Blog | Fifty Years Entry #6 June 30, 2024

Fifty Years
Entry #6

June 30, 2024

I’ve been thinking about identity, and how modern humans learn to define themselves as they go through their lives. Sometimes those identities get redefined as the years pass, as people grow and experience and learn. Musical artists often have an onstage identity - a mask if you will - that’s different from their offstage identity. The artist him or herself is actually an artistic expression.

I once wrote a song with Darrell Scott that describes the outward presentation versus the inward sense of self. Titled “When There’s No One Around”, you can hear recorded versions by Darrell, by myself, and by none other than Garth Brooks, who has said that the lyrics describe him as he really is behind the mask, underneath the hat and the western shirt.

One of the more successful local groups in Boulder, Colorado 50 years ago was Dusty Drapes and the Dusters. The group started when several friends who played rock and jazz decided to play a night of country music. The show went well and they decided to do more. It wasn’t long before they’d all cut their long hair and bought Stetson hats and other western wear at Shepler’s. The name was just a lark, but bassist and vocalist Steve Swenson, who was a good front man, assumed the name Dusty Drapes and didn’t look back for the next ten years or so.

In 1974, as a member of Ophelia Swing Band I adopted the stage name “Howdy Skies”. I sorta thought of Howdy Skies as a happy Western Swing fiddler/singer/entertainer like Bob Wills and my costume was a western shirt and jeans with maybe a bolo tie or neckerchief. I was not the front man/MC for the group, more featured instrumentalist who sang the occasional song. It wasn’t a particularly deeply developed or elaborate roll, just something that hopefully added a little color to the presentation. In Ophelia Swing Band we all had stage names. Lead singer Dan Sadowsky was Flip Casey, fiddler Linda Joseph became Vicky Delmonico, and bassist Duane Webster was Bubba Barnhard. We later added percussionist Chaz Leary, who had already adopted the stage name Washboard Chaz. He had painted “CHAZ” in big letters on his washboard, and still decorates his washboard in that way.

Nancy Blake spoke to me once about an interview she and her husband Norman had done. The interviewer asked what music they played around the house, and one of them answered that they play stuff they’d recorded in the past. The interviewer thought it a little odd that they would spend their off time doing that. She kinda shrugged her shoulders and said, “People don’t understand that we use our music to define our lives.” I find that as I go along, I have more interest in retaining what I’ve already learned than in learning new things. Age is a likely factor in this trend, but maybe the life of an artist leads me there.

Does Junior Brown consciously play a roll? Does Sam Beam throw off his Iron and Wine identity offstage? The stage or artist name Old Man Luedecke seems to fit the curmudgeon character in many of his songs.

The members of Hot Rize were conscious that we were not from southern Appalachia and didn’t learn ballads from our elders or grow up on farms (Nick knew about farm work though). When we dressed in suits and wore colorful ties from the 1940’s and ‘50’s, we were placing ourselves in the mold of early bluegrass bands. We aimed to pay tribute to stage presentations of folks like Flatt and Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers and of course Bill Monroe, but we were also just trying to fit in. We figured if we dressed more like a traditional bluegrass band, we could get away with an electric bass, a phase shifted banjo, and jazzy mandolin licks. Our outfits weren’t set when we started but the suits became the formal stage wear, especially after a few months when our flashy original guitarist Mike Scap quit the band. Charles Sawtelle switched from bass to guitar after that, and our rhythm style soon solidified around his guitar playing. It was funkier and very soulful, and it occasionally stepped outside normal lines in a unique way. Hot Rize made its reputation with that sound and look.

Later we decided to play the part of another band during concerts, with a quick costume change and different instruments in our hands. The different music - Hank Williams and Bob Wills sounds played with solos on steel guitar and electric guitar instead of Flatt and Scruggs and Bill Monroe stuff with banjo and mandolin - cried out for a different identity. So now we had our somewhat invented neo-bluegrass band identities, to which we added a new set of neo-honkytonk band identities. We sorta put our own true personalities into the centrifuge, separating out the slightly urbane hipster Hot Rize roll from the under educated, blithely yokel Red Knuckles roll. I was Red Knuckles and I was mostly the straight man who prompted gags with Pete Wernick’s steel playing alter-ego Waldo Otto, or Nick Forster’s applause addicted electric guitarist Wendell Mercantile. Charles Sawtelle’s character was the mysterious Slade. I used to ask him if Slade was his first or last name, and he’d make a big deal about coming up to the vocal mic to answer, “That’s right Red!” Later Slade’s character stopped speaking altogether. When Sam Bush, Darol Anger, or Eddie Stubbs sat in on fiddle, they played the roll of Waldo Otto’s brother Elmo Otto. If I’m not mistaken, Washboard Chaz once sat in with the Trailblazers with the name “CHUCK” painted on his washboard, his own alter ego that day being “Scrub-board Chuck”.

