Blog | 50 Years Entry #3

March 21, 2024

Here in America, March is the Irish season centering on March 17th, Saint Patrick’s Day, when anyone with even a tiny shred of Irish ancestry suddenly becomes more Irish. In my youth, Irish Catholics like myself could backslide a bit and eat that candy or drink that Coke we’d given up for Lent. I became more interested in my Irish background in my brief college career, when I enrolled in a coordinated study program on Irish literature, history, and politics. I learned how the traditional dance music, ballads and folk tales reinforced the drive for Irish independence, and I soon noticed that many of the bluegrass tunes and songs I knew had origins in Ireland, particularly in the northern counties of Ulster, home to my Irish great grandparents. Tune books like Cole’s “1000 Fiddle Tunes” are filled with Irish and Scottish tunes and I started learning them and playing them with friends in the mid 1970’s. I celebrated my Irish heritage again last week at Nashvillle’s Station Inn with an opening set of jigs, reels, and ballads. The program included “Hardiman the Fiddler”, a tune I learned almost 50 years ago as you’ll read below.

I turned 70 on March 16, but I started eating birthday cake after our show at Wintergrass on February 24th. Thanks to Darol Anger and Jan for the nice surprise. I ate more cake at Mountain Stage on March 10th after a show with a lineup I helped curate in celebration of the big birthday. The lineup included old friends and collaborators, Washboard Chaz and the Tin Men, Dirk and Amelia Powell, Karan Casey, Sarah Jarosz, and my band. We all joined in on a fun finale, trading verses on Dylan’s “Man Gave Names to All the Animals”. My mom used to bring homemade cookies from Wheeling whenever I was on the show which is taped in Charleston WV, but she’s no longer around, so Jan and I made a big batch of mom’s “toll house cookies with a difference”. We’d been eating cookies all day, and I’m sorry to say that we didn’t finish the cake that night. Many thanks to the Mountain Stage production team, house band and Kathy Mattea who hosted the show.

There were a couple more cakes at the Station Inn on March 12 and 13. The first night included a wonderful opening set by songwriter Ed Snodderly with assistance from our family doctor Gary Smith on bass. Washboard Chaz joined Larry Atamanuik, Mike Bub, Shad Cobb, Jan and me for the second set. The next night Jan and I opened with the Irish set, with help from piper Eamon Dillon and cellist Nathaniel Smith along with the regular members of the Tim O’Brien band – Mike Bub, Shad Cobb, and Cory Walker. Later we were joined by Sarah Jarosz for several songs. All the shows featured recent co-writes with the venerable Tom Paxton. One of them, “Covenant”, commemorates the school shootings that took place here in Nashville on March 27th of last year. The band also worked up some older songs for the occasion including “One Girl Cried”, “I’m Not Afraid o’ Dyin”, “Walk Beside Me” and even “The Same Old South” from the Ophelia Swing band days. I couldn’t have pulled off the Station Inn extravaganzas without Jan’s help. Lots of folks came from out of town, and our blood sugar/stress levels finally settled down by the 15th. Jan and I celebrated my actual birthday on the 166h with a quiet dinner at a nice restaurant.

Spring and Summer 1974

I had supported myself in Jackson Hole the previous winter of by living very cheaply and playing a few gigs. By the end of March 1974 I was back home in Wheeling, contemplating my next move. I was just another kid ping-ponging back and forth from his imagined independence to the safety of his parents’ home. West Virginia Grass no longer needed a guitar player, but they did need a bass player and I was able to grab that job, such as it was. I borrowed an electric bass from my high school friend Dave Shafer. It was a Japanese made Electra solid body that he’d played in our high school rock band. After he’d upgraded to a better instrument, Dave pulled the frets from the Electra, filling the fret slots with liquid wood to make it a fretless model. Most readers will need some context on how I knew Dave and how I got started playing music, so here goes.

My sister Mollie and I started singing together soon after I got my first guitar, a red Stella, from Walter Shalayka’s store in Wheeling. I was 12 years old. We’d heard Folk music, R&B and Jazz on records my brother Trip brought home from college. We also listened to WKWK, the local pop station and watched network TV shows like “Hootenanny” and “Shindig” as well as “The Dick Clark Show” and Ed Sullivan’s Sunday night variety show. That’s where we heard the Beatles of course and we joined the local Beatles fan club, and with our mother’s help, we went to see the four mop topped lads at the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh on September 14th, 1964. We had books of Beatles and Peter, Paul, and Mary songs and I was also learning from a Roger Miller book. My friends Duffy and Chipper Wood had started playing guitars in response to “The British Invasion” and I learned my first licks on their instruments before I ever owned a guitar.

I don’t think my very first band even had a bass player. I was 12 and 13 years old and the members included grade school friends Mike Vollinger on drums and Larry Haning on vocals. I think Duffy Wood was our other guitarist. The band we called The Establishment existed mostly in our minds. I can’t remember any gigs we played except the one where we played Wilson Pickett’s “Midnight Hour” several times on New Year’s Eve in the attic of a house along National Road. I had a Harmony solid body guitar with two pickups, and a little Harmony amp.

I think I was in 8th grade when I met Dave Shafer, Trenny Blum and Mark McElwaine. They came to my parents house at 10 Lenox Avenue and we may have played some, but mostly I remember laughing so hard that I got a stomach ache. I don’t know how I hooked up with them, but I had seen Trenny sing a Roger Miller song on the Linsly Military Institute’s annual Minstrel show. The three of them went to Woodsdale Junior High, about a mile from Saint Michael’s grade school where I was about to graduate. Our group had various names, including “Shagum”, derived by misspelling the name of a kind of peat moss. Later we sorta settled on the name “Ice”. Mark played drums and sang “Money”, Trenny played guitar and sang “Tobacco Road”, and Dave played the bass and sang his original “Natural Man”. Later we added Andy Maness on guitar. His Harmony guitar was cooler than mine – a semi-hollow body with three pickups and his amp was bigger too. I think Mark or Trenny had rigged up a strobe light made from a light bulb, a record turn table, and piece of cardboard with a hole in it. We played some private parties, a couple school talent shows, and we also did some “Record Hops” sponsored by WKWK. We weren’t of driving age, so a parent or an older sibling would take us to some hall where we would alternate sets with a DJ from the radio station who would spin 45rpm records. We’d spilt a fee of about $17 between us and think we were on our way. We meant to emulate the standard heroes of the day – the Beatles for a while, then Cream, then the Band. Mark, Trenny and Dave later attended Triadelphia High School, while I followed my older brothers into Linsly, a local Military prep school. They graduated a year ahead of me and the band broke up.

