that was going to make a record. That was Hot Rize. I didn’t think about it with Ophelia Swing Band because we were doing old music. But with Hot Rize, Peter had his originals and I suppose there was some rivalry there. We were into being a creative entity. So we worked on writing songs, both together and separately.

We were going to make a record by hook or by crook, and that’s what drove me more to writing.

When Kathy Mattea recorded a couple of my songs, it made it even more imperative to write. It was like, “Wow, maybe I really should look into this more.”

How did that come about? Did she hear the songs with Hot Rize or did you shop them to her?
Well, she didn’t hear the songs with Hot Rise, but she knew me. Our managers shared offices. Hot Rize’s agent, Keith Case, had teamed up with her manager, Bob Tilly, so we got to know one another that way. We traded records and did some gigs together. The first one was on Mountain Stage. We actually collaborated onstage. So she just knew my stuff. Anyway, then she heard them sung by someone else on a demo tape. She liked the first one she got, and when she saw who wrote it she said, “Oh, cool!”
How did the Garth Brooks song come about?
Well, it’s funny. My success has all been through the same channels. Kathy recorded at a studio owned by Allan Reynolds. He was her producer. When Allan started his own publishing company, he signed me on as a writer. I was actually writing a song with Darryl Scott in that same building when the song plugger heard it and thought, “I’m gonna’ pitch that to Garth when they get it finished.” Allan also was producing Garth. It’s remarkable, really, how simply it happened. It’s sort of being in the right place at the right time.
And of course having good material?
Well, it’s a good song. I would never have picked that song to pitch to him. But it seemed like it really fit him when he got a hold of it.

Talking Guitars
What was the first good guitar you ever had?
The first good one? Well, the next thing I had after the Stella was a Harmony – wasn’t a Rocket, it was a solidbody. It was a two-pickup solidbody. Then I had a little toaster amp and I played in a rock band. You know – a bad rock band.

We all have to do that sometime…
Yeah. Then my brother, who was a fan of folk music and stuff, died in Vietnam. He left my sister money to buy a piano and me money to buy a guitar. I bought a Martin D-28, brand new off the rack in Wheeling, from Gerraro’s Music. I bought it in the spring of ’68. It was a Brazilian rosewood-body. I played it all day, every day. Kept at it. It had a couple of factory necksets and stuff. It was a good guitar for a lotta’ years.

You still have it?
No. I sold it. It had a crack in it down the back of the neck. It was a weird thing. I dropped it, and this crack kinda’ developed and expanded and the neck started actin’ funny. It was too bad. It was a good guitar. I might’ve been able to fix it, but the tuning kept goin’ in and out. I just kinda’ ditched it.

When did you get your first good mando?
I got my Nugget in ’76.

How did you become aware of Mike Kemnitzer?
He was a friend of folks I’d known in West Virginia – actually from across the stateline in Ohio – John and Zeke Hutchison.

It’s like a really early Nugget, isn’t it?
Yes. I want to say it’s like the fourth or fifth one. There’s one at Brantley, there’s one that Ed Neff has, and one that Howie Tarnower has, and I think this is the fourth. It’s the first A Model Nugget.

I know Kemnitzer was at OME Banjos for awhile, making mandos.
Right. He did an OME prototype mandolin or two, an F-5 and an A-5, during the same time he was making this one for me. Those guys I knew him through got him inspired in bluegrass music. There was a guy named Bob White who made mandolins and worked with Stewart McDonald, where all those people kinda hung out. So Bob helped Mike learn how to make mandolins, and I think did the finish work on his first couple of mandolins.

What made you decide on A, rather than an F, for bluegrass?
I just didn’t want to spend the money on an F-5. There were A Models coming out like Gibson was making, and various other companies were making ’em and they were using the longer-scale f-hole thing.

So you had the power of the F-5, but you didn’t have to pay for the carving.

The sound chamber, at least, is the same, but there’s more mass to an F-5 and there’s different characteristics from having less mass. But it’s pretty similar.

Do you have any other mandos you use regularly?
Well, I have another Nugget, an F-5. I keep it as a spare. I had some Flatiron mandos for awhile. But mostly I really like my Nugget A-5, it’s always been a very responsive instrument, and very much my own. It’s customized. It’s got this wide neck, real beefy circumference, as well. Also, it’s got a flat fingerboard (note: since our talk, O’Brien was presented with an F-5 made by John Garrity as a gift from the promoters of the Telluride Bluegrass festival, in recognition of his appearing at the festival for the last 25 years).

You also have a Nugget bouzouki. How did that come about?
Mike had already made me two instruments. One day he said, “I’d like to make another for you.” I bought the first one for next to nothing. Then the next one – the F-5- he gave me for free. Then he said, “I want to make you either a mandola or maybe an archtop guitar. I want to branch out, and I want you to have one.” So I said, “I know! Let’s make a bouzouki, but let’s kind of make it look like an archtop guitar”.

