CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFORMERS: Tim O’Brien (Part 2 of 2)

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I’m pleased to present Part 2 of my interview with Grammy®-winning Howdy Skies recording artist Tim O’Brien.

Tim has earned an enthusiastic following throughout his illustrious career as a vocalist, songwriter, bandleader, multi-instrumentalist and world-traveling performer.  The innovative bluegrass band Hot Rize, which he co-founded in 1978, is still actively touring nationally and internationally, occasionally featuring appearances by their alter-ego western swing band Red Knuckles & the Trailblazers.  (See this previous post for additional musings on Tim and Hot Rize.)

Tim’s songs have been recorded by such artists as the Dixie Chicks, Garth Brooks, Dierks Bentley, Nickel Creek, Kathy Mattea, the New Grass Revival, and the Seldom Scene.  He has appeared on countless recordings in collaboration with other performers, and he has just released his 13th solo album, Chicken & Egg, which is conveniently available for purchase, along with several other of his CDs, at Tim’s website.

Tim was kind enough to take time from his busy schedule to speak with me about performance during the Wintergrass festival in Bellevue, Washington, while I was there teaching a music performance master class.

The first installment of this conversation was posted one week ago.  –VA

When you’re in the audience, what are the qualities of a performance that enthrall you?

Tim O’Brien:  Well, I don’t know, in a show the performers have so much more going for them than they do with a recording, or even with a video, because they have this sort of visual thing and this one-time-only version of it that’s just kind of like, “Wow, well here we are.”  Like, if somebody buys a CD or a DVD of a performance, they go, “Ok, well, we can watch this now, or we can watch it later, or we can watch it again.”  They might not ever really pay attention to it.  But when it’s the one time, you just tend to be there – I think it tends to draw you in.

So when you think of your favorite performers, why are they your favorite performers?  What qualities do they have?

TO:  Well, there’s the great instrumentalists that are improvisers, and you’re kind of waiting to see what they’ll do, what they’ll come up with, or just the fascination of someone’s incredible technique – the amazement.  It’s like a feat of an acrobat or somebody – it’s exciting.  There’s the exciting part.  I mean, bluegrass is that way.  People go to bluegrass shows to get excited by the music, because a lot of it is fast tempos, and you wonder if they’re going to be able to do it.  And so you’re kind of rooting for them, and then you’re excited when they do.  It’s like a football game.  And there is a sort of competition in the bluegrass thing – sometimes they call it a cutting contest – where you’re trying to play everything you can to show the other guy how cool you are, and the other guy does the same, and then you’ve got to even come up with more.  It’s kind of a contest, so there is that sort of sporting thing.

But, you know, when you go to a show, people are on your side – they’ve come through the door with the intention of sitting down or dancing or whatever to your music and your performance.  It’s like going into church.  Everybody prays a different way.  You know, you have silent prayer – it would be ridiculous to think that everybody’s thinking the same thing.  Even if they’re on the same prayer, I’m sure they interpret it differently.  And yet, everyone has the same intention, which is to get spiritual.  And it’s not far off with a concert or a festival.  A festival is like a hundred concerts – it’s like you have a hundred concerts over three days, and you never stop – it’s like an immersion in that.  So the idea that you’re supposedly going to take time to appreciate art, and you’re going to be entertained – under the guise of entertainment, you’re coming through there – well, really what’s happening, I think, is that people get their own ideas about what’s happening.  And then, somewhere along the line, like with song lyrics and a good performance of a song lyric, you’ll strike some kind of nerve that’s common to everybody in the room.  Certain songs will do it every time, because they’re just good.

And then also it’s songs that everyone knows – I mean, there’s nothing more sure-fire than that, if you get a song that everyone knows.  Like if I play “Gentle On My Mind” [by John Hartford] at a gig, I’ve recorded that song, but mostly I’ve done it since Hartford passed, and that brings up so much context.  Everybody in the audience that has heard of John Hartford, everybody that has ever seen him, they’re thinking about him.  So you get everybody on the same page, and it’s like that power of everybody getting pointed in the same direction, and you never know when that’s going to happen.  And I see performers sometimes that I’ve never seen before and I’m just totally blown away, and you go, “That’s the best band I’ve ever heard.”  And it’s just because they took you to that place, I think.