In the meantime, Mollie and I sang some as well, and there was at least one collaboration where Mollie and I performed with Dave and Trenny – maybe as “The Katzenjammer Kids” – for a folk music contest. I remember one of the songs was “Walk Me Down in the Morning Dew”. I don’t know who brought that song in, and I only recently learned its origin as a protest song by Bonnie Dobson. We won first prize. Once Mollie and I we got paid to sing from the choir loft at a wedding. We also played a few times in the Gelandesprung bar at the Blue Knob ski area in Pennsylvania. We’d gone there for a weekend to ski and I brought my guitar. Somebody heard us singing in the dorms there and we were asked to play. Mollie was 16 but told them she was 18, and I was 14 and told them I was 16. We obviously didn’t belong there but we went back a couple more times to ski and perform, our eyes open a little wider each time.

When I was 16 or so I met Pete Bachmann who became a regular picking buddy. He was 6 or so years older than me and had left home and bummed around playing music, and he knew a lot of the same Doc Watson material I was trying to learn. We’d watch football games with the sound off as we flat picked “Salt Creek” and “Billy in the Low Ground”. He took me to my very first fiddle convention one summer. It was a few hours drive south of Wheeling in Elizabeth WV. The Morris Brothers, John and Dave, hosted the festival, and I heard Franklin George play his hammered dulcimer. At the end of that weekend, I couldn’t escape the new ear worm in my head – the basic melody of “Soldier’s Joy”, a tune that had been relentlessly repeated both on and off stage.

So now, years later, I was back in Wheeling like Pete Bachmann had been when I first met him. My hair was long and thick, and I played electric bass with Pete on mandolin, his girlfriend Laura Cramblett on guitar, and banjo player Ed Mahonen in their group West Virginia Grass. I spent a lot of those spring and summer afternoons picking with Ed in his apartment in West Liberty. Laura sang a version of “Rocky Top” in C, Ed sang “Friend of the Devil”, and Pete had worked up Leon Russell’s “Up on the Tight Wire”. We were fans of Bill Monroe but we also took the signal from Newgrass Revival to mix things up. There was a show that summer at a country music park north of Wheeling on the Ohio side of the river. The Country Gentlemen were the headliner that day, and Charlie Waller introduced their new dobro player. He said he fit into their band “like a glove”. His name was Jerry Douglas and he WAS really good. Newly graduated from his high school in nearby Warren, Ohio, he’d just signed on to his first professional job.

At a fiddler’s convention that summer in Independence, Virginia, I dove deeper into the world of American old-time music. I joined groups who stood in a circle and played the same melodies over and over in unison until, as one acquaintance put it, “the music starts moving through you”. Compared to the bluegrass jam sessions I was familiar with, these jams took a very different, much more communal, approach. Of course, fiddlers’ conventions draw a crowd by holding contests for the various traditional instruments, but this music was demonstrably non-competitive. I heard some fine bluegrass that weekend from the contest stage but was also witnessed exciting performances by the Highwoods and Swamp Root String Bands, both comprised of capable young northern practitioners who pushed out high energy breakdowns played on fiddles and clawhammer banjos with driving guitar and bass backing. The old-time music revival that the New Lost City Ramblers started in the 1950s was here and now in full flower. If I’m not mistaken, the winner of the bluegrass band competition that Saturday night was Southbound, a group that included my contemporaries Lou Reid and Jimmy Haley, who in 1979 would join the late, great Terry Baucom in the first edition of Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver.

I basically had my ears open and the red button on my internal tape recorder pushed in those days. A couple I knew who lived in nearby Volney VA hosted a potluck picking party the next day and after breaking camp at the fairgrounds on Sunday morning, I headed that way. As I arrived at the farm on York Ridge where Wayne Erbsen and Tina Liden Jones lived, I saw an old green school bus parked in the pasture. The hippies spilling out of it were the Green Grass Cloggers, who had also attended the fiddle convention. I met an Irishman that afternoon named Eamonn O’Doherty. He played the flute and he did his best to teach me a slip jig called “Hardiman the Fiddler”. Most jigs are double jigs, where each measure of music has two main beats, each of which is divided into three note triplets. A slip jig is different in that each measure has three main beats divided into triplets, and I had a terrible time latching onto it. I may have recorded the tune on one of those portable cassette players from back in the day. In any case the tune and the memory of the man stayed with me in the coming years as I dove into Irish traditional dance music. Some forty years later I stumbled on a book called “The Northern Fiddler”, a wonderful study of Irish fiddle music from Donegal and Tyrone, and lo and behold its co-author was Eamonn O’Doherty. The book is out of print, but I obtained a PDF copy in recent years and have enjoyed it greatly. There are transcriptions of tunes of course, but also interviews with noted players like John Doherty, as well as photographs and charcoal drawings done by Eamonn. Sadly, he died in 2011 and I never saw him again. I just read about him on the web this morning and learned that while he was known as a musician who toured briefly with Andy Irvine and Sweeneys Men, he was mainly known as a sculptor, and I now realize I’ve seen his work in public places in Dublin and Galway! is a great source for jigs and reels and you can find a handy transcription of “Hardiman the Fiddler” (aka “The Heart of a Loaf” and “Poitin Whiskey”) at

Before leaving Wayne and Tina’s place in Southwest Virginia that summer, we all drove through the rain to visit guitarist and guitar maker Wayne Henderson. We jammed in his workshop with another fine bluegrass guitarist named Ray Cline. Wayne Henderson was a local hero who played the fiddle tunes in a unique three finger style. In the years since, he delivered mail for the local post office while quietly earning worldwide renown for his guitars - sought out by in-the-know folks like Eric Clapton and Vince Gill – as well as for his music. He’s traveled the world under the auspices of the US State Department and started his own music festival, although this year’s 30th annual event on June 15th is advertised as his last.

