The Kennedy Center

Tim O’Brien


In Tim O’Brien’s music, things come together. The uncanny intersection of traditional and contemporary elements in his songwriting, his tireless dedication to a vast and still expanding array of instruments, and his ongoing commitment to place himself in as many unique and challenging musical scenarios as possible has made him a key figure in today’s thriving roots music scene – and well beyond it. O’Brien’s presence – be it as a bandleader, songwriter, mentor, instrumentalist, or vocalist – has been strongly felt not only in his own rich music, but in the many recordings of his songs by such artists as the Dixie Chicks, Garth Brooks, Dierks Bentley, Nickel Creek, Kathy Mattea, the New Grass Revival, and the Seldom Scene, and in his recorded collaborations with Steve Martin, the Chieftains, and innumerable others. Most recently, O’Brien has been performing before capacity crowds in the band of Mark Knopfler, who described O’Brien as “a master of American folk music, Irish music, Scottish music – it doesn't matter; a fine songwriter and one of my favorite singers.”

O’Brien listens to bluegrass and hears the music’s roots in modal Irish ballads and vintage swing. He insightfully re-examines and reconstructs those styles, and many others, in his own music, throwing off new sparks by reawakening the tension and interplay of the colliding components at the heart of American music. “Over the years,” he explains, “my music has become a certain thing. Each time I go into the studio to make a new album, I could make an Irish record, or a bluegrass record, or a country record…but it seems artificial to sift anything out. I feel like I’d be leaving out something important. In the end, I just try to make it round…”

That roundness of vision and scope permeates every aspect of Chicken & Egg, O’Brien’s thirteenth solo album, available July 13 via his own Howdy Skies imprint. Mixing O’Brien originals, collaborations, and a handful of outside compositions, Chicken & Egg is an illuminating, engaging, and ultimately life-affirming meditation on the art of living. “This stuff reflects what goes on in the life of someone my age,” O’Brien reflects. “I’m 56 years old. I’m not the young kid on the scene – and I’m happy about that. I’m at a strange point in my life: my kids are growing up, while my parents and teachers are passing on. There’s a lot happening – but it’s just life, and that’s what this album is about. There’s a little love song action here and there, but mostly it’s about living life.”

As a songwriter, O’Brien has a gift for finding the profound hiding within the mundane, and bringing it out in a way that is both casually conversational and deeply felt. The earthy wisdom of Chicken & Egg’s songs are delivered in appropriately spontaneous fashion, largely recorded live in the studio with a core group of collaborators. In following his previous album, 2008’s entirely solo Chameleon, O’Brien says, “It was time to make a more acoustic record – more along the lines of a bluegrass thing, with an ensemble and not a lot of production: something pretty down-home, featuring a more consistent band.” To do so, he spent four days in the studio with master musicians Stuart Duncan (fiddle, mandolin, cello, banjo), Bryan Sutton (acoustic and electric guitar), and bassists Dennis Crouch and Mike Bub. O’Brien contributed mandolin, guitar, bouzouki, fiddle, and banjo, while drummer John Gardner enlivens many of the tracks. The cast of harmony vocalists includes Abigail Washburn (Sparrow Quartet, Uncle Earl), Chris Stapleton (the SteelDrivers), and Sarah Jarosz.

Once the players were determined, O’Brien dug into his vast reserves of unrecorded material. “I figured out what songs would work best with these guys, then I began singing and playing them around the house for a few months before the session,” he recalls. “I got familiar with them. These musicians can all play amazingly well, and they play a lot better if they are backing up someone who knows what they’re doing. If you’re going to add your part later, it doesn’t give them as much to go on. I didn’t think much about arrangements or what instruments I’d play – we just went in, sat down, and I started calling them off.”

What emerged, almost subliminally, was a thematically-linked fourteen-song suite – largely recorded in that original four-day session – that matches invigorating, spry performances to heartfelt, probing material dealing with the challenges imposed by passing of time. “I wanted the songs to have a progression to them,” O’Brien says. “They eventually formed this little story, like a novelette or character study. I didn’t plan it like this, but from one track to the next, the songs form something larger.”

Kicking off with a quizzical account of original sin sung from the perspective of the big man himself (“You Ate the Apple”), Chicken & Egg then steers us to the long-distance yearning of the lilting, Celtic-inflected “My Girl’s Waiting for Me.” Hal Cannon’s “Suzanna” follows, a witty dismantling and reassembling of fragments from familiar stringband lyrics, with a bit of new content incorporated. “All these songs,” O’Brien explains, “can be from the perspective of the same person as their life goes on. In ‘Suzanna’ he is a homeless person, sleeping on a bus bench. On the next track, ‘Sinner,’ he is trying to reform himself. By the next song, ‘Gonna Try to Make Her Stay,’ he is hoping that, against all odds, he’s changed enough for his girlfriend to come back.”
Tim O’Brien