And sometimes it’s the circumstances of the show.  For instance, I was in the front row of your Red Knuckles show at the Wildflower Pavilion at RockyGrass (in July of 2009).

TO:  Oh, yeah.

And that was, like, the place to be on the planet Earth at that moment.

TO:  It was a pretty good moment.  Yeah, that was good.

Because everybody was so charged.

TO:  Yeah, it was contagious, the mood.  But it’s like the public’s perception of it.  Like, if I come from Nashville to Wintergrass, they go, “Oh, they came all the way from Nashville.  These people came from far away.  Well, let’s go!”  If I was playing the same music and I came from Tacoma, they’d go, “Oh, yeah, well he’s coming from Tacoma.  Maybe I’ll stay home this weekend.”

“He’s a local guy…”

TO:  But you set up this kind of condition, and it’s not hard to win in that situation.

But, I don’t know, my perception of that Red Knuckles show was that it seemed like you guys really got to take your leashes off, even though you were doing what was expected of you for that show.

TO:  Yeah, what was good was that, well, we have a big backlog of experience together, and so much that we forget it all, and then it was amazing to all of us to see each other do their thing.  And those guys are all so funny.  And it’s also funny to get a sideman that’s unsuspecting.  I mean, Hoot Hester [playing fiddle] knew what we did, but he hadn’t really done this with us before.  So it’s a process.

A wild card.

TO:  You just put it through this process and see what happens.

But the energy was just flying.

TO:  Yeah.

If you could have made a visual representation of the energy that was flying around, it would have been like one of those Pink Floyd laser light shows.  It was actually one of the most amazing things I’ve experienced as an audience member in terms of having that sense of being in the vortex – that this is the place to be, right here, right now.  What do you think accounted for that energy?

TO:  Well, there was no plan.  Like I say, we have a lot of context, and we have a lot of common experience as a band.  And yet, we were kind of on the edge, wondering what was going to happen next.  And we tried some songs that we hadn’t even talked about playing, and that kind of thing.  You know, you haven’t played them for ten years or something – that’s kind of fun.  And then if it goes well at all, then you’re amazed, so that’s contagious to the band.

I think that the audience picks up on that, when you’re working harder.  I find as an instrumentalist, when you play these solos in bluegrass situations, you get more interest from the audience when you’re trying.  When you maybe don’t succeed as well other times when you’re so prepared with a solo and it looks easy – it probably sounds easy, and the audience goes, “Well, that’s good and everything, but…”  But when somebody kind of grimaces, and they screw up and they try harder, they give them applause for that.  So it’s kind of funny.

Do you ever find it difficult to connect to the emotional “nugget” of a song, even when it’s your own song?  Do you ever feel that there’s too much distance from what caused you to write the song in the first place?

TO:  Yeah, well, some of the songs don’t have a staying power, and some of them just never go out of style, so you’ve just got to go with your heart on that.  But then people want to hear songs, and you go, ok, well, I’ll try this one.  But at some point you have to sort of say, ok, this is in my bag, or it is not, and kind of be ready for it.  I get in the trap, particularly when I’m playing solo – when I don’t have anybody else, and I can’t complain if the other guys in the band don’t know it – and they’ll request these songs, and I’ll say, “Oh, yeah”, and then I play it, and a lot of times I’ll just stop in the middle and say, “Sorry, I don’t remember the rest of this!”  And it’s because I’m not into that song, really.  I’m kind of past it.  And I hear them on the records and I go, “Oh, ok…”  And there’s probably some on this record I’m doing now [Chicken and Egg], and that’s ok.

Actually, my buddies in Hot Rize – I think it was Charles [Sawtelle], or it might have been Pete [Wernick], I’m not sure – he said, “You know, it’s like baseball.  The best hitter in baseball gets a .400 average – that’s 40 percent of the time he gets on base.”  You know, so, you’re doing pretty good just starting and ending together – that’s pretty good!  I don’t feel so bad if I mess up, sing out of tune, sing the wrong lyric here or there – it’s ok.  Mostly, in the end, we win.  We have a good win/loss average.

Well, you must have to maintain a fairly encyclopedic knowledge, especially with all the different jobs you do.  I’m sure that a lot of times you’re just kind of flying into a situation, having to just jump into it and be expected to know stuff.