Camp Springs Newgrass Festival 1973. That’s me 6th from the left with glasses and dark t-shirt. To my right with his chin resting on his fist is Mark McElwaine. We’re all watching somebody shredding mid ‘70’s bluegrass on the festival stage.
When I wasn’t playing bass with WV Grass that summer, I was practicing the fiddle and jamming with anyone that would have me. I was seeking out other musicians and making a lot of new friends like Jim Simpson who played me his new Leo Kottke record which blew my mind. I attended Don West’s Traditional Mountain Music festival in Pipestem WV and Carlton Haney’s Newgrass festival in Camp Springs NC. One night Pete Bachmann and I went to see the Hutchison Brothers – John on guitar and Zeke on banjo along with their brother-in-law Tim Sparkman on bass – at a club called Tin Pan Alley. They were an inspiration and John would become a mentor. In August at Watermelon Park in Berryville VA, I met a good guitarist named Arthur Knapp who was planning to relocate to Boulder Colorado. I told him I might just do the same, and within a few weeks I was driving my ’66 Volvo west across the plains towards Colorado.

News | 50 Years entry #2

50 Years entry #2

January 31, 2024

We’re about to leave stormy Glasgow on a prop plane flight to Dublin. I think the last time I flew on one of these was with Danny Barnes maybe 20 years ago. That flight was from Leeds to Dublin, going west over the Irish Sea like we will today.

We had a wonderful turnout at the Old Fruitmarket in Glasgow last night and Jan and the guys in the band really came through. It was really fun to play that music from “The Crossing” and its follow-up “Two Journeys” after more than 20 years.

A friend has given us use of his cottage on the Dingle peninsula in County Kerry for some welcome quiet days after the tour in UK. The same friend sent me this podcast about a pretty interesting series of events in 1977 just north of where we’re staying.

Our accommodations are also very close to where, in the 6th century, Saint Brendan and 17 other Irish monks launched an Atlantic voyage in a wood framed, skin covered boat called a currach, a type of watercraft still used on the west coast of Ireland. Brendan, then in his 70’s, and his companions fasted and prayed for weeks before their departure. Historians have studied the text in “Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis” - an account of the voyage published in the 10th century - and comparing its text with what they now know about Atlantic currents, have concluded that Brendan reached the Outer Hebrides, Orkney, and the Faeroe Islands. Norse sagas suggest that Irish monks were already in Iceland when the Vikings first arrived there late in the 9th century. Some say Brendan may have reached Greenland and even North America at Newfoundland before returning to Ireland.

Later: Prop plane in wind and rain? No problem. We ate a burger before the flight and didn’t even feel the need to pray. The plane wanted to skid a little sideways on landing, but the tires held. After we loaded our gear into our rent-a-car, we noticed it had a flat tire, so we exchanged it for a different car and headed to Kildare for dinner and a room for the night.

February 1, 2024

This morning, I noticed a poster listing events commemorating Brigid’s Day which is today. Brigid, the daughter of a chieftain, converted to Christianity under Saint Patrick in the 6th century, and later founded a monastery here She is a greatly revered Irish saint, the patron of among other things, cattle. Maybe it makes sense that Kildare is also horse country. One tradition of Brigid’s day is making crosses from reeds. As we were leaving town, the high school students were assembling to form a giant human Brigid’s Cross at 10am on the racetrack nearby. We were here in Ireland for Brigid’s day last year.

There are two ways to approach Dingle from the north, and we chose to drive over Conner Pass. I’d been over it once about 30 years ago, and today looked like a clear day for what should be amazing views. Wishful thinking! It is a dramatic, twisting, cliff-hanging narrow road. The sheep grazing on steep slopes seemed happy enough in the sideways rain and mist, but we felt sorry for the motorcyclist we saw. I wonder if any human beings have ever seen anything but clouds from the top. Now we’re settling into a cozy cottage, a peat fire burning, listening to the Gaelic language station.

February 17, 2024

From Dingle, Jan and I went to the White Horse pub in Ballincollig, near Cork City, where we rehearsed with two wonderful Irish traditional players, guitarist Steve Cooney and accordion player Dermot Byrne. Among other material, we worked up versions of traditional Irish pieces “O’Carolan’s Concerto” and “Arthur Darley”, a version of the Hot Rize song “Colleen Malone” and a new song original called “Tunes I Used to Know”. Joe Carey at the White Horse has been very supportive over the years, and he helped arrange a live multitrack recording of our show there. After that show we played at the Glor center in the bustling market town of Ennis in County Claire, shopped at Cash’s Men’s Wear, and heard concertina master Noel Hill in concert in nearby Milltown Malbay. We got home to Nashville on the 12th, but I’m still waiting for my guitar to get here. Jan made me a yummy steak dinner and bought me flowers for Valentine’s Day. I made rough mixes of the live recording and there’s plenty of good results. Seems like it’s a whole cd’s worth. Tomorrow, we head to Colorado to play three sold out concerts with our bluegrass buddies Mike Bub, Shad Cobb, and Cory Walker.

February 1974

In last month’s entry I said that gigs in Jackson Hole got thin in mid-February of 1974, but I guess they were already thin by the end of January. There was a girl living north of San Francisco who I thought liked me, and I decided to go see her.

