Tim O’Brien’s seemingly effortless tenor singing, musicianship, and songwriting have kept him in great esteem in the bluegrass community for more than four decades. One might say “seemingly effortless” is a fitting way to describe his career path, too. So much of it seems natural, as if each new thing was the obvious next step, whether it was creating a Western swing band alter ego within a bluegrass band, recording duet albums with his sister Mollie O’Brien, earning a Grammy nomination with an collection of Bob Dylan covers, or connecting lines between Appalachian music and traditional Irish music, tying back to his own heritage as a West Virginian of Irish descent.
Yet beneath his quiet demeanor is a thoughtful artist who brings a tremendous amount of intentionality to his work. We sat down with O’Brien, our BGS Artist of the Month for July, to ask him about how he got started and how some of these projects came to light.
(Editor’s Note: Read the first half of our interview with Tim O’Brien.)
BGS: When did you first start trying to play music professionally?
TO: In the fall of ‘73 I gave up on the idea of college and decided that maybe I could support myself playing guitar and a little bit of fiddle. I was just learning back then. I saved up for a car and I went to Jackson Hole and played shows in bars and whatever I could get. I had some friends that I had worked with as part of a summer camp out near there that were out there to spend the winter. Then, in the fall of ‘74, I ended up in Boulder and briefly played in a bluegrass band called Town and Country Revue with two guys who were affiliated with a music store that I worked for a short time. Then I met up with a guy that started a band called the Ophelia Swing Band and I joined them for about three years. Our front man was Dan Sadowsky, who later became known as “Pastor Mustard” at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival.
We did some bluegrass things, but we weren’t portraying ourselves as a bluegrass band. We had strings, but it was mostly a swing band. I had been playing guitar and fiddle at this point and ended up borrowing a mandolin for a while until I eventually got my Nugget in ‘76. We were into that Cab Calloway kind of a hepster swing and there was another violin player in the group named Linda Joseph so we’d play some twin fiddle parts in a Western swing style. We tried to make big band arrangements with a lot of call and response between the instruments. We were making it up as we went along, but very much enjoying it.
We made a record, [Swing Tunes of the 30’s & 40’s], for the same label that my solo record came out on, a Denver label called Biscuit City. That record came out in ‘77, but I quit the band right before the record came out. I briefly moved to Minneapolis but I went back and did a little run of gigs with them in the summertime. I went back and was trying to dig in in Minneapolis, and then Pete Wernick called and suggested that we should get a group together. My girlfriend at the time, shortly before we ended up getting married, was thinking that maybe we should move back to Colorado anyway. So we went back in January of ‘78 to start up Hot Rize.
Your description of the Ophelia Swing Band’s material reminds me a lot of Red Knuckles and The Trailblazers. I’ve always enjoyed the Trailblazers portion of Hot Rize shows because the music is so good but it’s almost hiding behind the facade of a well-presented comedy show. Sort of like Homer & Jethro. How did you end up presenting it in that way? Or playing that music in the first place?
What happened was, Pete said that we should get a bluegrass band together and promote these two records. I had just put out Guess Who’s in Town on Biscuit City and Pete had just released Dr. Banjo Steps Out. I said, “That sounds good, I’ll do it, but I’d like to venture out into some other kinds of music other than straight bluegrass” and I mentioned Hank Williams kind of stuff or Western Swing. I asked Pete if he’d ever play Dobro. He had never played Dobro, but he said he’d look into getting one (he ended up getting a lap steel) and said we could work some of that stuff in.
Our first guitar player was a brilliant instrumentalist named Mike Scapp [who also played with the Ophelia Swing Band]. He didn’t last very long though and when he quit, Charles Sawtelle had been playing bass, but switched to guitar. When Nick Forster came along we told him we were doing this country and western material and he said that he had a Charlie Christian Gibson [electric archtop] guitar and played that kind of stuff. So all of a sudden, we had electric guitar, steel guitar, acoustic guitar, and bass. (Charles would go back to the bass for that because he didn’t play that kind of music on guitar.) So, when we would play four sets at a bar or something, we’d feature some of that stuff on the third set just to break it up. We would say, “We’re going to bring another band up here,” but we would just stay on the stage and switch instruments. We’d make a joke about the name of the band — we had different silly names that we used — and it was just a stage patter and a bit of a different kind of music.