TO:  Yeah, it’s an interesting thing, the different situations.  I mean, it’s really good, those different situations – like I say, the variety is good.  I’m getting ready to do a tour with Mark Knopfler – six weeks, I’m filling in for a guy – and so I get this glimpse into this other world.  But it’s like an eight-piece band.  I’m usually either solo or with two, maybe three, other guys.  And it’s also not me.  I was worried about it, that I wouldn’t be good at it.  I thought I might get fired after the first week for being not used to being a sideman!  But it was good because a couple weeks ago I did a tour with twenty pieces – it was called the Transatlantic Concert.  And it was like a revue.  But I could play on anything I wanted to play on, as long as the performer heading up that piece was in agreement.  And it was a real great thing about contributing to everyone else’s parts, and finding the subtle little thing that might add to it.

So that’s the role that’s coming up, and it’ll be good instruction, instead of being the guy – you know, the other guys are following me, and there’s a little more on my plate when I’m the front man than when I’m a sideman.  I’m very comfortable in that role, but part of that job is, you’re the one that relates to the audience in a verbal way – non-singing way – and if you’re the singer, you’re the one that’s speaking to them in that way – with lyrics.  Communication.  So you’re doing the main front part of the work, and you’re the focus.  And it’s a wonderful, very powerful, position.  Even in a room with ten, twenty people in the audience, it’s still a powerful thing.  And I like that challenge.  And, like I say, I like to kind of mess it up and see what happens.  And I’ll turn to the guys, if it’s a band, sometimes – you know, we have this set list and we practice and everything – and I’ll go, “Look, we didn’t practice this, but just follow along here, because I just need to break out of the straightjacket.”  And then sometimes really good stuff happens.  Sometimes it’s terrible, but you sort of have to try.

And, you know, if it’s a train wreck, then chances are people love you anyway.

TO:  Yeah, there can be train wrecks.  That’s why I say, if there’s an obvious one, even if I might get away with it, I go, “Uh, yeah, I sang that verse already, didn’t I?”  And they go, “Oh, yeah!”  They don’t mind.  But they like it better if you acknowledge that, I think.  Because then you’re one of them.  I mean, you are one of them, and you get that understood right away.

It’s like, “We’ll get through this.”

TO:  Yeah, well, like I say, I could never be the one who didn’t allow the flash photography and the recording, because to me it would be hypocritical to say, “I don’t want that to go out because it doesn’t represent me.”  Well, how could I stand myself?  I know what I’m doing is bringing some kind of happiness to people, and it’s helping in some way, even if I do screw up.  And, in fact, maybe if I do and acknowledge it, it even makes it better.  So I’m not saying that you need to mess up, but I think you need to show yourself as a human being.

You know, Rosalie Sorrels – she talks and talks and talks, and it’s not like she has a sort of set thing she’s going to say, and it’s kind of this ramble.  It doesn’t necessarily connect to the song.  She eventually gets back to the thing, but by the time she’s introduced the first or second song, you kind of get to know her.  And that’s the thing – you’re just cutting the ice, you’re taking the barriers down, you’re all trying to get together in a performance.  It’s a thing where you meld souls together or something.  And, you know, the power, the abandon of that – things can lift up in ways that they can’t when you’re just doing this on your own.

Like I say, I get excited when I’m writing sometimes, and when I’m recording sometimes as well.  But getting a group together and sort of leading them into something is really very rewarding, and it’s fascinating.  And there’s something mysterious about it that I don’t know.  I think I’ve told you everything I can tell you about planning it.  But there’s something that happens, and can happen, that’s really wonderful, and that’s what I go back for.  That’s why I lose sleep, and cramp up in airplane seats, and eat bad food.

And be away from your family.

TO:  And be away from the family.  It’s because of that.  I think it probably helps me as a friend, as a father – this practice.  I mean, I think for anybody, doing the best you can makes you a better friend.  And I don’t know, you just want to be a solid citizen, and I try to be.  But this performing thing, that’s kind of the best thing I can do.  If I could invent cures for cancer, that would be good, that would be probably better, you know, stuff like that – or build a bridge, that would be good.  But my own particular job is this, and it seems like I can do it.  So I keep trying.

Note:  Thanks again to Tim for taking the time to have this in-depth conversation with me about performance.  I encourage my readers to visit their local independent music store or Tim’s newly-redesigned website to peruse his merchandise, and take any chance you can to see him in concert. –VA