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Ever heard of Tim O'Brien? - playing Ottawa Saturday

Cosmic ChrisC

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I'd probably go to this if Franke wasn't playing. Never heard Tim O'Brien's music though. Then again, never heard Franke either!

Bluegrass icon Monroe revels in innovation

Patrick Langston

The Ottawa Citizen

Friday, April 15, 2005

Bluegrass should genuflect before guys like Tim O'Brien.

Without them, the music fathered by Bill Monroe would today probably be little more than a quaint subset of country music, remembered by most of us, if at all, as the soundtrack for The Beverly Hillbillies.

Instead, bluegrass has thrived, especially over the past decade or so, with healthy sales, festivals galore, people like Alison Krauss now practically household names, and commercial country music regularly dipping into bluegrass instrumentation.

The secret to the music's health has been reinvention, and O'Brien -- who plays Ottawa tomorrow -- has been helping lead the charge for almost 30 years.

"Every new generation stands on the shoulders of the one before and players develop new techniques, so the music progresses," says O'Brien by telephone from his home in Nashville. "The facility with which people play grows with every generation."

For proof, just check out contemporary bluegrass discs. You'll find everything from a folk-bluegrass rendition of Robbie Burns's Sweet Afton on Nickel Creek's debut disc to Bela Fleck channeling jazz, funk and world beats through Bill Monroe's music.

O'Brien -- a Wheeling, West Virginia native who picked up the guitar when he was 14 and abandoned college in favour of music -- started making his own mark in 1978.

That's when he and three other musicians formed the seminal bluegrass group Hot Rize.

Over the next 12 years and six albums, the quartet mined traditional and progressive bluegrass, jazz, and rock, bringing countless new fans, especially young ones, into the bluegrass fold and winning the first International Bluegrass Music Association Entertainer of the Year award in 1990.

Some purse-lipped purists notwithstanding, bluegrass accommodated innovators like Hot Rize even as it continued to nurture traditional groups like the Del McCoury Band.

Along the way, terms like newgrass, supergrass and spacegrass came and went as the music lured new experimenters.

But then even Bill Monroe "had to make room for people like Earl Scruggs and a new kind of banjo playing" for bluegrass to take off, says O'Brien.

Monroe's own music, in any case, was an amalgam, drawing on string-band, jazz and blues for its distinctive driving, high lonesome sound.

In the late 1980s, O'Brien's songwriting skills and broad musical interests propelled him in a new direction when country singer Kathy Mattea had hits with his songs Walk the Way the Wind Blows and Untold Stories. In 1990, O'Brien went solo as a writer, performer and producer.

Tim O'Brien's musical adventuring has continued ever since, including three albums of old-time music with his sister Mollie and a half-dozen solo discs of everything from Celtic tunes to a collection of Bob Dylan covers.

O'Brien's compositions have been covered by Garth Brooks and the Dixie Chicks, while his writing, vocal, mandolin and fiddle skills have landed him credits on close to 50 other albums including the soundtrack of the 2003 film Cold Mountain and a slew of bluegrass collections.

He has also served as president of the International Bluegrass Music Association and won that organization's Male Vocalist of the Year award in 1993.

As to the continuing popularity of bluegrass, O'Brien concludes simply, "I think it's real music, it's stuff that's immediate. It's made by hand, and that never goes out of style."

Tim O'Brien and Chris Smither perform at the Library and Archives Canada auditorium tomorrow. Tickets and time, 230-8234.

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