Tim O’Brien’s latest album, He Walked On, explores the many realities and histories of what it means and what it has meant to be American. With his well-known ability to tell a story through song and his less recognized, but equally powerful ability to pick and perform covers, O’Brien shares intimate and intriguing stories including the traditions of the Irish Travellers living in the U.S., Volga German immigrants turned sodbusters, or Thomas Jefferson’s children birthed by his slave, Sally Hemings.
Such stories and topics are not uncommon for O’Brien to write about, but in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the protests that followed, as well as the Black Lives Matter movement, these songs feel even more topical and personal. His music is often presented with a lightheartedness that settles the listener and reminds them not to take themselves too seriously. And while some of that can still be found here, there is a somber tone that reflects the state of the country today. He’s joined on the album by bassist Mike Bub, drummer Pete Abbott, fiddler Shad Cobb, and vocalist (and fiancée) Jan Fabricius.
In the first of a two-part interview, BGS catches up with O’Brien, our Artist of the Month for July, to discuss the songs from He Walked On. (Editor’s note: Read part two here.)
BGS: The songs on this album speak to a lot of current events and the theme is more “political” than some of your previous work — although I don’t like thinking of human rights issues as being political.
TO: Yeah, they are politics nowadays. I think that the artist’s job is to reflect and respond to what’s going on around you and in your life. I don’t know anybody that creates original stuff who’s not doing that. Of course, this is an exceptional year for that. There’s a lot of things going on that were highly, highly provocative such as the Black Lives Matter movement and the pandemic itself and the way the politics entered into that, which was unfortunate. And then related to that is paying attention to history, the developments of technology, and how it affects society. That’s where songs like “Nervous” came from and they’re not “political,” but they’re kind of a report on the state of humanity.
You’ve often written about your experience in the modern world and talked about technology before but usually with a humorous tone. When I heard “Nervous” and “Pushing on Buttons,” it made me think of “Phantom Phone Call” from Chameleon.
You know, actually, I think one of the saddest things I’ve ever written is “Pushing on Buttons.”
Yeah, that’s what I was getting at. There’s usually a lot of whimsy when you’re talking about modern stuff, but “Pushing on Buttons” is pretty somber.
Yeah, I almost left it off because I thought, “Nobody wants to hear how sad this is.” But I was able to get Chris Scruggs in the studio and said, “I ought to cut this song so let’s make it like a Hank Williams number, if I can.”
The tone on the album felt more serious, in general, than your previous work. Do you feel that way?
Yeah, I suppose so. I don’t know how it will ring with everybody, but I felt like this was the thing to do. The Black Lives Matter movement is another step on a long road of reckoning with our history and the racial divide in this country. When stuff gets thrown up in the air like it did with George Floyd it’s time to look at all that’s been going on from day one and try to make sense of it. I could have written these songs like “When You Pray” and “Can You See Me, Sister?” any time. But it was staring me in the face much more so this year. Whimsy is good and all, but I couldn’t ignore these things.
But, in general, I try to stay light on my feet and that’s more of the tone of “When You Pray, Move Your Feet” which is a pretty happy song in a lot of ways. And I hope that means something. “He Walked On” is like, well, the only way to really get through this is just to try and notice the good. Notice when it’s really good and when you don’t just keep going and try to find it again. So it is sort of a mission statement for living in the United States. You have people doing their various jobs — farming, or trading mules, or coal mining, or looking at a computer — and we’re all kind of looking for the same things. It’s nice to have somebody to share your love with and a roof over your head. It’s nice to help other people find that as you’re going along to help yourself.
Songs like “He Walked On” or “Can You See Me, Sister?” — like a lot of songs that you’ve written — are told from a different perspective than your own life experience. How do you approach writing those stories in particular?
I don’t know. Maybe my age is telling me to look at it in different ways. But I don’t know that I was conscious about trying to write differently. Back working with Darrell Scott, I realized that he had so much personal detail in his songs and it made them more universal. Which is counterintuitive, but I’ve noticed that that’s the case. So, “He Walked On” is about changing your perspective and getting a glimpse of the divine. We’re not always paying attention but about one percent of my time, I wake up and go “gee, look at that” and really appreciate it and really be present and in the moment.
