Singer-songwriter Tim O’Brien draws from many influences to create a unique blend of traditional bluegrass, honky tonk, folk, and swing. He helped to form the award-winning bluegrass band Hot Rize in 1978, a group he performed with until it disbanded in 1990. He has released several solo albums, worked as a backing musician for other artists, formed his own record label, and performed and recorded with his sister, musician Mollie O’Brien.
Born on March 16, 1954, in Wheeling, West Virginia, O’Brien grew up hearing famed country artists, including Charley Pride, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Country Gentlemen, and Jimmy Martin perform on radio’s WWVA Jamboree. As he told an interviewer from the Puremusic website, when he was 13 years old, his parents would drop him off at the Jamboree. “I’d pay $2.50 to get into the cheap balcony seats. But then, on special Saturday nights you might see Buck Owens, Charley Pride, Jerry Reed, or Merle Haggard.”
O’Brien also listened to the Beatles; Peter, Paul, and Mary; and Roger Miller. When he was a teenager the self-taught musician traveled to Colorado and joined bluegrass guitarist Charles Sawtelle, banjo player Pete Wernick, and bass player/singer mike Scap (who was soon replaced by Nick Forster) to create the band Hot Rize (named after the secret ingredient in Martha White Self-Rising Flour). According to John Metzger at The Music Box website, the band “not only inspired artists within its own genre, but also fueled the rise of the jam band scene in Colorado.”
From 1978-90, Hot Rize played bluegrass based on traditional sounds but enlivened with fresh harmonies; they also often combined old and new songs in their show. In 1990 Hot Rize won the International Blue-grass Music Association’s first Entertainer of the Year award, and in 1993 O’Brien won the International Blue-grass Music Association’s Male Vocalist of the Year award.
In 1984 O’Brien produced his first solo album, Hard Year Blues, which featured his distinctive folk-fusion sound. By 1994 O’Brien and his sister had produced three more albums that included traditional country, folk, and swing tunes sung with tight harmonies. In 1997 country singer Kathy Mattea covered O’Brien’s “Untold Stories” and “Walk the Way the Wind Blows,” which became a hit single. Both songs had a wide appeal, reaching beyond the country audience to the mainstream.
After Hot Rize broke up, O’Brien founded the O’Boys, a band that included jazz and bluegrass guitarist Scott Nygaard, bassist Mark Schatz. O’Brien played a range of instruments—mandolin, fiddle, and even the bouzouki. The group toured widely, recording Oh, Boy! O’Boy! in 1993. The album featured a wide range of material, from Jimmy Driftwood’s traditional “He Had a
Born on March 16, 1954, in Wheeling, WV. Education: Attended Colby College, Waterville, ME.
Began playing guitar at the age of 12; learned to play the mandolin at Colby College; traveled to Colorado, where he began playing in bluegrass bands; played with Hot Rize, which included Pete Wernick, Charles Sawtelle, and Nick Foster, for 12 years; also performed with his band, the O’Boys, and his sister, Mollie O’Brien; has worked as backup for other musicians and as a solo artist.
Awards: International Bluegrass Music Association, Entertainer of the Year (with Hot Rize), 1990; International Bluegrass Music Association, Male Vocalist of the Year, 1993.
Addresses: Record company —Sugar Hill Records, P.O. Box 55300, Durham NC 27717-5300, phone: (919) 489-4349, fax: (919) 489-6080, website: http://www.sugarhillrecords.com. Management —Brad Hunt/Sue Stillwagon, The WNS Group, 6 Rolyn Hills Dr., Orangeburg, NY 10962, phone: (845) 358-3003, fax:(845) 358-7277. Website — Tim O’Brien Official Website: http://www.timobrien.net.
Long Chain On,” to the “newgrass” sound of “Church Steeple.” It also included a cover of Bob Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” a track that inspired O’Brien to record an entire album of Dylan songs, Red on Blonde.
Hot Rize reunited in 1996 for a reunion tour, captured in So Long of a Journey, which was not released until 2002. Metzger wrote that the album “showcases the ensemble at its best—delivering a delightful treat,” and that the band “unleashed some of the tightest, most exquisite bluegrass music this side of [famed bluegrass musician] Del McCoury.”