I’ve always thought that performing is putting a dressed up and rehearsed version of yourself into a stage roll. Some people - not me - seem to have a sense of themselves, knowledge of who they are and what they can and can’t be. Bob Dylan formed his artistic identity as he went, but when he changed styles, he kept the same stage name. At one point in his illustrious career Garth Brooks tried on a rock identity named Chris Gaines but he ditched it quickly.

When I left Hot Rize, I ditched the costumes and worked on my own identity as plain old Tim. I was free to do what I wanted, and given that my attention easily wanders, my music jumped regularly from genre to genre. I might have confused people less if I’d have stuck to one thing in my solo carreer. Also, I focused more on songwriting in my new solo identity. Now all these years later, I’m known for an eclectic style and for the songs.

In the past months I’ve been working towards putting a songbook together. Randy Barrett who was responsible for the recent book on Ben Eldridge’s banjo style, will put the book out on his Barcroft Books imprint, and we agreed to include 40 songs. It was interesting to go back through the catalog and measure the songs against each other. I can see that I’ve developed as a writer, maybe gotten a little better. I’m amazed that I have been able to keep finding new things to write about, and that in spite of all the growth over the years, all the songs still sound like they’re mine.

A friend once remarked that what you’ve done eventually defines who you are.

How does a human learn? We’re lucky if we have good teachers, starting with a mother and a father, but there’s a lot to be said for trial and error, for blind luck and imitation. From the trial and error, you learn what works and what doesn’t, and you work to embellish and strengthen the working things, discard and hide what doesn’t. I guess that’s the overall learning process for any activity.

Blog | Fifty Years Entry #5 May 31, 2024

Tim O’Brien 50 years Journal

Fifty Years
Entry # 5
May 31, 2024

I’ve been a musician for 50 years. What has changed, and what has remained the same? What are the things I’ve learned, and what are the things I’ll never learn?


Sleep and rest are more important now! On the run through the Midwest with the band in April, we had the choice: either play in a tiny venue for the door on a Friday night or take a night off and just drive toward the next show. The next show in this case was the Solar Strings festival in French Village MO, and we drove to an Airbnb close to the festival, slept in, and were able to hear Junior Sisk and Ramblers Choice play a set on Saturday afternoon at the same festival. In 1974, I know I would have voted to play the small venue. I tour more often these days in a duo setting with my wife Jan Fabricius, and we mostly fly somewhere on Southwest, then drive a rental car to two of three shows. For some band dates we can either drive a couple vehicles or fly and then rent a car and a minivan. Since Charlie Chadwick invented the folding upright bass, we sometimes stuff five of us in one minivan if the drives aren’t too long between shows.

In the mid 1970’s, Ophelia Swing Band played mostly in Colorado, with occasional forays to Wyoming, and once or twice to South Dakota. Bassist Duane Webster’s International truck – “crew cab” with four doors, a bench back seat, and a topper over the bed - was our vehicle, but mostly we used our own cars to get to shows along Colorado’s front range. In the summer of 1977, we scored a Chautauqua tour sponsored by the State Department of Humanities. We drove in a station wagon leased by the state, and played tent shows in small towns, performing two or three nights in each location along with other features: a modern dance company, a Shakespeare play, a comedian, and a stage band that played little bits throughout each evening.

