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Tim O’Brien – Toy Heart: A Podcast About Bluegrass

Mar 26, 2024

Tim O'Brien – Toy Heart: A Podcast About Bluegrass

Our latest guest on Toy Heart is bluegrasser, multi-instrumentalist, and songwriter Tim O’Brien. His conversation with host Tom Power begins by remembering the music of his childhood, growing up in Wheeling, West Virginia listening to Chubby Checker on his crystal radio set and attending the nationally renowned country variety show and radio broadcast, the Wheeling Jamboree. Encountering the music of Merle Haggard and Doc Watson via local radio and television, he fell in love with music as a kid before a few friends introduced him to Bill Monroe’s mandolin playing while smoking a post-gig joint as a teen.

After dropping out of college, O’Brien hitchhiked west to Wyoming, before landing in Colorado and eventually founding Hot Rize in the mid to late ‘70s with newly married and relocated Dr. Banjo himself, Pete Wernick. Over the course of their winding and dense conversation, Power and O’Brien chat about Gibson mandolins, the burgeoning Colorado string band scene, working with Bill Monroe, and the strange, circuitous story of his fiddle’s provenance.


O’Brien’s career, as multifaceted as it has been, is a wellspring of stories, anecdotes, and yarns about the bluegrass scene of the ‘80s and ‘90s, Irish music, writing hit country songs, working with and alongside so many first generation bluegrass legends, and the inception of Hot Rize’s alter ego band, Red Knuckles & the Trailblazers. Having recorded and performed with the Chieftains, Darrell Scott, the Transatlantic Sessions, and so many others, Tim O’Brien’s career is a melting pot of styles and sounds with one primary throughline: the true originality of his own musical vocabulary. As Power puts it, “I ​couldn’t ​tell ​you ​what ​Tim ​O’Brien ​sounds ​like, ​but ​I ​know ​Tim ​O’Brien ​when ​I ​hear ​it.”

Our Toy Heart episode examines O’Brien’s expansive and impressive career at a fascinating juncture in its span, as he shifts from being a bluegrass and Americana workhorse to a forebear, mentor, and roots music elder to entire generations of young musicians.

Photo Credit: Scott Simontacchi

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Tim O'Brien – Toy Heart: A Podcast About Bluegrass
Tim O'Brien – Toy Heart: A Podcast About Bluegrass