In 1997 O’Brien released another solo album, When No One’s Around, whose title track was later recorded by Garth Brooks on his Sevens album. O’Brien moved into another musical tradition in 1999 with The Crossing, an exploration of Irish music that included performances by Irish band Altan and Irish singer Paul Brady, as well as many American bluegrass performers. In a review in World of Hibernia, Kira L. Schlechter noted that the album had been inspired by O’Brien’s interest in his Irish roots, remarking, “That interest is more like an overwhelming delight.” On the album, O’Brien sang about Irish emigrants to America, prompting Schlecter to comment, “O’Brien acts as a loving historian and proud Irish-American….” In Sing Out!, Mike Regenstreif called the album “a masterful exploration in song… of Irish emigration to America” and “a wonderful demonstration of how Irish music developed in the New World.”
In his interview with Puremusic, O’Brien said honestly that the project originally came about because it was “an excuse for me to play some Irish music with people that really knew how to do it. I’d sort of hide behind them when they were playing a tune.” He noted, however, that bluegrass has Celtic roots, and that many bluegrass tunes are actually Irish or Scottish ones that were brought over with immigrants; O’Brien wanted to explore both the similarities and the differences in the music.
In a follow-up album, Two Journeys, O’Brien emphasized the Irish side of this musical marriage, and again invited many Irish artists to participate. Regenstreif wrote, “O’Brien continues to explore the relationship between Irish and American music as he leads a kind of culture exchange between some of Ireland’s best traditional musicians and some of America’s,” noting that “the spirit of tradition and innovation permeates every song” on the album.
O’Brien established his own record label, Howdy Skies, when he decided to record a musical companion to the book Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. The novel, about a Civil War soldier making the long trek home after the war, was a huge success, but O’Brien was unable to muster any interest in the project with any of the record companies with whom he had previously worked. So he went ahead with his friends Dirk Powell and John Herrmann to make the recording Songs from the Mountain.
O’Brien’s talent has contributed to albums by a wide range of other artists, including Laurie Lewis, Maura O’Connell, Kathy Kallick, Jerry Douglas, Peter Ostroushko, Dwight Yoakam, Pat Alger, and Robert Earl Keen, as well as Kate Rusbe and David Grier. On his website O’Brien said of his artistic method, “It’s like chiseling away a sculpture. It was always there. You’ve just got to find what it is that’s you.”
In the Puremusic interview, O’Brien said of his prolific amount of musical work, “That’s just how it is in the bluegrass world, you gotta do one every year. There are only so many fans of this music, and the only way to keep selling records is to keep making them.” And, he noted, “I certainly don’t suffer from a shortage of ideas. I draw from a lot of different sources…. There’s so much good traditional material. It’s just about getting the vibe going with a group of musicians.”
Odd Man In, Sugar Hill, 1991.
Oh Boy, O’Boy, Sugar Hill, 1993.
Rock in My Shoe, Sugar Hill, 1995.
Red on Blonde, Sugar Hill, 1996.
Songs from the Mountain, Howdy Skies, 1998.
The Crossing, Howdy Skies, 1999.
Real Time, Howdy Skies, 2000.
Two Journeys, Howdy Skies, 2001.
With Hot Rize
Untold Stories, Sugar Hill, 1987.
Take It Home, Sugar Hill, 1990.
Traditional Ties, Sugar Hill, 1998.
So Long of a Journey, Howdy Skies, 2002.
With Mollie O’Brien
Take Me Back, Sugar Hill, 1988.
Remember Me, Sugar Hill, 1992.
Away out on the Mountain, Sugar Hill, 1994.
Sing Out!, Spring 2002.
World of Hibemia, Fall 1999.
“Hot Rize: So Long of a Journey,” The Music Box, http://www.musicbox-online.com/hr-long-html (July 9, 2002).
“Interview with Tim O’Brien,” Puremusic.com, http://www.puremusic.com/obrien2.htm (July 9, 2002).
Tim O’Brien Official Website, http://www.timobrien.net (July 9, 2002).
