Musings on folk, Americana, country, bluegrass and newgrass

Flashback Friday: Seven Questions with Tim O’Brien

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In light of the fact that West Virginia native and Grammy-winning, singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Tim O’Brien is bringing his prodigious talents to Asheville and Raleigh this weekend with “The Banjo Tramps,” today’s Flashback Friday is an interview I had the privilege of conducting at Rooster Walk Music and Arts Festival a few years ago.

Tim O’Brien has been called a lot of things throughout his musical career, which spans more than four decades: newgrass, bluegrass, singer, songwriter, mandolin aficionado.

He has been called a lot of things because, well, he does a lot of things.

In fact, O’Brien may be eclipsing fellow Earl of Leicester Jerry Douglas as the self-described busiest bluegrass musician today.

Fresh off a tour of summer festivals, including DelFest, MerleFest, Rocky Grass, Rooster Walk and Telluride, with Darrell Scott, promoting their 2014 album Memories and Moments, O’Brien is promoting another new album, When I’m Free, which he recorded with Hot Rize. It’s the first collaboration he’s had with his former band mates in 24 years. And when he can fit it in, he’s jamming with the aforementioned Douglas and the other Earls of Leicester, who also have a new album.

But O’Brien is not too busy to come back to Henry County, Virginia, which he calls “a beautiful spot,” for an appearance at the Rives Theatre in downtown Martinsville on Feb. 26, 2015.

I had a chance to catch up with O’Brien in Henry County over Memorial Day weekend at Rooster Walk 6, where we talked about the future of bluegrass and why Americana music seems to resonate with an expanding audience.

Why do you think Americana/bluegrass music is experiencing a resurgence in popularity?

There’s a shift away from the “popization” of Nashville. Music trends tend to correct themselves. People start imitating each other, and then someone has to come up with something different. Like Taylor Swift came along and gave Nashville a kick in the pants. Ten years ago Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? was the most popular record, but it wasn’t meant to be. It shows that classic style is always viable. Music goes in and out like waves from the ocean. It takes a while for it to come in, and it will crash over you when you least expect it. I think the roots never really die. It’s hard to kill them, because they are really deep. The stuff you hear on the radio, there’s roots in that too. Every once in a while the roots become the most tasty thing.

What do you enjoy the most about playing live music festivals?

I love hearing the other groups and seeing what people are into, the crafts. I love that the festivals are multigenerational. The great thing about these festivals is I like it when everyone can hang out together. Bluegrass has been that way. I used to play a lot of shows for mostly old people, but when you play at festivals like MerleFest, that’s the key to keep it going. I liked the traditional and the blues tents. My favorite thing at MerleFest was the Alberti Flea Circus. It’s so old-timey, so corny and wonderful.

So what’s your impression of Rooster Walk?

The music is a little more hybridized nowadays. There are traditional bluegrass festivals, and there are big rock-and-roll festivals, and this is kind of in-between. It seems to be a real popular format. If you average it out, Telluride would be kind of like this. It’s interesting. It’s whatever the audience responds to, and it’s also what the new musicians are coming up with that drives it all. They bring along their audience and their age group. These kids [Sanctum Sully] mentioned our name and said we’re going to play later on. It’s nice to get a nod from them. We’re all part of a tradition. I think it’s a very healthy thing to see this crowd out here with the kids.

Why did you choose to play Rooster Walk this year instead of the larger, more established FloydFest?

FloydFest is the same weekend as Rocky Grass. I’m kind of a perennial at Rocky Grass, and I’ve done them both, and it’s hard. I’m 60, and it’s too hard.

What’s your favorite summer music festival?

I like Strawberry. I like Rocky Grass. I like the size, and there’s a lot of pickin’ in the campground, not just by the performers. I’ve gone to the Bonnaroos and the Stage Coaches, and I’d rather go to Rooster Walk.

Who are some of your favorite new artists?

Cahalen Morrison & Eli West duo. I also like Lake Street Dive. They are coming on strong.

If you had a chance to play with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be?

The Count Basie Band. I would love to be their rhythm-guitar player for just a night.

This post was also published on The Huffington Post. 

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