Tim O'Brien co-founded the lively, good-humored newgrass band, Hot Rize, which toured tirelessly from 1978 to 1990, after which O'Brien and his cohorts went on to long solo careers. O'Brien recorded several records with his sister Mollie, as well as a string of incresingly impressive solo albums. Here's a quick look at his work....
Hot Rize "Hot Rize" (Flying Fish, 1979)
A sweet, sprightly album by one of the premiere newgrass bands of the late 1970s and early '80s, featuring guitarist Charles Sawtelle, banjo whiz Pete Wernick, Tim O'Brien on mandolin and fiddle, and Nick Foster on bass. Each broughttheir own sensibility and input into the band's style and repertoire, though overall they shared an easygoing, light-hearted love of good, old-fashioned melodic bluegrass and country. This album features several straightforward instrumental tracks, gospel harmony numbers, and some choice novelty tunes, including the perky "This Here Bottle," and their zippy cover of "Country Boy Rock'n'Roll." Where the Carter Family meets the New Riders Of The Purple Sage, that's where you'd find the Hot Rize boys. A good 'un!
Hot Rize "Radio Boogie" (Flying Fish, 1981)
Hot Rize "Red Knuckles & The Trailblazers" (Flying Fish, 1982)
A live concert send-up of old-time hillbilly radio shows. Kinda sedate musically, and a little too cutesy, but a nice chance to hear these fellas play some country, as opposed to bluegrass, music. Cover tunes include some old Webb Pierce, Johnny Horton and Roger Miller classics... among others!
Hot Rize "In Concert" (Flying Fish, 1984)
A fun, lively set, with the boys plunkin' their way through a swell set of traditional material. Midway through, they slip into their Red Knuckles persona, goofy fake "advertisements" and all... Musically this is much stronger than the first Red Knuckles album, worth checkin' out!
Tim O'Brien "Hard Year Blues" (Flying Fish/Rounder, 1984)
O'Brien's solo debut is a nice rootsy set, a diverse collection of songs and styles, blending bluegrass, newgrass, cajun, country and acoustic swing, with a hint of Celtic trad in there as well... Very nice!
Hot Rize "Traditional Ties" (Flying Fish, 1985)
Hot Rize "Untold Stories" (Flying Fish, 1987)
Hot Rize "Take It Home" (Flying Fish, 1987)
Tim & Mollie O'Brien "Take Me Back" (Sugar Hill, 1988)
Tim O'Brien "Odd Man In" (Sugar Hill, 1991)
A jovial, sometimes overly-clever set of poppish country tunes that, I hate to say it, seems to appeal to the more sedate, middle-age-ish end of the folkie set. The songs are kinda cute, but musically I don't hear much that would draw me back for another listen: it's kinda inoffensive and mid-tempo material. One highlight is "Lonely At The Bottom, Too," a fairly catchy tune that recalls classic honkytonk novelty tunes such as Charlie Walker's "Pick Me Up On Your Way Down," etc. Well-crafted, but a little slick.
Tim O'Brien & The Boys "Oh Boy! O'Boy!" (Sugar Hill, 1993)
Mark Schatz (bass & banjo) and Scott Nygard (guitar) back O'Brien up on an amiable set that dips deeply into country gospel and traditional sources, as well as a bit of Dylan and a slew of O'Brien originals. There's something a little too perky and bouncy about his approach, but this is still pretty nice. Worth checking out.
Tim & Mollie O'Brien "Remember Me" (Sugar Hill, 1992)
Tim & Mollie O'Brien "Away On The Mountain" (Sugar Hill, 1994)
Tim O'Brien "Rock In My Shoe" (Sugar Hill, 1995)
Another set of well-crafted, but overly-comfy folk-grass tunes. Some novelty stuff, some heartsongs, plenty of fancy filler by "usual suspects" pickers, including Jerry Douglas, who produced the album.
Tim O'Brien "Red On Blonde" (Sugar Hill, 1996)
This bluegrass homage to Bob Dylan is surprisingly lively and fresh and (oddly enough) one of O'Brien's best, most straightforwardly bluegrass-y solo albums. Scott Nygaard, Jerry Douglas and others pitch in on this good-natured album, spearheaded by the longtime Hot Rize mandolinist, who has since gone on into more high-concept blue/newgrass terrain. Here, O'Brien connects with Dylan's original old-timey influences, straightening out some of the kooky kinks Dylan had put into folk music, back in his 'Sixties heyday, and transforming classic tunes such as "Maggie's Farm" and "Tombstone Blues" into straightforward, galloping bluegrass breakdowns. Nice to hear this music coming full circle back to its roots!