"O’Brien, Tim." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 17, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/obrien-tim-0
"O’Brien, Tim." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved August 17, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/obrien-tim-0
Nationality: American. Born: William Timothy O'Brien in Austin, Minnesota, 1 October 1946. Education: Macalaster College, St. Paul, Minnesota, B.A. in political science (summa cum laude) 1968; Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1970-76. Military Service: Served in the United States Army during the Vietnam war; discharged wounded 1970: Purple Heart. Career: Reporter, Washington Post, 1971-74. Awards: National Book award, 1978; National Endowment for the Arts award; Bread Loaf Writers Conference award; Heartland Award, 1990; Melcher Book Award, 1991. L.H.D., Miami University (Ohio), 1990. Agent: International Creative Management, 40 West 57th Street, New York, New York 10019, U.S.A.
Northern Lights. New York, Delacorte Press, and London, Calder andBoyars, 1975.
Going after Cacciato. New York, Delacorte Press, and London, Cape, 1978.
The Nuclear Age. Portland, Oregon, Press 22, 1981; London, Collins, 1986.
In the Lake of the Woods. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1994.
Tomcat in Love. New York, Broadway Books, 1998.
The Things They Carried. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, and London, Collins, 1990.
Uncollected Short Stories
"Keeping Watch by Night," in Redbook (New York), December1976.
"Night March," in Prize Stories of 1976, edited by William Abrahams. New York, Doubleday, 1976.
"Fisherman," in Esquire (New York), October 1977.
"Calling Home," in Redbook (New York), December 1977.
"Speaking of Courage," in Prize Stories of 1978, edited by WilliamAbrahams. New York, Doubleday, 1978.
"Civil Defense," in Esquire (New York), August 1980.
"The Ghost Soldiers," in Prize Stories of 1982, edited by WilliamAbrahams. New York, Doubleday, 1982.
"Quantum Jumps," in The Pushcart Prize 10, edited by Bill Henderson. Wainscott, New York, Pushcart Press, 1985.
"Underground Tests," in The Esquire Fiction Reader 2, edited byRust Hills and Tom Jenks. Green Harbor, Massachusetts, Wampeter Press, 1986.
"The Lives of the Dead," in Esquire (New York), January 1989.
"Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong," in Esquire (New York), July1989.
"In the Field," in Gentlemen's Quarterly (New York), December1989.
"Enemies and Friends," in Harper's (New York), March 1990.
"Field Trip," in McCall's (New York), August 1990.
"Speaking of Courage," in The Other Side of Heaven: Post-War Fiction by Vietnamese and American Writers, edited by Wayne Karling. Williamatic, Connecticut, Curbstone Press, 1995.
If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home (memoirs).New York, Delacorte Press, and London, Calder and Boyars, 1973; revised edition, Delacorte Press, 1979.
Speaking of Courage. Santa Barbara, California, Neville, 1980.*
"Imagining the Real: The Fiction of Tim O'Brien" by Daniel L. Zins, in Hollins Critic (Hollins College, Virginia), June 1986; "Tim O'Brien's Myth of Courage" by Milton J. Bates, in Critique (Washington, D.C.), Summer 1987; Understanding Tim O'Brien by Steven Kaplan, Columbia, University of South Carolina Press, 1994; Tim O'Brien by Tobey C. Herzog, New York, Twayne Publishers, 1997.* * *
Looking back, it almost seems as if, during the 1970s and 1980s, in order to have a book acclaimed as one of the best pieces of writing to emerge from the Vietnam War, all an author needed to do was get it published. Whatever the reason for the hype, some highly commendable work was produced as a result of America's military misadventures in southeast Asia. Few writers contribute more than once to the list though, and few have really been able to forge much headway beyond their first couple of books. Tim O'Brien is the exception.
O'Brien's debut, If I Die in a Combat Zone, a collection of newspaper and magazine journalism supplemented by other articles, would have been enough to ensure him a lasting reputation as a gritty and reliable witness to some of the worst stupidity of the war in Vietnam. Anecdotal and sometimes jarring in its juxtaposition of Socratic dialogue and personal meditation, If I Die in a Combat Zone is a clear-sighted and unsensationalist account of one young enlistee's fears and aspirations. In no way does it prepare us for Going after Cacciato, O'Brien's intense, impressionistic, and impassioned fictionalization of the experiences of ordinary combat personnel in Vietnam. Here O'Brien's narrative stretches across Asia and Europe as the remaining members of a platoon hunt a deserter. Gradually it becomes evident that this epic chase is a graft of fantasy onto fact—Paul Berlin, the central character, and his colleagues follow their prey no further than a grassy knoll not far from their departure point. The subsequent developments are all the products of an imagination feverishly creating alternative scenarios to the horrors of a foot-soldier's daily existence. Reality becomes malleable as O'Brien weaves memorable sections of recalled events—sentry duty, ambush, patrol, and death—into the path of Cacciato's flight. Imagination is the metaphor for and means of survival—a theme that unites O'Brien's work.
