Born on March 16, 1954, in Wheeling, WV. Education: Attended Colby College, Waterville, ME. Addresses: Record company--Sugar Hill Records, P.O. Box 55300, Durham NC 27717-5300. Website--Tim O'Brien Official Website:

Singer-songwriter Tim O'Brien draws from many influences to create a unique blend of traditional bluegrass, honky tonk, folk, and swing. He helped to form the award-winning bluegrass band Hot Rize in 1978, a group he performed with until it disbanded in 1990. He has released several solo albums, worked as a backing musician for other artists, formed his own record label, and performed and recorded with his sister, musician Mollie O'Brien.

Born on March 16, 1954, in Wheeling, West Virginia, O'Brien grew up hearing famed country artists, including Charley Pride, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Country Gentlemen, and Jimmy Martin perform on radio's WWVA Jamboree. As he told an interviewer from the Puremusic website, when he was 13 years old, his parents would drop him off at the Jamboree. "I'd pay $2.50 to get into the cheap balcony seats. But then, on special Saturday nights you might see Buck Owens, Charley Pride, Jerry Reed, or Merle Haggard."

O'Brien also listened to the Beatles; Peter, Paul, and Mary; and Roger Miller. When he was a teenager the self-taught musician traveled to Colorado and joined bluegrass guitarist Charles Sawtelle, banjo player Pete Wernick, and bass player/singer mike Scap (who was soon replaced by Nick Forster) to create the band Hot Rize (named after the secret ingredient in Martha White Self-Rising Flour). According to John Metzger at The Music Box website, the band "not only inspired artists within its own genre, but also fueled the rise of the jam band scene in Colorado."

From 1978-90, Hot Rize played bluegrass based on traditional sounds but enlivened with fresh harmonies; they also often combined old and new songs in their show. In 1990 Hot Rize won the International Bluegrass Music Association's first Entertainer of the Year award, and in 1993 O'Brien won the International Bluegrass Music Association's Male Vocalist of the Year award.

In 1984 O'Brien produced his first solo album, Hard Year Blues, which featured his distinctive folk-fusion sound. By 1994 O'Brien and his sister had produced three more albums that included traditional country, folk, and swing tunes sung with tight harmonies. In 1997 country singer Kathy Mattea covered O'Brien's "Untold Stories" and "Walk the Way the Wind Blows," which became a hit single. Both songs had a wide appeal, reaching beyond the country audience to the mainstream.

After Hot Rize broke up, O'Brien founded the O'Boys, a band that included jazz and bluegrass guitarist Scott Nygaard, bassist Mark Schatz. O'Brien played a range of instruments--mandolin, fiddle, and even the bouzouki. The group toured widely, recording Oh, Boy! O'Boy! in 1993. The album featured a wide range of material, from Jimmy Driftwood's traditional "He Had a Long Chain On," to the "newgrass" sound of "Church Steeple." It also included a cover of Bob Dylan's "When I Paint My Masterpiece," a track that inspired O'Brien to record an entire album of Dylan songs, Red on Blonde.

Hot Rize reunited in 1996 for a reunion tour, captured in So Long of a Journey, which was not released until 2002. Metzger wrote that the album "showcases the ensemble at its best--delivering a delightful treat," and that the band "unleashed some of the tightest, most exquisite bluegrass music this side of [famed bluegrass musician] Del McCoury."

In 1997 O'Brien released another solo album, When No One's Around, whose title track was later recorded by Garth Brooks on his Sevens album. O'Brien moved into another musical tradition in 1999 with The Crossing, an exploration of Irish music that included performances by Irish band Altan and Irish singer Paul Brady, as well as many American bluegrass performers. In a review in World of Hibernia, Kira L. Schlechter noted that the album had been inspired by O'Brien's interest in his Irish roots, remarking, "That interest is more like an overwhelming delight." On the album, O'Brien sang about Irish emigrants to America, prompting Schlecter to comment, "O'Brien acts as a loving historian and proud Irish-American...." In Sing Out!, Mike Regenstreif called the album "a masterful exploration in song ... of Irish emigration to America" and "a wonderful demonstration of how Irish music developed in the New World."

In his interview with Puremusic,O'Brien said honestly that the project originally came about because it was "an excuse for me to play some Irish music with people that really knew how to do it. I'd sort of hide behind them when they were playing a tune." He noted, however, that bluegrass has Celtic roots, and that many bluegrass tunes are actually Irish or Scottish ones that were brought over with immigrants; O'Brien wanted to explore both the similarities and the differences in the music.

In a follow-up album, Two Journeys, O'Brien emphasized the Irish side of this musical marriage, and again invited many Irish artists to participate. Regenstreif wrote, "O'Brien continues to explore the relationship between Irish and American music as he leads a kind of culture exchange between some of Ireland's best traditional musicians and some of America's," noting that "the spirit of tradition and innovation permeates every song" on the album.

O'Brien established his own record label, Howdy Skies, when he decided to record a musical companion to the book Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. The novel, about a Civil War soldier making the long trek home after the war, was a huge success, but O'Brien was unable to muster any interest in the project with any of the record companies with whom he had previously worked. So he went ahead with his friends Dirk Powell and John Herrmann to make the recording Songs from the Mountain.

O'Brien's talent has contributed to albums by a wide range of other artists, including Laurie Lewis, Maura O'Connell, Kathy Kallick, Jerry Douglas, Peter Ostroushko, Dwight Yoakam, Pat Alger, and Robert Earl Keen, as well as Kate Rusbe and David Grier. On his website O'Brien said of his artistic method, "It's like chiseling away a sculpture. It was always there. You've just got to find what it is that's you."

In the Puremusic interview, O'Brien said of his prolific amount of musical work, "That's just how it is in the bluegrass world, you gotta do one every year. There are only so many fans of this music, and the only way to keep selling records is to keep making them." And, he noted, "I certainly don't suffer from a shortage of ideas. I draw from a lot of different sources.... There's so much good traditional material. It's just about getting the vibe going with a group of musicians."

by Kelly Winters

Tim O'Brien's Career

Began playing guitar at the age of 12; learned to play the mandolin at Colby College; traveled to Colorado, where he began playing in bluegrass bands; played with Hot Rize, which included Pete Wernick, Charles Sawtelle, and Nick Foster, for 12 years; also performed with his band, the O'Boys, and his sister, Mollie O'Brien; has worked as backup for other musicians and as a solo artist.

Tim O'Brien's Awards

International Bluegrass Music Association, Entertainer of the Year (with Hot Rize), 1990; International Bluegrass Music Association, Male Vocalist of the Year, 1993.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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