Hot Rize started in 1978 with the original intention to promote solo records that Pete Wernick and I had made. Pete had a national reputation in the bluegrass world as did our guitarist Charles Sawtelle. While our means were modest, there seemed to be some good potential. Charles was the one who suggested we wear suits onstage like the old school bluegrass acts. He was always in favor of doing things in a professional way, and if that required an investment, he knew it would pay off in the long run. He owned a ’57 Cadillac, and he urged us to buy used 1969 Sedan De ‘Ville as a touring vehicle. Ours was black with a white vinyl top. We traveled around Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Kansas in that vehicle, but also drove it to the east coast a time or two.

We could fit the banjo, guitar, mandolin, fiddle, and electric bass, and garment bags in the trunk. Later when we traveled with a sound system, we added a trailer hitch and rented a 4’ by 6’ U-Haul trailer. After a year or so we bought a used trailer and Nick and I painted it with black spray paint, leaving the top silver, so it sorta matched the Caddy.

Someone at a festival had told Charles Sawtelle, “You guys need to get a hound”, meaning an old Greyhound bus. The Bluegrass Cardinals and the Del McCoury Band had GMC 4104’s and that’s what we eventually bought. It had already been customized for a touring band. There was a sign above the windshield that said “Lo-Rance Trio”. We removed that sign, so now the old Greyhound route destination sign was visible. There were two spools just inside that destination window, around which was a roll of fabric with various city names on it. Whatever had fastened the spools to show a particular destination no longer functioned, so you’d never know where it said we were heading. On one of the first trips with that bus, we were opening for John Hartford in Winona MN. When we greeted John that day, he said, “Oh, is that your bus? I was wondering who “Chattanooga” was.” Nick Forster had been the long-haul, late-night driver in the Cadillac, and now he and Frank Edmonson were the main drivers, with Charles filling in. Charles and Nick remodeled the inside to include five bunks. We kept most of the front lounge area the same – green shag carpet on the walls and ceiling, a butcher block table, chair and couch, and a refrigerator that came with the coach.

Having our own bus meant we could sleep in the bus. Nick and Frank would drive four or more hours, then pull into a truck stop. In the morning we’d use the trucker’s showers, eat breakfast in the café, then be our way. If we had a free night before playing a festival, we arrived the night before and just sleep on the bus. We might park in a motel lot, rent one motel room and take turns using the shower. At many venues, the bus served as our dressing room. In those days we were sowing as many seeds as we could, giving LPs to musician friends and DJ’s. Having a bus meant we were serious about our band. Sometimes we took friends like Nugget mandolin maker Michael Kemnnitzer or musicians like Jody Stecher or Fred Weiss along on tours.

After a few years and a few record releases, we started getting better fees, and could afford to fly somewhere from Denver on a Thursday, rent vehicles and play three or four dates and then fly home on a Monday. We invested in flight cases for our instruments and gear. We had cases for t-shirts and records, and three rolling cases for amplifiers (for the bass, for Wendell Mercantile’s guitar and for Waldo Otto’s steel). Later we had a custom case made to check wardrobe items including Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers’ cowboy hats. It’s hard to imagine doing today what we did then. Denver was a United airlines hub, and Hot Rize road manager Frank Edmonson cultivated a relationship with a United Skycap named Chuck Davis. He was our best friend! We’d show up with over 20 pieces of luggage and give Chuck a 20-dollar bill and he’d somehow get them all on the plane. Chuck worked that gig longer than most, and there’s a plaque with his name on it by the United curbside check in now.

T-shirts brought in as much money as did record sales and Nick Forster was merch manager. We’d often meet mid-week before leaving home to pack LP’s and t-shirts for whatever run were about to do. After four or five years, we were using the bus less and less, so we sold it to a new group called the Subdudes. They quickly learned like we did that old buses can break down when you least expect it, and you seem to paying the bus more than you pay yourselves. By this time, we would occasionally hire a modern tour bus with a professional driver for short runs east of the Mississippi.

After leaving Hot Rize in 1990, my touring fees shrunk some, but by now airfares had been deregulated, and I could afford to fly myself and up to three others somewhere, then rent vehicles to get to shows. That same gameplan still works for me today. If the show is less than eight hours drive away, you might as well drive. If it’s farther away than that, fly to the closest airport, rent the vehicles you need and go from there. Sometime after I moved to Nashville in 1996, Southwest became the airline of choice. There are lots of nonstop flights from Nashville, you can check two bags free, and there’s no charge if you change your itinerary. Southwest isn’t as cheap as it used to be, but the other advantages remain. It’s bluegrass musicians’ favorite airline.