So there was a little of each of what he wanted to do. He took a Gibson L-5’s 16″ Loar pattern, like the Mother Maybelle Carter style, and shrunk it to the right scale. It was the first of its kind. He really hasn’t made anything quite exactly like it since then. It’s a beautiful conversation piece, but also really has turned into a tool I don’t know how I got along without.

You play it a lot onstage. It’s not just a novelty instrument.
No, it’s really good for me. I usually play with a guitarist, and being a mandolinist it’s good to have a foil in a guitarist. But you get a little tired. The mandolin is a little bit high-pitched, a little ‘doinky, doinky.’ It’s nice to have something a little lower for singer/songwriter stuff. It lends itself pretty well to original songs.

Do you write with a bouzouki?
Sometimes. When I’m writing lyrics I’ll get it out afterward.

So you’re a lyrics-first writer?
Yeah. Usually there’s a lyric, then I hear a melody as I write the lyric. So it kinda comes. There’s usually a melody and a rhythm that suggests a melody within the words.

Do you own any mandolas?
Yeah. I’ve had a Nugget mandola for about two years. Mike made me a matte-finished black-topped mandola as a companion to my mandolin. It’s actually got some of the same back wood, from the same source. It’s a nice piece.

One of the reasons he made a blacktop was when we talked about what I wanted in a mandolin on the first one. He said, “I got this really nice, aged wood, but it’s not good for an F-5 and it’s got a black line that runs through it.”

He said, “But it would make a really good top, and I was thinking about doing a black top.”

I said, “You know, I always liked those black-top Gibson A models.”

So he used that, and as a result I got a really nice aged wood top and an instrument that looked unique.

It’s definitely your signature instrument. I can’t think of anybody whose done more for making A models legitimate to play in bluegrass bands.
It has been a really good instrument. It records really well. It’s real great onstage with an acoustic setting with banjos and stuff, because it really cuts through.

Do you own a lot of other instruments?
A couple of electrics – I’ve got a Kent. I kinda like that thing. I saw it in a pawn shop one day and bought it on the way to Merlefest. I’ve also got a Schecter Strat copy and a 1950 Gibson J-50 that Charles Sawtelle found for me about three years ago.

Charles was really good at finding guitars for people, wasn’t he?
Yeah. Then I’ve got a ’37 Martin 00-18 I bought at Gruhns, which I really like. I also have a ’54 00-18 that technically belongs to my wife. I got that at the Denver Folklore Center.

Do you own any dreadnought-size Martins?
No. I’d kinda like to get something. I guess I’ve never been the vintage hound, although I do have some nice guitars. I’d like a dreadnought, but I don’t really need one. I’m usually playing guitar by myself, or there’s another guitarist and dreadnought seems to be the thing for the primary guitar player. It’s nice to have that power if you play bluegrass. But if I’m playing bluegrass, I’m always playing a mandolin or fiddle.

What’s the last instrument you bought?
A Levert tenor banjo; real short-scale, open-back banjo. Saw it at the Music Emporium. I was there and I just kinda picked it up, ya’ know?

It followed you home…
Yeah, it followed me home. It’s a nice thing – it’s funky, got a skin head on it. I can play Irish tunes just for fun. It hangs on the wall, so I grab it now and then.

Future Plans

What are you planning to do in the near future?
I’m also playing with New Grange, and with The Crossing. It’s kind of like schizophrenia.

Who’s in The Crossing?
The Crossing rotates, but it’s basically a project where Irish and American traditional musicians collaborate. It’s about the Irish/American immigrant experience. I’m really excited to have Patti Keenan play the Irish bagpipes, because it’s an amazing instrument and an amazing sound. It’s a really important part of the tradition. I’m excited to present that to people.

Do you guys rehearse, or just trade tapes to get ready?
Tapes, and it mostly follows the CD I made in 2000. Then we add enough to feature everybody doing their own thing.

Any other plans?
Yeah, a solo release of my songs.

A songwriter album?
I guess, a songwriter album with a small band. Hopefully, it’d be a lot of the same people that have played with me on various projects including Dirk Powell, Darryl Scott, Kenny Malone, and I’m not sure who on bass.

You’re thinking dusting off the O’Boys again?
It’s kind of like the O’Boys, but will be a bigger band, four or five pieces. Do it up right, rock the joint.

Doing much new songwriting lately?
I keep my hand in it. I wrote one with my wife and my son. It’s kind of a funny ditty called “Runnin’ Outa Memory For You.” It’s about not being able to open a jpg file of your sweetheart’s picture. But it’s a real traditional Bill Monroe bluegrass tune. I’m having fun. We’re writing stuff for fun.

Also, I’m trying to write stuff that means something to me. I’m not really trying to get it recorded by other people. I’ve always done that really, written stuff just to express something I felt should be expressed.

Photos: Steven Stone.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s Sep. ’02 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.