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Tim O’Brien; the musician, not the author

February 15, 2009

By Maggie Williams

I come from a family of coal miners and farmers in West Virgina and Ohio.  Good, honest and proud people; hard working, loving families, real salt of the earth folk; at least, that’s the impression I got growing up.  My father grew up in that environment and I sometimes try to imagine what it was like.  My father, like most of his seven brothers and sisters, moved on to other vocations and raised families of their own.  My generation lived in the big city of Chillicothe and would aspire to other things eventually.

Growing up in Ohio in the late 60s, in the big city, I always enjoyed our visits to see family “out to the farm” west of Chillicothe.  While the adults sat around the kitchen table talking about whatever adults talked about back then, I remember running around the place exploring barns, tormenting chickens, and climbing and jumping off hay bales.

When feeling especially bold, I would venture farther than I was supposed to, down the hills and through the woods to the back forty where the cows were.  I’m not sure why I did that, because my recollection is that I was afraid of those cows, them being so much bigger than me and all.  If one so much as looked at me, I’d get skiddish and start scoping out my exit route.

farmYears later, after many had moved away from Chillicothe or even Ohio, we started having family reunions, and of course the best place for them was the farm and my Aunt and Uncle would graciously host the hordes.  It was a great time for all, catching up, sharing lots of wonderful food, laughing…  Not always, but sometimes during my childhood visits to the farm and of course during the reunions, Uncle Carl and cousin Dale and cousin Ham, and Uncle Will, and whoever else was there would bring out the guitars and banjos and start pickin and singing.  Oh it was such a treat which I remember fondly.

These days of course, when anyone asks me about my childhood, my story with the usual embellishments that go along with time, begins with me growing up on the farm…  It’s my fanciful alternative childhood I sometimes wish I had.  Just for the record, I had a pretty good childhood, I’m not complaining.

I haven’t been to a reunion for many years and I miss them.  I haven’t thought about that childhood on the farm or the music for a long time, but this weekend, it all came rushing back to me.

You may have seen my recent post on Steve Martin and his new banjo CD The Crow.  The first track on that album, Daddy Played the Banjo is sung by Tim O’Brien.  I had never heard of this guy but I really liked his voice so I did a little research on him this weekend and discovered my new favorite musician.  It’s beyond me how I never knew of Tim O’Brien.   I found some videos of him on YouTube and checked out iTunes to see what was available from him.  I got his latest album called Chameleon and an older one called Rock in my Shoe and I absolutely love them.  I’m now looking at some of his other albums as well.

Tim O’Brien is from Wheeling, WV and as a teenager taught himself to play guitar, mandolin and violin.  After dropping out of college, he headed off to Colorado where he paid his proverbial dues and in the late 70s formed the bluegrass band Hot Rize with Pete Wernick, Charles Sawtelle and Nick Forster.  Hot Rize would go on to become one of the hottest bluegrass bands for over a decade.

Tim went solo and has released 10+ albums, is a giant in the Country/Bluegrass/Folk/American Roots music world and he’s a Grammy winner.  He also plays banjo and a couple of instruments I’d never heard of; the bouzouki and mandocello.  His voice is cool and smooth with a slight Ralph Stanley tone and he has amazing control.  I rank him up there with another of my favorites, Alison Krauss who is also controlled and very talented.

Here’s the thing; he sings without any apparent effort and as the tune is going along, he’ll go where you didn’t expect.  He looks like he’s a member of my family, he’s one of us, and he has attitude, almost a no attitude attitude if that makes any sense.  He seems like one of my cousins on the farm and listening to his music this weekend brought my childhood back to me; embellished or otherwise.  Thanks Tim, from your newest fan.

Tim’s website:

Tim’s music at Amazon

Have a look at these videos at Folk Alley of Tim performing songs from Chameleon.

Tim performing Brother Wind with Darrell Scott and Jerry Edwards during one of the Transatlantic sessions

Tim playing fiddle and singing an old gospel tune called I’m Working on a Building, at The Center for the Arts in Natick, MA

Tim performing Red Dog in the Morning from Chameleon at Grey Fox 08

Tim performing Where Does Love Go from his album Chameleon

Tim performing Menga’s from his album Chameleon

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