Live sound:

Ophelia Swing Band bought a used PA system about a year after we started. It had large speaker cabinets for mains and smaller ones for monitors, and we controlled the mix from the stage.

Charles Sawtelle had a sound company in the mid 1970’s, and he still owned much of the gear when Hot Rize started, and we eventually bought part of the system from him. It was a good sounding rig with a Macintosh power amp, Malachi mixer, and Klipsch speakers. Charles also mixed the sound from the stage, but hiring a full-time soundman Frank Edmonson was another stretch that really paid off. After we bought our bus, we added to the PA that we carried underneath in the service bays. Once we started flying to more shows, the PA would lay idle and we eventually sold it, but we still flew with a rack in a flight case that included outboard equalizers and compressors to interface with house sound systems, and we carried our own higher end microphones.

Hot Rize generally resisted using pickups on our acoustic instruments, but when I started on my own in 1990, I caved to the modern trend, but with a difference. Following the example of the members of Newgrass Revival, I set up each of my instruments with both a pickup and a miniature condenser mic, and bought a special preamp made by Newgrass’s soundman Richard Battaglia. Both signals came out of one stereo output jack on the instrument, which gave the house sound and the monitor sound more flexibility. Playing on bigger festival stages or in loud clubs, you could send the better sounding microphone signal to the audience, and use the pickup side for monitor sound with much less feedback problems. A great many current day bluegrass acts now use in-ear monitors (earphones) instead of monitor speakers, which makes for even more flexibility, and the ability to reach higher sound pressure levels without causing feedback. I’ve used in ear monitors when playing with Mark Knopfler and it’s really the only way to go when you’re mixing solid body guitars played through big amplifiers with acoustic mandolins and guitars. However, I’ve resisted using in ear monitors for my own shows, and in recent years, I’ve gone back to playing into a good old microphone.

Making records:

Ophelia Swing Band recorded for a folk label called Biscuit City that owned the studio, which was in a funny triangle shaped building near the intersection of Park and 17th Avenue in Denver. The main floor was occupied by a business that advertised itself as “Colorado’s only Venetian Blind Laundry”. The studio and the record company offices were up a steep staircase. Several of the local folk acts that could draw a crowd at the Denver Folklore Center – people like songwriter Randy Handley or dulcimer player Bonnie Carol - made records for Biscuit City. There were more professional studios in Denver where more commercial music was made, but the label didn’t have a budget to use those places where a band like Firefall would record.

Ophelia was quite ambitious with its music, and we had our arrangements down, but we were very green in the studio. We recorded our record, really the first project any of us had done, on an 8-channel multitrack machine. It was January of 1977. We sometimes used a single track for more than one part. For instance, if I recorded a harmony vocal on track 5, that meant that there were silent spaces in between the choruses. If all the other tracks were already full, and I wanted to add a second fiddle part that didn’t happen during the chorus, I could record that in the spaces between the harmony vocals. But maybe the two parts on the same track were very different in volume, and meanwhile if you placed the harmony vocal slightly to the left in the stereo spectrum, then the fiddle ended up there too even if you didn’t want it that way. Our engineer, Ty Atherholt, was willing to experiment with us. We were all low down on the learning curve.

Some folks get self-conscious in recording sessions when others are listening. Others thrive on distraction. Our lead singer, Dan Sadowsky had a hard time recording his vocal part one evening, and after a bit he asked if he could try it with the lights off in the room where he was singing. We did that and we all listened from the control room as he sang. It seemed to really help because he nailed it this time. We turned on the lights and saw that he was now completely naked. Washboard Chaz sang lead on one song and unfortunately, we didn’t get a good vocal sound because we recorded his washboard and vocal along with the band live. We learned at mix stage that you couldn’t turn up the vocal without getting more washboard.