I wasn’t sure Matahari would make the trip, so I set out hitch-hiking on February 1st. At Idaho Falls I got a lift with a Mormon guy about my age in a pickup truck with a load of barbed wire. He took me to Elko, Nevada, where his family put me up the night. In the morning, they fed me a breakfast of cereal, toast, orange juice and postum (a powdered grain beverage once popular as a coffee substitute). He dropped me off at the western edge of town where I stuck out my thumb. I wouldn’t get back to Elko until the early 1990’s when I attended the annual Cowboy Poetry gathering. At Winnemucca that afternoon I got a lift with two young women who took me all the way to their apartment in Sausalito. We arrived late at night, and I slept on their couch. In the middle of the night there was a break in. They were probably burglars, but they didn’t take anything. They were gone just a soon as they came in, maybe because they’d assumed the occupants were still away, and maybe because they saw me on the couch. (If there’s a recurring theme in my stories, it might be how I’ve generally been both naïve and lucky in my adventures.) That next morning, I made my way to Berkeley where my friend Dennis from the Jackson Hole summer camp was living in a fraternity house. We hung out that night and the next morning, February 4th, we read about Patty Hearst’s kidnapping which had taken place several blocks away. A couple days later I hitched north past Bodega Bay, turned right at the Russian River, and made to the commune where the girl was living. She had told me I was welcome to visit her and David, and I assumed she meant her brother David, but no, this was her boyfriend, David. After a few days I there I headed back in Berkeley where I bought a used Doc Watson record and went to a bluegrass benefit concert at the Freight and Salvage coffee house. The performers included Butch Waller’s High County, The Phantoms of the Opry (with the great Pat Enright on guitar and vocals) and Shubb, Wilson and Shubb (featuring banjoist Rick Shubb who later designed and marketed the famous capo). The headliner was Mike Seeger who played an amazing solo set. He blew my mind when he played rack harmonica and fiddle simultaneously on a Cajun tune.

When I think back on those times, I’m amazed how little cash I needed to get by. In Jackson I had subsisted on cheese omelets and whole wheat sandwich bread. I remember my dad asking me on the phone that winter if the recession was affecting me, but I was oblivious. On this hitch-hiking trip I generally mooched off friends and acquaintances. Maybe with my naïve optimism, backpack, fiddle and “kinky red hair out to here”, people took pity on me.

The next day I set out to see Big Sur. I got a ride in a VW bus from Berkeley all the way to San Luis Obispo, where the driver, a guy named Jules, let me out about 11pm at night. I grabbed my backpack but forgot to grab my fiddle as Jules drove away south. The inside walls of the VW had Rolling Stone articles pasted on as wallpaper, and there were stacks of back issues in the back where I'd ridden. I went on my way without the fiddle, wondering if I could and should place an ad in the classifieds in Rolling Stone and if Jules would see it. All I saw of Big Sur was rain and fog and the highway. Next, I hitched east to Boulder, Colorado. I remember sleeping overnight in a building near Salt Lake City that was still under construction.

The summer before I’d met a banjo player named Ritchie Mintz who lived in Boulder. I stayed several days with him and met several musicians. Ritchie and his friend Ned had a bluegrass band called Town and Country review and Ned had a store called Folk Arts Music. I jammed with them, and with Kelly McNish and Ray Bonneville who were starting a trio with bassist Eric Johnson. I also met the members of a new Western Swing Band – Dusty Drapes and the Dusters - who wondered if was living there and if I might play fiddle with them. I went with Ritchie to a club in Denver called Ebbets Field to see the new bluegrass group Country Gazette. On the way we stopped at the Denver Folklore Center, which would become the nexus of my world in the coming years. I liked Colorado’s Front Range, and it seemed like I could find a place in its music scene. I went back to Jackson and got a gig playing from table to table. Jann the banjo player named me “strolling Tim.”

Around that time, I considered taking out a classified ad in the Rolling Stone. Swallowing hard, I sent a check for $75 and placed an ad that said "Jules, I want my fiddle back. Call collect”, listing my parents’ home phone number. By the middle end of March, I was back home in Wheeling, and playing with West Virginia Grass again, this time on electric bass, and testing my parents’ patience. My dad helped me make a homeowner’s insurance claim on the lost fiddle under the category “mysterious disappearance”. (I found the same fiddle I still play today at Walter Shalayka’s little store in an alley there in Wheeling and bought it with the insurance money.) There were various crank calls about the lost fiddle for a month or so, and then nothing. But in mid-May, Jules called. It turned out that the VW bus he'd driven that day was not his after all. He’d gotten home, found the fiddle in the back of the VW, and stashed it at his house before returning his friend's car. Then a few months later, he was hitchhiking himself and there on the seat between him and the driver was the April 11, 1974, issue of Rolling Stone. Marvin Gaye was on the cover and my ad was way in the back of the mag in small print.

Jules saw his name and called the number. He'd kept the fiddle at his house in LA and would work with me to send it to my parents’ place in WV. I gave the claim money back to the insurance company, Aetna, who would then handle the transfer and shipping of the lost fiddle for free. There was a delay, however. Jules's home was a block from where the Symbionese Liberation Army, who had kidnapped Patty Hearst, was hiding. The FBI and Police had cordoned off the area, and they eventually burned the house with SLA members inside. Patty Hearst was not there, but the ringleader Donald DeFeeze, known as "Cinque," was. He shot himself in the head as he was getting burned alive in the crawl space underneath the house on May 17th, 1974.

I got my fiddle back soon after, and about six months after that it was badly damaged. By then I was back in Boulder playing with the Ophelia Swing Band. Our band's fiddler, Linda Joseph, liked to play brushes on a cardboard box for some songs. She didn't have a box that night, so she put my fiddle case (fiddle inside) on a stool and then knocked it off the stool mid-song and the top broke in several places. I got it repaired but it wasn't the same and I sold it.

I wonder what Jules is doing now.

Blog | Tim's 70th Birthday Celebration 2024

TIM O’BRIEN’S 70th Birthday Celebration!!!!
March 12th and 13th at the Station Inn in Nashville, TN

As my 70th birthday approaches, I plan to comb through 50 years of music while renewing old friendships at two special events in March. Expect some old favorites mixed in with a few brand-new selections in the intimate setting of Nashville’s world-famous Station Inn.

