In Tim O’Brien’s music, things come together. The uncanny intersection of traditional and contemporary elements in his songwriting, his tireless dedication to a vast and still-expanding array of instruments, and his ongoing commitment to place himself in as many unique and challenging musical scenarios as possible has made him a key figure in today’s thriving roots music scene – and well beyond it. O’Brien’s presence – be it as a bandleader, songwriter, mentor, instrumentalist, or vocalist – has been strongly felt not only in his own rich music, but in the many recordings of his songs by such artists as the Dixie Chicks, Garth Brooks, Dierks Bentley, Nickel Creek, Kathy Mattea, the New Grass Revival, and the Seldom Scene, and in his recorded collaborations with Steve Martin, the Chieftains, and innumerable others. Most recently, O’Brien has been performing before capacity crowds in the band of Mark Knopfler, who described O’Brien as “a master of American folk music, Irish music, Scottish music – it doesn’t matter; a fine songwriter and one of my favorite singers.”
O’Brien listens to bluegrass and hears the music’s roots in modal Irish ballads and vintage swing. He insightfully re-examines and reconstructs those styles, and many others, in his own music, throwing off new sparks by reawakening the tension and interplay of the colliding components at the heart of American music. “Over the years,” he explains, “my music has become a certain thing. Each time I go into the studio to make a new album, I could make an Irish record, or a bluegrass record, or a country record…but it seems artificial to sift anything out. I feel like I’d be leaving out something important. In the end, I just try to make it round…”
That roundness of vision and scope permeates every aspect of Chicken & Egg, O’Brien’s thirteenth solo album, available July 13 via his own Howdy Skies imprint. Mixing O’Brien originals, collaborations, and a handful of outside compositions, Chicken & Egg is an illuminating, engaging, and ultimately life-affirming meditation on the art of living. “This stuff reflects what goes on in the life of someone my age,” O’Brien reflects. “I’m 56 years old. I’m not the young kid on the scene – and I’m happy about that. I’m at a strange point in my life: my kids are growing up, while my parents and teachers are passing on. There’s a lot happening – but it’s just life, and that’s what this album is about. There’s a little love song action here and there, but mostly it’s about living life.”
As a songwriter, O’Brien has a gift for finding the profound hiding within the mundane, and bringing it out in a way that is both casually conversational and deeply felt. The earthy wisdom of Chicken & Egg’s songs are delivered in appropriately spontaneous fashion, largely recorded live in the studio with a core group of collaborators. In following his previous album, 2008’s entirely solo Chameleon, O’Brien says, “It was time to make a more acoustic record – more along the lines of a bluegrass thing, with an ensemble and not a lot of production: something pretty down-home, featuring a more consistent band.” To do so, he spent four days in the studio with master musicians Stuart Duncan (fiddle, mandolin, cello, banjo), Bryan Sutton (acoustic and electric guitar), and bassists Dennis Crouch and Mike Bub. O’Brien contributed mandolin, guitar, bouzouki, fiddle, and banjo, while drummer John Gardner enlivens many of the tracks. The cast of harmony vocalists includes Abigail Washburn (Sparrow Quartet, Uncle Earl), Chris Stapleton (the SteelDrivers), and Sarah Jarosz.
Once the players were determined, O’Brien dug into his vast reserves of unrecorded material. “I figured out what songs would work best with these guys, then I began singing and playing them around the house for a few months before the session,” he recalls. “I got familiar with them. These musicians can all play amazingly well, and they play a lot better if they are backing up someone who knows what they’re doing. If you’re going to add your part later, it doesn’t give them as much to go on. I didn’t think much about arrangements or what instruments I’d play – we just went in, sat down, and I started calling them off.”
What emerged, almost subliminally, was a thematically-linked fourteen-song suite – largely recorded in that original four-day session – that matches invigorating, spry performances to heartfelt, probing material dealing with the challenges imposed by passing of time. “I wanted the songs to have a progression to them,” O’Brien says. “They eventually formed this little story, like a novelette or character study. I didn’t plan it like this, but from one track to the next, the songs form something larger.”
Kicking off with a quizzical account of original sin sung from the perspective of the big man himself (“You Ate the Apple”), Chicken & Egg then steers us to the long-distance yearning of the lilting, Celtic-inflected “My Girl’s Waiting for Me.” Hal Cannon’s “Suzanna” follows, a witty dismantling and reassembling of fragments from familiar stringband lyrics, with a bit of new content incorporated. “All these songs,” O’Brien explains, “can be from the perspective of the same person as their life goes on. In ‘Suzanna’ he is a homeless person, sleeping on a bus bench. On the next track, ‘Sinner,’ he is trying to reform himself. By the next song, ‘Gonna Try to Make Her Stay,’ he is hoping that, against all odds, he’s changed enough for his girlfriend to come back.”