It was all analogue, with no automation. To mix the sound, several of us would reach around each other from different sides of the console to move faders up and down as we recorded the mix output onto a different 1/4 stereo tape recorder. If you messed up one little move, that meant you had to do the whole thing again. That Ophelia Swing Band recording, “Swing Tunes of the 30’s & 40’s” came out the following summer. I think the track that Dan sang naked is “Knocking Myself Out”. It’s long out of print but you can hear it on Apple Music:

I quit the band a few months later and moved to Minnesota to be where my girlfriend Kit was going to school, but I came back to Colorado for the Chautauqua tour that summer. Biscuit City records asked me to make a fiddle record and I recorded in on days off from the tour with members of Ophelia Swing Band as well as with Pete Wernick and Charles Sawtelle. Pete also made a solo record that summer, and asked me to sing and play on it. He recorded at a new studio in Boulder called Mountain Ears. Andy Statman and Russ Barenburg came from the east coast to participate, with Duane Webster, Charles Sawtelle and I joining in. This was much more pro studio compared to Biscuit City, but everyone including the engineer was still on the learning curve. At one point Pete asked to hear more mandolin in the mix, and the engineer said, “Sure, which one is the mandolin?” We recorded on a 16-track machine with 2-inch tape.

With more experience, you (and the engineers) learned how to do things more efficiently. By the time Hot Rize was ready to record, we hooked up with a new studio called Colorado Sound, with Andy Smith engineering. It was also a 16-track, 2-inch tape rig, and we had the choice of recording at 15 or 30 ips (inches per second). You used more tape at 30 ips, but the sound is better, so we went that way. I can’t remember the price of a reel of 2-inch tape – maybe $75 – but again Charles urged us to spend a little more money to get better sound quality. At 30 ips you could record 15 minutes per reel. You’d get a pretty good take and then try for a better one. We tried to limit the number of takes we had to three. After you decided on the best take, you could record over the rejects to save money. We had our arrangements ready and had made some demo tapes at another pro studio with John Macey as engineer, so we were learning how to do it. That studio evolved and eventually moved to a bigger and better place, and a guy I’d worked with at Biscuit City, Kevin Clock, engineered several more Hot Rize recordings there. I made various solo records there with Kevin, as well as three recordings with my sister Mollie. It’s still there on West 71’st Avenue in Denver.


Ophelia essentially broke up before we had recordings to sell and we were too inept to make promo t-shirts to sell. But in the early days of Hot Rize we at least had t-shirts to sell. Pete Wernick and I sold our solo records too. Merch really helped fill the tank, first in the 1969 Cadillac, then in the GMC 4104 bus. The bus had lots of storage so we added more sound gear and stuffed the storage bays with cartons of LP’s, boxes of t-shirts, hats, bumper stickers, and even fly swatters! We could also carry gear that Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers needed – amps, other instruments, and stage outfits they used. With our own trusty soundman, Frank Edmonson, we were ready for most anything.

In those days, publicizing shows was in the promoter’s court. They, and later the record label publicist, might line up print and radio interviews and maybe even purchase some advertising. They took advantage of folk and bluegrass organization newsletters, and made sure their concerts appeared in local newspapers’ free listings. One of the first artists I knew to use a personal computer was John McCutcheon. He was ahead of the curve, using computer generated mailing labels for his own newsletters. The internet and social media have eclipsed physical mailings these days, and promoters rely more and more on the artists themselves to advertise shows. Along with that, there are more artists so competition is much greater. Social media is crucial these days, and I’m lucky to have such an internet savvy partner in my wife Jan, who handles those chores.

Record releases are a different game now as well. It’s common for artists to release three or four singles before the entire project is made available. In fact, the Tim O’Brien Band has a single out now, called “You Took Me In”, part of an upcoming release of Tom Paxton songs performed by bluegrass artists, that you can find on your streaming service.

When you bought an LP in my early days, you were making a real commitment and you rarely heard any of the music beforehand. It was harder to hear folk and bluegrass on the radio then. Now we have the internet and streaming. It’s easier to find a recording now, but it’s also easier to turn it off! Maybe the phone rings and you stop that new Sierra Ferrell song to answer. That said, YouTube is my favorite radio station these days, particularly for older recordings. When I want to hear Patrick Sky, Buzz Busby, or Washington Phillips, I look there first.