In the case of “Can You See Me, Sister?” it was such a fascinating story. I kind of knew about Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson because in the early days of Hot Rize, we played in Charlottesville, Virginia. A bluegrass fan brought us around to Monticello and took us on a personal tour. Jefferson is a really interesting character in American history in so many ways, but you and I can relate to him in that he was a fiddler. He was really interested in old-time fiddling. He played tunes like “Money Musk” and they have his handwritten transcriptions of some of these tunes at Monticello. He was a renaissance man — an artist, a writer — and apparently he carried a pocket fiddle around with him. He had a little mini-fiddle you could put in your overcoat pocket.
So I had known some about him but I recently learned more about the children he had with Sally Hemings. It was a great loss for him when his wife [Martha Jefferson] died. He promised her he wouldn’t get remarried and he didn’t. But he turned to Sally Hemings, who had been a slave at Monticello and was brought to France to nanny his daughter. She birthed at least six of Jefferson’s children and I hadn’t realized until recently that a couple of them passed as white and lived their adult lives in white society.
The decision to have a spoken word introduction to “Can You See Me, Sister?” was interesting. I don’t remember ever hearing one in any of your other songs.
Mike Bub brought it up because when I sent the demos around he heard it and liked it, and then I told him what it was about. He said, “Wow, there’s a lot more punch to it when you know what it’s about.” He said most of the radio listeners wouldn’t know that so he recommended having some kind of explanation. It was a conscious choice and it was interesting to write. I don’t usually write stage dialogue. I guess I hone it as I go and I get more succinct and more pointed and more efficient with it as I learn. But this was before I ever performed it on stage. I wanted to have the right introduction that would say what needed to be said; no more and no less.
What inspired you to write “See You at the Funeral?”
“See You at the Funeral” is kind of an odd one. It’s about Irish Travellers in America, which is a subset of American society that’s kind of unknown. The song is about the once-yearly reunion in Nashville of the greater clan of the Sherlocks families and their relatives. They have all their funerals and weddings for the year in one week so everybody can be there and then they scatter and go do their own thing. … It’s all the happy parts and the sad parts and the big ball of wax. By the end of that week, you would have a sense of where you come from, who you are, and what’s next. Those rituals are part of what helps us get by. That’s Americana. It’s from a lesser-known part of our history and our society. That is the part that I’m interested in. And if it means something to me, maybe I can make it into something to someone else.
What about some of the covers like “Sod Buster”?
Jan’s family is from western Kansas and her great-grandfather was another type of migrant. Their background is what they call Volga German; they were German farmers that got recruited by Catherine the Great of Russia to farm wheat on the Volga River. Then the politics changed and they were going to have to serve in the Russian army. That’s when everybody started coming to the American plains. The railroads had started and they were advertising for people to move. Her great-grandfather was one of the earliest sodbusters in the late 1800s.
It’s a Bill Caswell song that I just love and I ended up talking to him about it and he said, “Oh, yeah, that’s about my grandfather. He was out there at that time and plowed with a team of horses.” I love Bill Caswell and I love this song. And I wondered why nobody had yet recorded it. So we worked it up and it means something because of Jan’s connection. We go out there sometimes and I really love being out in someplace exotic like that. I grew up where there’s hills everywhere and being on an absolute flat plain with the sky and the grass is an amazing thing.
I’ve always admired how much of a personal connection to all of your music that you have. It all feels very intentional.
John Hartford gave good advice to Hot Rize one time. He said, “You don’t want to get famous doing something you don’t like doing.” So I want to try to aim for the intersection of what people might enjoy and what I’m interested in and it ends up attracting people that think like me. I’m a bit of a bleeding heart liberal, if we got down to it. But I try to mostly put something out that people could enjoy and then maybe give them something to think about and maybe they’ll think poorly of it, or maybe they’ll change. You know, that’s a Buddhist thing. You work towards conscious change. Change and betterment and creativity. You just try to find your opening and hopefully I’ve found a few here.
(Editor’s Note: Read the second half of our interview with Tim O’Brien here.)
Photo courtesy of Tim O’Brien