“Sun Jumped Up” follows, in which our protagonist is trying to remember a dream that he had while getting up and getting to work – struggling to balance the cosmic and the practical. The surprisingly modern and relevant lyric actually comes from the pen of Woody Guthrie, and was subsequently set to music by O’Brien. “I’d known Nora Guthrie for a while,” says Tim, “and when she initiated these posthumous collaborations – like the ones with Wilco, Billy Bragg, and Jonatha Brooke – she sent me some lyrics. To be asked was a real honor.” A connection with the past similar to that achieved by the Guthrie collaboration is made whenever O’Brien picks up an unfamiliar vintage instrument, such as the 1915 S.S. Stewart cello banjo heard on “Suzanna.” “Just as you can learn things from songs,” he explains, “instruments can teach you things; especially an old one that has some ghosts in it.”
Growing up in Wheeling, West Virginia, O’Brien was surrounded by classic country and bluegrass music first, subsequently augmented by the revolutionary folk music the era, including Bob Dylan, whom O’Brien paid tribute to on the acclaimed 1996 release Red On Blonde. While his sister (and occasional collaborator) Mollie took piano lessons, O’Brien pursued guitar and banjo on his own, eventually adding mandolin and fiddle to his arsenal by the time he left for college. Dropping out of a northeastern liberal arts college after a year, O’Brien headed west, eventually settling in Boulder, Colorado, where a burgeoning, eccentric roots music scene was forming. Following a stint in the endearingly ramshackle Ophelia Swing Band, O’Brien co-founded the bluegrass band Hot Rize in 1978, with guitarist Charles Sawtelle, bassist Nick Forster, and banjo player Peter Wernick. Combining a healthy reverence for bluegrass tradition with a playfully postmodern sensibility, Hot Rize became a fan and festival favorite, recording a series of acclaimed albums for the Flying Fish and Sugar Hill labels until dissolving in 1990 – at which point O’Brien had already begun to establish himself as a solo artist. (Hot Rize continues to reform on occasion, with different guitarists in the place of the late and much-missed Sawtelle.)
In 1996, O’Brien moved to Nashville. “Can’t Stop the Flow,” featured on the second half of Chicken & Egg, dates from that era, and seamlessly fits the narrative of the album. “Here I am, I’m supporting the family,” O’Brien says, recalling when the song was written. “I’d moved to Nashville to have a chance to send the kids to college. My career was really starting to get rolling, and I was just trying to juggle it all. From that point, I’d been on my own for five years since Hot Rize and things were starting to click pretty good…but not without challenges.
” Chicken & Egg’s second half (the b-side on the vinyl edition; tracks eight through fourteen on the CD) more prominently features the swinging backbeat of John Gardner’s drums, and delves into the more serious situations that come with aging. “No Way to Stop the Flow” is followed by “Not Afraid O’ Dyin’,” a song inspired by O’Brien’s recently departed father. “That’s my favorite song now,” he says. “It’s all his own words, it’s all stuff he’d say to me. I love singing it and hearing the words. It brings him back to me.” A charming series of off-kilter observations and queries, the song celebrates the elder O’Brien’s indomitable spirit and relentless curiosity. “He put the best face on things,” Tim reflects. “That song is really about the limbo of late old age – my mom had died, and my dad was wondering why he was still around. At the end of his life, he was lonesome…but he found a way to approach every day with an open mind.”
O’Brien’s father, who died at the astonishing age of 96, also informs “Letter in the Mail.” “When I sing that song,” Tim explains, “I picture him getting a letter from me or my sister or my brother from halfway across the world. Right before he died, I called him from New Zealand. It was like I was calling from Mars…he was born in 1913, and he saw a lot of changes. He was amazed by what was going on.” The working man theme of the first half returns with “Old Joe,” only this time the central character’s job is in a graveyard, where, after witnessing it on a daily basis for so long, he sees life and death as almost no big deal. The urgent, minor-key incantation “Mother Mary” (written with Dixie Chick Martie Maguire) follows, then the album is closed by the ruminative yet unresigned “Space Between the Lines.”
“The last song is about meditation, that place where you’re in between moments,” O’Brien concludes. “Your concerns and foibles are all gone and you’re just living in the world. It’s a place I aspire to be – the space between the lines.” Chicken & Egg, like much of O’Brien’s best music, exists in the spaces between: between genres, between generations, between the everyday chores that most musicians see as impediments, but which O’Brien continues to draw inspiration from. His work, born of wonder and experience, transcends circumstance while never pretending to be anything but one man’s story. “I’m a folk musician,” he says humbly. “I gravitate towards the old sounds and I still sing a good bit of traditional material. My songs come out of that well of folk music. If you do it long enough, you can’t always tell the old from the new – it blends together. It becomes what happens between the chicken and the egg: I don’t know which came first, but it contains the whole of life.”