On Tuesday March 12th, New Orleans’ King of Frenchman Street, the one and only Washboard Chaz and drummer Larry Atamanuik, who’s played with everyone from Ronnie Hawkins to Emmy Lou Harris, join regular bandmates Mike Bub (bass), Shad Cobb (fiddle) and Jan Fabricius (mandolin and vocals) for some Americana fun. My favorite songwriter / club owner, Ed Snodderly, who’s newest release “Chimney Smoke” show’s he just keeps getting better, will open the show.

Wednesday March 13th starts with Irish piper Eamon Dillon and cellist Nathaniel Smith joining Shad Cobb, Jan Fabricius and me playing some pre-Paddy’s day jigs, reels and ballads. The second set brings back the reliable Bluegrass lineup of Mike Bub on bass, and Cory Walker on banjo, along with Shad, Jan and myself - plus a special mystery guest.

Doors are at 7pm and Showtime is 8pm both nights. Admission is $30 per person per night. The Station Inn is a great small venue and this show will sellout, so in order to reserve your entry pass pre-pay via Venmo @ *Please, indicate in the comments which night or nights that you would like to attend and first and last name of attendees, also leave an email address so Jan can send confirmation of your payment for you to print or show from your phone at the door.

It is general admission so there are no reserved seats. Advanced payments will be accepted through March 11th. You can purchase admission at the door until capacity has been reached each night.

If you buy advanced tickets you will receive a commemorative poster! 1 per person or 1 per couple. Thanks.

Contact Jan at with any questions.

Blog | 50 years 2024

50 years

Welcome to a special journal marking my 50 years as a musician. The milestone snuck up on me! I’m used to updating promotional bios to include the latest details, but it suddenly occurs to me to document the memories made on the paths I’ve traveled - from my earliest months up to the current day – while singing, playing and writing music. Consider this my first monthly entry.

Jan and I started the year with a run of duet gigs in England. We missed the first of 8 due to bad weather in Nashville and cancelled flights, but we powered through the rest and have now arrived in Glasgow for the annual Celtic Connections festival. We’ll be joined by old friends John Doyle, John McCusker, Mike McGoldrick and Dirk Powell for a reenactment of “The Crossing”, a release from 25 years ago. The goal of that project was to mix Celtic and American folk music - they’re closely related after all - and celebrate the common culture of both sides of the Atlantic. Once I set up that frame, I found lots of fitting traditional material and ended up writing several new songs. On Tuesday, Jan, Dirk and I will represent America’s eastern shore while the other three musicians will bring perspective from the western shores of Ireland, Scotland and England.

January 1974

Music was my main pastime through my high school years in Wheeling WV. There were folk masses, school talent shows, and a local folk music contest. During three summers as a counselor at a summer camp in Jackson Hole WY, I led nightly campfire singalongs. I’d played in a bluegrass band called West Virginia Grass in the summer of 1972, and during my two semesters as a freshman at Colby College in Maine in 1972 and 1973, I mostly studied Doc Watson songs. Back home in the summer of ’73, I got a job at Teeter’s tree nursery. By the end of October I’d saved enough money to buy a Black 1966 Volvo 4 door sedan with a special mod: a Jaguar hood ornament. My mother said the car had a bit of mystery about it, and she named it Matahari after the exotic dancer and World War I spy. I’d made a plan and now I was about to make my getaway.

Some friends from the summer camp were planning to winter in Jackson, so I decided to join them with the idea that I would ski by day and sing at Après Ski bars by night.
In mid-November I packed two guitars, a fiddle, a banjo-mandolin, and couple pairs of skis in Matahari and headed west across the plains to meet my destiny! Marlene Lesniowski had worked at the lapidary shop at summer camp, and she was joined by her boyfriend Phil Saccocia just as I arrived. We had thanksgiving dinner in the place she’d rented in Wilson, just down the road from the ski hill. I rolled my foam pad out and slept on their floor and the next day I started knocking on doors, looking for gigs. I heard about a guy named Jann who played banjo around town, got his address, and knocked on his door that night. I didn’t know any better, and he was understandably a little suspicious when I told him we should play together. We ended up playing happy hour 5 days a week with a bass player named Kenny at the Million Dollar Cowboy bar on the town square. They had a fake shoot-out on the square for tourists every day at 5pm, and we were advertised as “Bluegrass After the Shootout”. It was a beginning.

A couple days later I auditioned for an Australian guy named Kim who ran Calico Pizza on the Wilson Road. I played a 30-minute set consisting of Norman Blake, James Taylor, Kris Kristofferson, and John Prine. Kim said, “I think you’re hot, and I can pay you $25 a couple times a week when various tour groups come in for dinner.” Great, I thought. He asked me where I was living and I told him I was looking for a place. Right then and there, he offered me an extra room in the cabin behind the restaurant, rent free. I ate a lot of free burned pizzas that winter and I could cross country ski along the Snake River right behind the cabin. I was on a roll!

I quickly found that I couldn’t afford too many $40 dollar lift tickets, but I learned just as quickly that you could hitchhike up to the top of Teton pass with your downhill skis, and ski down to the bottom. I’d do that and then go back to the cabin, dampen the fiddle’s sound with a clothespin on the bridge, and woodshed. On Sunday nights there was a country jam session at the Stagecoach bar in Wilson, and I’d join the motley band for a few free drinks and some much-needed experience. The leaders of that jam were John Seidel, who played 12 string guitar, and Bill Briggs, a famous ski mountaineer who yodeled and played a long neck banjo.

That routine kept up through January and into February. I remember cross country skiing to a lodge near Alpine on Christmas Eve for a jam session and potluck sleep over with a fiddler and welder named Fred Buckley. Seems like a fiddler named Marilyn was caretaking the place. (I’d met Fred in Wilson right after summer camp had ended in ‘73 and I think he taught me “Ragtime Annie” that day.) There was one two-week stretch of sub-zero weather that January. One day, the temperature minus 20, the key broke off in Matahari’s ignition, but I could start her by turning the nub of the key with a vice-grip and still get around town. After President’s Day weekend, the ski tourist traffic died down and the gigs kinda died with them. But by then I could sorta play the fiddle along with others.