Mollie O'Brien "Tell It True" (Sugar Hill, 1996)
Tim O'Brien "When No One's Around!" (Sugar Hill, 1997)
There are some iffy arrangements -- a drum kit...! horrors!! -- but it's balanced by strong songwriting. I liked "One Drop Of Rain," cowritten (and with a harmony duet from?) Hal Ketchum... So I started to settle in and think, aw this ain't gonna be so bad... Then that damn soprano sax kicked in on the very next tune, and my nerves were on edge from there on out. Reggae riddims? Bah! Cutesy folkie novelty songs about home cooking? I'm outta here. But then he comes back with a cute country tune like "How Come I Ain't Dead?" and a stark old-timey ballad like "Love And Laughter," and I'm calm again. A very eclectic album; I wish it were more acoustic and traditionally oriented, but the good stuff is pretty good. Anyway, this is worth checking out...
Mollie O'Brien "Big Red Sun" (Sugar Hill, 1998)
Dirk Powell/Tim O'Brien/John Herrmann "Songs From The Mountain" (Howdy Skies, 1998)
A nice set of reconstructed traditional mountain music, with old reels and gospel tunes, with all three of the headliners switching off on various instruments -- banjo, fiddle, mandolin and guitar -- and several notable guest performers such as Ron McCoury, Mollie O'Brien, Pete Wernick and Andrea Zonn pitching in on several songs. It's a nice, mellow, lulling set, and deeply, deeply traditional as well. Recommended!
Tim O'Brien "The Crossing" (Alula, 1999)
Mollie O'Brien "Things I Gave Away" (Sugar Hill, 2000)
Tim O'Brien & Darrell Scott "Real Time" (Howdy Skies, 2000)
Wow...!! What a great record. Songwriter Scott really brings out O'Brien's serious side, and it pays off handsomely in this old-timey oriented set, with plenty of gospel material, modern heartsongs and compelling vcal harmonies. On "House Of Gold," they do an a capella duet that'll give you goosepimples, then follow it up with a lovely, heartfelt version of O'Brien's "More Love," a song which was recorded a few years later by the Dixie Chicks. This is easily my favorite of the Tim O'Brien albums I've heard to date... Recommended!
Tim O'Brien "Two Journeys" (Sugar Hill, 2002)
Hot Rize "So Long Of A Journey: Live At The Boulder Theatre" (Sugar Hill, 2002)
CD A nice posthumous concert album from one of the big bluegrass supergroups of the 1980s. This album features Hot Rize at their best, professionally plowing their way through a powerful repertoire of original tunes and well-chosen oldies. This set was recorded during a 1996 reunion gig, and band gets a little looser and a little more playful than on some of their studio albums, as all concerned, including the late guitarist Charles Sawtelle, play the good stuff, all sweet and fine. Recommended!
Tim O'Brien "Traveler" (Sugar Hill, 2003)
Over his long career, O'Brien has been rather sparing with his own compositions... This disc is, I believe, only the second time he's recorded an album that was all his own material. The theme is "the road," as in "traveling on..." The lyrics are multilayered and highly crafted, much like the music, which -- like many O'Brien outings -- is a little too ornate and sugary for my tastes. At least that was my first impression... Revisiting this album, I found it had a pleasant depth and resonance, and was a pretty rewarding listen. Fans will certainly be thrilled, this is one of O'Brien's more intriguing and personal works, and one of his least cloying or cutesy. Worth checking out!
Tim O'Brien "Fiddler's Green" (Sugar Hill, 2005)
Tim O'Brien "Cornbread Nation" (Sugar Hill, 2005)
Tim O'Brien "Chameleon" (Proper American, 2008)
Two Oceans Trio "Two Oceans Trio" (Tim O'Brien Music, 2009)
With Gerry Paul and Trevor Hutchinson...
Tim O'Brien "Chicken & Egg" (Howdy Skies, 2010)
A nice bouncy, robust new one from this folk/bluegrass stalwart. O'Brien's voice sounds great, and the picking is solid. What more do you need to know? It's pretty groovy, in a Prairie Home Companion kinda way...
Tim O'Brien & Darrell Scott "We're Usually A Lot Better Than This" (Full Light, 2012)
Live recordings from 2005 and 2006...
Tim O'Brien & Darrell Scott "Memories And Moments" (Full Skies, 2013)
Hick Music Index