Tim O’Brien – Where the River Meets the Road
Howdy Skies Records – 12 May 2017 (UK)
Crossover star Tim O’Brien, a veteran of both folk and bluegrass, is a versatile singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who might be familiar to FRUK readers for his solo work, his regular appearances on Transatlantic Sessions (both broadcast and live) and his duo with another phenomenal musician, Darrell Scott. He’s also legendary in bluegrass circles both for his 80s band Hot Rize (who had a recent revival) and as an inspirational collaborator and influencer. O’Brien’s latest album, Where the River Meets the Road, pays tribute to his West Virginia roots and is dominated by covers of songs written by artists born in or connected to the state, including Bill Withers, Doc Williams and Hazel Dickens, as well as a couple of originals. It kicks off with a lively bluegrassy version of High Flying Bird by Billy Edd Wheeler, complete with high-octane banjo by Noam Pikelny (Punch Brothers), quicksilver fiddle by the ever-superlative Stuart Duncan and a spot-on harmony vocal from country darling, the excellent Chris Stapleton. Another bluegrass stalwart, Mike Bub, also features on bass.
Up next is a funky and creative treatment of the Bill Withers classic Grandma’s Hands, reminiscent in style of a couple of songs on O’Brien’s Cornbread Nation album. Tim picks up the banjo himself on this one, the clawhammer style back-up discreetly tucked away in the fuller arrangement of drums, electric guitar (Chris Scruggs, grandson of the legendary Earl) and organ, with Stuart Duncan’s fiddle soaring over the top. Kathy Mattea also guests on vocals. Guardian Angel is a little too sentimental for my taste, but by contrast, the next track (another original) is the strongest song on the album. Where the River Meets the Road rocks along in a satisfyingly catchy manner, an ode to Tim’s hometown of Wheeling, West Virginia. Wheeling also features in the gorgeous cover illustration which is apparently taken from an engraving from 1850. The song is written from the point of view of a 19th-century Irish migrant (O’Brien, of course, being well known as a musician with deep roots back in Ireland) and I can see it swiftly joining O’Brien’s substantial number of self-penned classics. Like Gillian Welch, he has the knack for writing songs that sound like they could be traditional. As on the opener, it features bluegrass super-sidemen Pikelny, Duncan and Bub. Friday, Sunday’s Coming (by singer-songwriter John Lilly) is a deceptively jaunty melody accompanying the dark and disturbing tale of Jesus on the cross and returns to the full band format with electric guitar/organ/bass/drums. We also get a nice if a brief glimpse of sister Mollie O’Brien’s phenomenal singing on this one.
When the Mist Clears Away has more of a Celtic folk flavour, showcasing O’Brien’s bouzouki playing, and Queen of the Earth and Child of the Skies is a pared-down original tune with O’Brien on yet another instrument that he’s accomplished on – the fiddle (his main instruments are mandolin, fiddle, guitar, bouzouki and clawhammer banjo!). It also features tasteful accompaniment from fine young cellist Nathaniel Smith (known for his work with Sarah Jarosz and Natalie MacMaster among others). My Old Brown Coat and Me returns to the theme of the immigrant made good, with Kenny Malone on djembe giving a slightly funky flavour to the Celtic style mix of fiddle, cello and bouzouki. Drunkard’s Grave gives a droll toe-tapping Country/Western Swing style treatment to this Bailes Brothers classic, with fabulous steel guitar by Chris Scruggs. It’s a great example of the dark and disturbing country lyric married to sprightly and optimistic melody and instrumentation!
Oh how lonely, oh how sad!
Just to think of that strong drink they crave
And then in the end, lose their dearest friend
And lay in a drunkard’s grave…
Windy Mountain is an appropriately breezy rendition of a traditional style Curly Ray Cline song, with a nice harmony vocal from O’Brien’s partner Jan Fabricius. Stuart Duncan is once again unleashed on some sweeping fiddle lines and Pikelny’s unwavering banjo rolls along behind. Few Old Memories is a lovely version of the Hazel Dickens classic which will be familiar to most people, from the Dolly Parton cover if not the original. Shad Cobb is the fiddler on call for this one, and complements the song beautifully, as does Bryan Sutton on guitar. AP Carter’s Little Annie rounds things off; it’s a suitable farewell to close this collection that has O’Brien taking on guitar, banjo and fiddle duties himself. Where the River Meets the Road is an impressive and affectionate showcase for the songwriting talents of all these West Virginians (including O’Brien himself) alongside his own considerable gifts as a talented musician and interpreter of songs.
Tim O’Brien is on tour now in the UK & Ireland.
Tim O’Brien UK Dates – May 2017 (with Kaia Kater*)
Wed 3rd May, LEICESTER – The Guildhall
Thur 4th May, LONDON – Bush Hall
Sun 7th May, CO CORK, The Baltimore Fiddle Fair
Fri 12th May, SLIGO – Hawkswell Theatre
Sat 13th May, FINGAL – Seamus Ennis Arts Centre
Wed 17th May, GLASGOW – St Andrew’s in the Square*
Thu 18th May, EDINBURGH – Teviot Debating Hall*
Fri 19th May, SALTAIRE – The Live Room*
Sat 20th May, BURY – The Met*
Sun 21st May, SHEFFIELD – Greystones*
*With Kaia Kater
Full details at www.timobrien.net