Next month: an epic hitchhiking trip and my first visit to Boulder.
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News | Tim plays on new Sturgill Simpson record

The words “Hit” and “Bluegrass Record” aren’t often combined, but I played on one that came out October 13, 2020.

Sturgill Simpson called me and a crew of ringers into the studio for three days. He liked what happened so much he called us back for more sessions. The result is a double disc of his songs – “Cuttin’ Grass, Vol 1 (The Butcher Shoppe Sessions)” - played in a big brassy bluegrass style. Check it out and keep an eye out for TV appearances and Volume 2!

Stay well and wear your masks. -- Tim

News | Re release of The Crossing 5/1/2020

Multi Grammy award winner Tim O’Brien re-releases this collection from 1999. Calling on his many Irish and American musical friends as collaborators, he surveys the Irish American experience in song and shows how influences flow in both directions across the Atlantic.
Guests: Darol Anger, Paul Brady, Ronan Brown, Dermot Byrne, Ciaran Curran, Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan, Seamus Egan, Frankie Gavin, David Grier, Viktor Krauss, Kenny Malone, Mike Marshall, Kathy Mattea, Del McCoury, Edgar Meyer, John Mock, Maeraid Ni Mhaonaigh, Maura O’Connell, Kelly Joe Phelps, Todd Phillips, Dirk Powell, Darrell Scott, Earl Scruggs, Mark Schatz, Daithi Sproule, Ciaran Tourish, and Jeff White.
Songwriters: Guy Clark, Craig Fuller, Tim O’Brien, Danny O’Keefe, Piece Pettis, Robin and Linda Williams,
Other sources: The Hammons Family, Buell Kazee, The Osborne Brothers, French Carpenter, and Bill Monroe

Dear friends and fans -

"The Crossing" is a project near and dear to my heart. It came about in an unusual way, and I’m really glad it happened. After twelve years in Hot Rize, I launched my solo career with various touring ensembles and record recordings. When my contract with Sugar Hill records ended after five releases in 1998, I looked around for something new. A long time friend whose musical sensibility I admired, Akira Satake, had started a world music label called Alula. I asked him if he could see a way for my music to fit with Alula, and we came up with an idea.

The project would draw the connecting lines between American Appalachian music and traditional Irish music. As a bluegrass and old time music player, and as a songwriter, I had long enjoyed the influence of acoustic players in the Irish and overall Celtic tradition. I played jigs and reels for fun at home, and always looked for ways to play more and learn more, including producing recordings of a Colorado trad band, Colcannon, as well as renowned fiddler Kevin Burke’s Open House band. Over the years, many of my favorite players and singers on both sides of the Atlantic had become friends, so I made a list of potential collaborators. Though I initially thought the material would mostly consist of songs and tunes that are played in both America and Ireland, I soon began writing some original songs that broadened the scope. This was an opportunity to dig deeper into not only my own Irish ancestry, but also my West Virginia roots.

I'm happy to bring back a project that means so much to me. Jan and I are off the road for the foreseeable future and we miss all y'all. We hope "The Crossing" helps you get through to the other side.


*We do not have the physical CD at the time of this newsletter as the turn around time was slowed due to our current situation, but we will mail all preorders out when they arrive.


Blog | 04/08/2020 Spring without John Prine

04/08/2020 Spring without John Prine

We had gigs cancel in March and April and thought maybe May would still work out. Jan and I came home early from a run in the Northeast and dug ourselves in. It was too early to think about the summer. Jan’s brother in law Wayne Avery,a fine musician, died after a long illness. We were sad that we couldn’t be with his family now, but glad that we’d had a visit on his 70th birthday in December. Still, with food in the pantry and a some savings stashed away, I figured we’d be ok. John Prine got the Covid bug and went on a ventilator, but we didn’t want to look at that too closely or think too hard about it. Word came down that our friend Andy Statman and his wife had survived it. We planted a garden, and some sprouts came up early this week. We listened to a lot of Bill Withers and John Prine. It might all work out.

OK, so on Tuesday June bookings fell through. Until then, there was some chance, some small possibility; some hope against the prevailing trend that things might kind of flip back into place. And then yesterday John Prine died.

I had John’s first record in my freshman in college dorm room. A year later I started trying to make my living as a singer, and his songs were on my set list. I talked to him one time at festival backstage about Steve Goodman. Then in the early 90’s, I was visiting Nashville and was staying with a friend who lived down the street from him. John’s mother’s was living with him then and it was her birthday, so we were invited over for cake and ice cream. After I moved to Nashville, I’d see him at Kroger early in the morning after running my kids to school. I’d see him at places that served country soul food. Above his signature on the wall of the Copper Kettle he wrote, “Meatloaf Tuesday.” I got to record on duets he sang with Mac Wiseman and with Kathy Mattea. He snuck into the back door of the Station Inn one night and sat to the side, said he’d never seen Hot Rize before, but I think he really came to see Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers. John was always the same regular guy who just happened to be a great poet of his time.

Getting to know Bill Withers a little through the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame was a similar thing. Here was a giant of the pop music world, reaching down to shake Little Jimmy Dickens hand. He kept coming back to WV after his induction, meeting old and new friends at Hall of Fame events. . Late one night at a reception following an induction ceremony, he was drinking moonshine and resisting his wife’s call for them to leave. Another time, post ceremony, he yelled to Jan and I to ride with him back to the hotel in a limo with him and his wife Marcia. Hillbillies in a stretch limousine.

I like to think John and Bill and Wayne are up in heaven on an orientation tour with Mose Allison as their guide. But as reality stares us in the face, it’s best to sing their words and keep their souls alive here among the living.

I’ve been on the folk and bluegrass trail for 45 years, and the Telluride Bluegrass festival has been, for nearly all those years, something to count on. It’s a yearly high point, a full-on summer launch, the weekend when you’d bring new songs and debut a new concept in your presentation. Everything anticipated and then followed it. In my world, it set the tone for the whole year. But Telluride 2020 has been cancelled and the signal is something to behold. The Father’s Day Bluegrass festival in Grass Valley CA, the same weekend as Telluride Bluegrass, also cancelled officially today. My band and I were going to play both events. I’m just processing this now because finally I have to.