Then, about two years into the band, we had a formal concert at the City Park in Denver in a nice theater sponsored by the Denver Folklore Center. I’m not sure who said it but I think it was Charles who said, “Why don’t we do a quick change? We’ll wear cowboy outfits and actually be a different band.” So we worked out the basic formula in rehearsal where Pete would introduce us while three of the four change clothes and then we’d come on and he’d make his quick change and all of a sudden we were a different band. That night, we called ourselves Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers. Rather than this just being some bar, these were mostly bluegrass and folk music fans and Pete and Charles were well-known in that community at that time. So we changed clothes and played a part and never let on that we were the same people and everybody knew it, but they got into it. That seemed to work, so we kept doing it.
The following fall, we played in Louisville at the free bluegrass festival that was put on by Kentucky Fried Chicken. We were interviewed by a radio host there and she said, “Well, I want to interview Hot Rize, but who I really want to interview is Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers.” So we said, OK, and acted like the Trailblazers. When she asked us stuff about where we’re from, we were just making up these answers. All of that stuff about us being from Wyoming, Montana, which is on the border of Wyoming and Montana, and the Eat Cafe was all just jokes that we might have said while we were driving around in the car. But it became our story after that interview. After we’d finished we all looked at each other and said, “Well, I guess that’s our story. Now we have to remember it.” [Laughs]
That’s how it started. I had always wanted to play that music so I wanted to do the music justice, but the act was about not taking yourself seriously. It helped Hot Rize immeasurably to have that as a foil. Whenever we’d mention the name of that band we’d make a snide remark about them as if they were a different band and we were rivals. This helped create an understanding that this was a lighthearted event which helped a lot.
Yeah, I could imagine it helped a lot. Not only as a way to stand out with something different, but since you guys were from Colorado playing a progressive style of bluegrass I’m sure the Hot Rize material sounded even more like traditional bluegrass when juxtaposed against the Trailblazers.
That’s why we got Entertainer of the Year the first year that they awarded it at IBMA; we had a show. At that time you had bands starting like Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, The Johnson Mountain Boys, and the Nashville Bluegrass Band. The Johnson Mountain Boys were also working on a show, but those other two bands were still standing by their individual microphones. I loved those bands a lot and still do but having a show was good for us because it took a little stress off the music and let our music just be what it could be. We weren’t measuring ourselves against those other bands quite as much as we might have been otherwise.
It took a while for the promoters to understand it. There were some traditional festivals that wouldn’t let us do that. Out in Grass Valley, California, at the CBA festival, they didn’t even really want electric bass there, but they’ve made an exception for Hot Rize. But they wouldn’t let us do the Trailblazers. The same thing happened at Doyle Lawson’s festival the first time we played there. Milton Harkey said, “Oh, don’t get me wrong, I love the harmonies,” which proved that he had never heard it since the Trailblazers didn’t really have a lot of harmony singing. But after we played his fans got to him and asked why they didn’t let us play that Trailblazers stuff and explained it to him and they started letting us.
For some of those festivals like the one in Grass Valley, I think they just have their rules about what is and isn’t bluegrass. But the other ones like Doyle Lawson’s festival, they just didn’t want a bunch of bikers coming in. They didn’t want hippies taking a lot of drugs with electric music because it might get out of control.
What was it like to play in these traditional, sometimes conservative spaces?
We were always the funny ones. Our hair was too big and too long and our ties were wrong. We wanted to fit in so we wore suits, but we never hid who we were. Bluegrass, since the ‘60s at least, has always had lots of different fans. They might be Northerners or city folks that didn’t grow up with the banjo but they love it and kind of poke fun at themselves for being involved in a way. I think that’s the thing that’s sort of wonderful about music; it’s a free pass. It’s whatever anybody thinks it is and anybody can like any kind of music and art. How you react to it is up for grabs and, in a way, all responses are valid. People all respond to music differently and people will change it to express themselves within it.
(Editor’s Note: Read the first half of our interview with Tim O’Brien.)
Photo credit: Scott Simontacchi