Northern Lights brings together two brothers—one returned from Vietnam, the other homebound—and pitches them into a battle for life in the untamed Minnesotan Arrowhead country after a skiing trip goes disastrously wrong. In a not unexpected role reversal, Harvey, who has proved his manhood in battle, becomes utterly dependent upon Paul, who has "flown a desk" for the duration. O'Brien's portrayals of an impersonal but fiercely hostile winter wilderness and the oppressive atmosphere of a dying small town are vivid and impressive. Northern Lights also introduces us, somewhat ominously, to a bomb shelter dug by Harvey.
O'Brien's third novel, The Nuclear Age, draws that shelter out of the background and deposits it in a dominant position, in the middle (and beginning and end) of the plot. William Cowling, the narrator of this tale of paranoia and atrophied passion, has led a life determined by dread—the same interminable panic felt by O'Brien in Vietnam but modified into the more universal concept of the all-consuming terror of nuclear Armageddon. As a child he constructed a refuge in his basement out of a ping-pong table, surrounding it at one point with pencils purloined from school, in the belief that radiation from a nuclear explosion would not penetrate the "lead." At college, Cowling's personal antibomb protests are mistaken for the actions of a putative politician, and he is soon embroiled in campus revolt, orchestrated by Sarah, the childhood sweetheart he never had. The primary motive of the hero is, however, self-preservation: "She was out to change the world, I was out to survive it." As Cowling grows out of love with Sarah, so his concern with his imminent obliteration becomes more profound, and we join him, late at night, in his garden, obeying the "voice" of a hole that is telling him to dig or perish.
The Things They Carried, more short story cycle than novel, reads so much like a memoir that the author has to emphasize, in a subtitle and prefatory note, that what follows is "a work of fiction." The intensely autobiographical tone of the stories is underscored by the presence of a first person narrator named Tim O'Brien. The stories that follow all attempt to come to terms with the narrator's Vietnam experience and frequently try to account for the purpose of telling or writing stories. "How to Tell a True War Story" begins with the assertion, "This is true" and, like many of the other stories in the collection, goes on to question what truth is. Truth and reality are even fuzzier in Vietnam than elsewhere, and examining how experience is converted into meaning matters more than trying to figure out what is real. Despite the narrator's playing with the notion of truth in stories, the reader comes away from these stories with a sense of the awful truth that was Vietnam, though we share the frustrations of the various storytellers, who will never quite be able to communicate their experience.
This frustration becomes the theme of O'Brien's next novel, In the Lake of the Woods, the story of John Wade, who goes into exile after losing a primary election for U.S. senate, and his wife Kathy, who disappears while they are in exile. The novel comprises various testimonies of people who knew John, the local authorities who suspect foul play, neighbors who try to comfort John after the disappearance, and other "evidence" in the form of documents chronicling Wade's life. Bringing it all together is a narrator who is self-conscious about his role as a writer, and his inability to "know" anything beyond direct personal experience. "Evidence is not truth," he tells us in a footnote, "and if you require solutions, you will have to look beyond these pages." Like the rest of O'Brien's work, this novel takes on Vietnam, yet more obliquely; Wade had been involved in the My Lai incident, and his experience there becomes part of the evidence in his case. The connection is clear enough: despite all of our various attempts to make sense of the disturbing side of human existence, our capacity to understand is limited. O'Brien has certainly not left the war behind, but he has gotten beyond the war itself and begun to delve into its long-term implications. He remains the most compelling voice to emerge from the Vietnam war, but he is also developing into a master of storytelling who is aware of his craft and of the necessity for its continuation.
updated by D. Quentin Miller
"O'brien, Tim." Contemporary Novelists. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 17, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/obrien-tim
"O'brien, Tim." Contemporary Novelists. . Retrieved August 17, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/obrien-tim