Every weekend through the summer there are such events, and there are whole societies that form at them over the years. People camp in the same spaces and celebrate their own traditions. One guy brings oysters maybe, another has a special cocktail for a certain night. From Camp Run amuck at Telluride in June, to the Out of Control Camp at Winfield in September, the summer held various gatherings of unofficial clans, all now likely to cancel. I mean, when the summer Olympics cancelled, I sorta knew the bigger events on my horizon were going to cancel as well. But I couldn’t really take that completely into my mind. Now it’s so real, and surreal.

We’re really all in the same straights. The world and how it works for modern day humans anyway is on hold, and we’ll try to maintain as long as we can until things change. Things will change and so will we, though we don’t really know how or into what exactly. The one thing we can and should feel is we’re in it together. Let’s all grab that and take this time to study it, reflect on it, and since it’s going to be a while, just be in it. I like what the Queen said in her speech about “quiet, good humored resolve” and “fellow feeling”.

How about making a record during this time off? Well, let’s see if we can keep virus free and let’s wait until we can document if our collaborators are also virus free before we start. So I guess it’s best to hunker down and write some songs. Jan and I plan to sing through the computer on Mother’s Day.

We may get to a point where we wear badges that say we have been tested and I suppose they will say if we’re infected or not. People will figure out how much toilet paper they really need. (My dad, who lived through the 1918 flu, the Great Depression, and WWII, used to talk about a sign he’d see by toilet paper rolls that said, “If three sheets will do, why not two?”) A lot of us will learn new recipes. We’re going to trim away whatever unnecessary expenses we can. Some of us will be afraid of the unknown and of others, and we know that fear can lead to hate and to rash behavior. I sit in a pretty secure place compared to a lot of people. I feel and worry for those who have no savings, who have little or no income. I feel such sadness for those who are sick, and for their families and friends.

Spring is a wonderful trend. On my corner, which happens to be on a known east to west short cut, there’s hardly any traffic anymore. There’s a bunny nest in the mint garden. We’ve been watching the mom come and go since Jan noticed the little baby rabbits, eyes still closed, below a tight cluster of pine mulch and bunny fur. We’re watching the birds from the back porch and getting to know the various male and female couples, and three male cardinals dancing around to impress a female. I don’t know many of the people on my street but I’m starting to recognize more faces and the pets that walk along with them. Lastly, I have to say I’m one of the lucky ones because I have my sweetheart here with me and I know we can help each other through this. See ya sometime soon I hope.


News | New Tim O'Brien CD "Where The River Meets The Road" Release date 03/31/2017

Grammy award winning singer songwriter and multi instrumentalist Tim O’Brien grew up singing in church and in school, and started playing the guitar at age twelve. After seeing Doc Watson on TV, he became a lifelong devotee of old time and bluegrass music.

Where the River Meets the Road is his sixteenth solo release. Each of the 12 tracks on the album is connected to his home state of West Virginia. Two originals, “Guardian Angel” and the title track “Where the River Meets the Road,” tell deeply personal stories of O’Brien’s family - the death of his older sister when he was a toddler, and the tale of his great grandfather moving to his hometown of Wheeling in the 1850s. The remaining ten songs were collected and compiled after more than a decade collaborating with the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame. Inducted into the Hall of Fame himself in 2013, his work with the organization helped connect him with the sheer width and breadth of music born of West Virginia’s native sons and daughters.

As a teenager O’Brien began a self-described “walkabout,” because like most West Virginians, he felt he must leave the economically forbidding environment of his homeland. For a while he made his living playing folk gigs in Chicago and across the country, eventually landing in Colorado. There he helped found the seminal, progressive Bluegrass band Hot Rize. Their work through the 80’s and 90’s garnered great critical acclaim and eventually brought him to Nashville. His diverse musical career blossomed with the birth of solo albums, multiple chart-topping songs covered by the likes of Nickel Creek, Dixie Chicks, and Garth Brooks, and collaborations with artists such as Darrell Scott, Steve Earle, Steve Martin, and more recently Jerry Douglas’ the Earls of Leicester.

O’Brien admits that the scope of these successes would not have been possible if he had remained in his home state. This journey to find work and carve his own path not only mirrors the experience of his own great grandfather, but also the West Virginian experience as a whole. Each song, artist, and songwriter referenced on the album tells a version of this journey. Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Bill Withers’ “Grandma’s Hands” is a rare African American nostalgia piece that reminisces about growing up in the coalfields and the importance of his grandmother’s influence. “When the Mist Clears Away” written by Larry Groce, host of West Virginia Public Radio’s iconic, decades-old live show, Mountain Stage, conjures the beauty of the state’s hazy mountains and the undying, hopeful resilience of its pioneering residents. Hit country songwriter Billy Edd Wheeler’s piece “High Flying Bird” - once covered by Jefferson Airplane - describes the mortal grip of the mines and deep roots that prevent the freedom even little birds have, but we do not. As a whole, Where the River Meets the Road simultaneously tells the story of music born of the classic struggle of West Virginia and the story of what brought O’Brien to make this very record.

The pure human relatability of the album is expertly conveyed by its stellar lineup of musicians. Fellow West Virginia Music Hall of Famer, Kathy Mattea sings harmonies on two tracks and country music’s current hero of authenticity and grit, Chris Stapleton, contributes his trademark fiery vocals as well. Never failing to assemble an exceptional backing band, O’Brien calls on friends new and old for musical support, notably Noam Pikelny on banjo, Bryan Sutton on acoustic guitar, Stuart Duncan on fiddle and mandolin, and Chris Scruggs on steel and electric guitar. His sister Mollie O’Brien and his partner Jan Fabricius join on background vocals, adding familial continuity from the stories to the recordings as well. O’Brien himself opted for fiddle, guitar, and bouzouki, forsaking his primary instrument mandolin to take more of a background, foundational role in the instrumentation, allowing the story, songs, and lyrics to shine.

