Interview with Roots Music Legend Tim O’Brien: “It’s Not Just the Branches of the Tree…It’s the Roots That Keep Growing.”

Roots music legend Tim O’Brien will perform with Jan Frabricius at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of York on Sunday, October 27th. The evening begins at 7:00 pm with opener Kevin Neidig. The concert is sponsored by the Susquehanna Folk Music Society.  More information can be found on the Susquehanna Folk Music Society website. Tickets are $27 General Admission, $23 for SFMS Members, and $10 for students (ages 3-22).  Tickets will be available at the door or online.

Earlier this week, Tim chatted with SFMS staff writer Peter Winter via email about playing in a duo, the state of Bluegrass today, and continuing to challenge yourself as an artist.


Some of your first records were duo records with your sister, and now you and Jan perform in a duo.  What is special to you about this particular musical configuration?

In the case of Jan and me, we live together and when I write a song or learn a song, she’s often right there with me, maybe a room away, but she’s familiar with it from my first iteration. That familiarity is sorta what family harmony is. We travel together of course and will sing new and old songs in the car as we go along.

How did you and Jan first start performing as a duo?

We started in January 2015 when we launched a new record label called “Short Order Sessions” – single song releases started coming out once a month.  Jan had contributed her vocals to several songs on the Pompadour record too, so we performed those together, and we added others as we went along. She had also started in 2013 working in the home office with me, doing advance work, tour managing, etc, so she was already part of the show in that way!

How does being the only instrument on stage change your approach to playing?

Jan plays some mandolin on stage now, so sometimes there are two instruments on the duo show. I still try to play at consistent tempo, but I can change arrangements on the fly. It’s counter intuitive in that my parts in this situation get a little more sparse. With a band, I play a certain role that compliments whatever else is going on, but as the only player onstage, I kinda try to suggest things more than actually play them. If I play a tune on the fiddle, I want to play melody as clearly as possible. In some cases, I might play just two notes at a time on the mandolin, and try to play only the notes from the chord that I’m not already singing. It’s smaller but it can sound bigger. 

With such a wide repertoire, how do you go about coming up with a setlist for a show like this?

We mostly focus on recent releases, but part of the process is bringing more of my own back catalog songs songs into the stage repertoire. So we’re working up our own duo versions of those as we go. At home we play a lot of old time and Irish tunes and some of that has come forward on stage now as well. There are occasional wild cards. I should get a teleprompter really, or an ipad with a foot operated scrolling device, because I don’t remember every lyric. Instead of that, I have a couple moleskin notebooks with lyrics of songs I SHOULD know, and songs I WANT to know. I have them in my fiddle case in case I get a request and need to review. 

You are wide respected on not just one instrument, but many! How do you continue to challenge yourself as a musician?

Maybe the greatest challenge is making a clear presentation, playing so that folks can understand the songs harmony, rhythm, and words. I learned watching my heros  – Doc Watson, Bill Monroe, David Grisman for instance – that as they got older, their playing became more concise. My hands and voice aren’t as agile as they used to be, and I can’t play as hard as I used to (that’s a really good thing it turns out), so I try to do the most important thing, which is to get the song across. The tone I put forward is more important to me nowadays. There’s a lot of things to pay attention to, and it’s taken this long to  get around to some of them!

How do you think Bluegrass has changed since when you started playing?

The music has broadened in so many ways. It’s not just the branches of the tree but just as notable it’s the roots that keep growing. I love that people are learning more about the African influence. Folks used to see and hear a banjo and say, that’s old, it’s southern, but now they’re realizing the banjo is a tangible part of the American melting pot. We learned with the folk revival that the old ballads and fiddle tunes come from England, Scotland, and Ireland, as well as the rest of Europe, but now we know and acknowledge more of the African contributions. There’s so much history in music, every era expresses what’s going on at the time, but the history of slavery and African American culture has been pushed under the rug.  Ken Burns’s “Country Music” series gave long overdue attention to that missing part of the story. 

The music changes as society changes, it changes as technology changes. Youtube alone has already revolutionized how people learn the music, as well as enabled the fan to get deeper in the core of it. I got online before dinner last night and watched J.D. Crowe and the New South circa 1975 with Ricky and Tony and Flux, and then followed with Don Reno and Red Smiley doing a show for Kroger in about 1965. If you want, you can find the most obscure recordings on Youtube (not video, just audio). For instance, you can hear the earliest version of “Man of Constant Sorrow to get an idea of where it started. Multi track recording was a game changer in the late 60’s, groups had more options in the process, and a new clarity of sound emerged. With digital recording came another change in the process, new tricks to make you sound better. The young kids now hear the effects of that, and assume everyone sings in perfect tune, so they learn how to do that without the processing. It can seem difficult to update the lyrical content of songs withing bluegrass, but it happens without anyone really thinking about it anyway. Think about traditional music before there were trains. When trains became the new technology for transportation, they quickly found their way into older songs, and inspired new lyrics to go with older melodies. Del McCoury probably sings songs his great father sang, but Del owned an Indian motorcyle as a young man, and to him it was normal and fun to sing about what he knew from those days in “Vincent Black Lightning”. As it changes, the old stuff remains too though, as in anybody who sings about a horse race in “Molly and Tenbrooks”, while somebody puts up the performance on Facebook live. 


Peter Winter lives in Harrisburg where he writes, teaches music, plays in the Celtic group Seasons, DJs, runs half of the record label His & Hers Records and serves on the board of the SFMS. He is on instagram

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