Written by Justin Hiltner

Blog | Year End Wrap 2016

As I write this, I’m listening to mixes from a new recording that’s coming out at the end of March. Chris Stapleton is singing harmony notes I didn’t know existed on Billy Edd Wheeler’s High Flying Bird. I look outside and see Great Taylor Bay through the Eucalypts. It’s morning on Bruny Island in Tasmania where Jan I have been the last three nights. Earlier this morning, just before sunup, we saw wallabies feeding on the lawn outside. We arrived in Australia on December 27, and we’ve already played a festival this year. Woodford Folk Festival is a giant spectacle with 200K plus people of every stripe dancing and enjoying the music under a very intense summer sun here down under. This coming weekend we play the Cygnet festival near here and then continue our run with shows in Melbourne, Wollongong, Narooma, and Sydney before getting home on January 20th. We built enough free time into the schedule to visit friends and see the sights long the way. Our three days here have been amazing, eating good food and enjoying the beautiful landscape and wildlife on this most southern state in Australia.

The new record, Where the River Meets the Road, focuses on West Virginia music. Besides High Flying Bird, there are songs by Bill Withers, the Bailes Brothers, the Lilly Brothers, the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers, Doc Williams, Hazel Dickens, Edden Hammons, Larry Groce, and John Lilly. I also contributed two originals, both about my own family. After a long year of touring, we got home in late October and I started the process, recorded in November, mixed in December, and now am finishing the liner copy as 2017 begins. I had a blast making the record and tried my best to showcase the wide range of music from my home state. I had good helpers and I’ll leave it at that - you’ll hear more soon!

2016 started with a tour of the UK and Ireland, followed by a tour of the US with Lunasa, then a Midwest run with Old Man Luedecke. I played a very cool concert with Paul Brady in Dublin, on the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising. At the end of April we stopped in Athens Ohio to work on a recording with my old friend and mentor J.D. Hutchison, which came out in October. I played the Telluride Bluegrass festival for the 40th time. There were a few Hot Rize shows in there, including a show at Red Rocks with String Cheese Incident. Soon after a trip to Tønder Fest in Denmark, we played a waterlogged Winfield festival in Kansas. It was good to be back there after many years. Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in San Francisco and Farmers Branch near Dallas rounded out the year of performances.

But that’s just the business side. My son Joel got married in January, and Jan got two new granddaughters in August and September. In between we saw Niagara Falls from a boat, and I cut my head on a rock on a beach in Malibu. Jan and I got to visit Hawaii on the Lunsasa run, and we took an amazing helicopter ride to the glaciers above Atlin, British Columbia in July. We got our families together for an early Thanksgiving in Nashville, which means our new kitchen is now officially broken in. Then we recharged and made another record. I wrote to Senator Bob Corker, and still need to write to Senator Lamar Alexander, and US Congressman Jim Cooper. So it goes. Happy new year everyone.

Blog | Merry Christmas 2015 and a Happy New Year!

December 21, 2015

Thanks to all the fans I saw on the road this year 2015, and to the ones I didn’t see, I hope to see you next year.

The year started with a record production with Todd Burge and an onstage collaboration with novelist Tim O’Brien, followed by a trip to Celtic Connections in Glasgow. In February, I got to play with the Wheeling Symphony as well as record with heroes Dale Bruning and Bill Frisell, Tour dates with Andy Statman followed in March, which also included a lovely record production with Old Man Luedecke in his cabin in Nova Scotia. I toured with Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project in April, and started a long winding tour with Hot Rize that only ended in mid October. It was a great thing to play with my pals Nick, Pete, and Bryan and to update the bands repertoire with new songs. Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers might have stole some of Hot Rize’s thunder at Rocky Grass but heck, they’ve been in the back of the bus an awful long time waiting, so maybe it was their turn for glory. Hot Rize competed with the Earls of Leicester for airplay and awards, and on the awards front, the Earls won big at the Grammys and at IBMA. I’m proud to be in first and second place all at the same time.

2015 also marked the start of a new record label – Short Order Sessions (SOS). It’s a new model, in that SOS doesn’t make physical CD’s, and it only releases single tracks in digital form. I had some plans on what to record but after a while I needed to think on my feet more, and some surprising things happened in the studio. My partner Jan Fabricius worked hard promoting the 24 songs (two released each month) on social media, and as mandolinist and harmony singer, she helped record some of them too. We made a video in January for the song Dance You Hippy Dance, and that song eventually made it to number one on the folk DJ chart, which that week also included Hot Rize’s Clary Mae and my solo vocal from the Earls of Leicester CD Darling Corey. In the middle of all this, I was able to put together a new CD release on Howdy Skies Records called Pompadour. Check out the video version of the title track that Scott Simontacchi and Kent Blanton helped me make. In October and November Jan and I performed the new music on tour, with Old Man Luedecke as opening act. Thanks to all the radio folks and fans who have played the CD. Thanks also to Dave Ferguson and Sean Sullivan who have recorded most of the tracks for SOS and for Pompadour at the Butcher Shoppe.

And while we toured this year, our friend Bill Schleicher inched along on a kitchen renovation from February until after Thanksgiving. It’s really nice now! Jan and I are now on “staycation”, hanging around our “private island” with a coffee cup or a wine glass in hand, cooking in style. We’ve been cleaning up more than two years of junk stuck in corners in the music room and it’s looking really nice now too. We put up a Christmas tree in there but when we move it out, there should be room for some new songs to grow.

In 2016 I’ll be back at Celetic Connections, Merelfest, Strawberry, Telluride, Rocky Grass, Tønder, and Hardly Strictly Bluegrass and more! I’ll be traveling to North Carolina and New York in mid January, followed by a solo tour in Ireland and the UK. In February and March, watch for me on tour in the USA in collaboration with traditional Irish music heavyweights Lunasa.

It’s halfway through the shortest day of the year as I write this. Tomorrow, as the days start getting longer, let’s make plans for a great year in 2016. But while looking ahead is an important part of every day, let’s slow down to a full and complete stop during the holidays, remember the important things in this life, and hold our loved ones close. Jan and I wish you all Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!