News | You Took Me In - Tim O'Brien Band Single Release 05/17/2024

*Friday, May 17 - Day of release*. Second single from the upcoming album BLUEGRASS SINGS TOM PAXTON!
You Took Me In - Tim O'Brien Band
Pre-save/add link for streaming:

"You Took Me In,” a homespun original, for the second release of Bluegrass Sings Tom Paxton. “Jan and I came of age listening to and then singing [Tom] Paxton songs before we ever knew his name,” says GRAMMY award-winning singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Tim O’Brien of himself and partner Jan Fabricius. “We both learned ‘Last Thing on My Mind’ and sang it around campfires before we met each other. So like a lot of folks, we kinda have Paxton in our musical DNA.” That lifelong familiarity, not to mention the inevitable crossing of paths over the years, informs “You Took Me In”, the second single from Mountain Home Music Company’s forthcoming multi-artist tribute, Bluegrass Sings Paxton. With support from acclaimed bassist Mike Bub and fiddler Shad Cobb, who work episodically with them as the Tim O’Brien Band, by O’Brien and Fabricius serve up a homespun original written with the master himself.
“Tom has been friendly and supportive over the years and in recent years often expressed his desire to write together,” O’Brien recounts. With this project, push came to shove and Jan and I wrote ‘You Took Me In’ with Tom on our second session. I had the lyric idea and imagined some Earl Scruggs style gospel guitar as backing. We had the song in about an hour. When we were done I asked Tom how many songs he’d written that week he said, ‘I’ve written four songs today!’”
“Paxton’s early songs,” he adds, “were the kind that sorta begged audiences to sing along. This one reaches in that direction. I love how simple and direct it is. Songs are like little puzzles that
a certain strata of musicians have fun solving. We’re just honored to sit beside Tom, even if only virtually, as he does his masterful thing. He knows to let the song happen. He can pull a lyric
from an instrumental riff, he improvises easily, and you can just trust him. When he says to go higher with the melody or go to the four chord, we’re never afraid to follow.” With a finger-picked guitar part that splits the difference between Scruggs’ gospel guitar and the syncopated drive of rural blues, Cobb’s lithe, swooping fiddle work, a ragged-but-right vocal trio of O’Brien, Fabricius and Cobb, and an idiomatic lyric that slyly walks the line between secular and sacred, “You Took Me In” serves both as homage to Tom Paxton’s impact and as notice that his creative powers are as strong as ever.

Blog | 50 year entry #4

April 24, 2024

Since my last entry, I sat in with Sierra Ferrell at the Ryman auditorium on March 21st. She’s one of the finer singers and songwriters on the scene these days, and I was flattered to be asked. A few days later I drove to Floyd VA to help produce a recording by the David Mayfield Parade at Mountain Fever studios with engineer Aaron Ramsey. I enjoyed hanging with David and his bandmates Keith and Ryan Wallen, Steven Moore, and Graham Bell. We stayed in a house next to the studio and ate home cooking courtesy of Mark Hodges and his girlfriend Jennie. I’m happy to say that Aaron Ramsey has just released a fine recording of my song “The Church Steeple” on Mountain Fever. Watch for the David Mayfield Parade release later this year. The Tim O’Brien Band played in Evanston IL, Minneapolis MN, Stoughton WI and then French Village MO, after which Jan and I spent a day and a half in southern Illinois at the home of Wil Maring, which was right on the “path of totality” for the full eclipse of the sun. We hung out and picked with Wil, her partner Robert Bowlin, fiddler Barbara Lamb, and 5-year-old Nash Grier on fiddle and guitar. This past week Jan and I played the wonderful Earl Scruggs Center in Shelby NC, Davidson College in Davidson NC, Bass and Grass in Perry GA, and Eddies Attic in Decatur GA. Jan and I will play at the GAR Hall in Peninsula OH on Thursday April 25th, and at the Carroll Art Center in Westminster MD on the 27th. We play the lovely old dance hall in Fischer TX on May 4th, and start a new recording on the 17th. We’ll be at the Strawberry Festival in Grass Valley CA on May 25 with a band including Mike Bub, Shad Cobb, and special addition Mike Witcher on resophonic guitar.

Fall 1974 to Summer 1975

I spent the summer of 1974 living at my parents’ house in Wheeling WV, picking up whatever musical work I could. I had gotten a taste of independent living the winter before in Jackson Hole and both my parents and I knew my living at their home wasn’t workable for long.

Sometime that summer, a friend named Jay Odice arranged an audition for me at a folk music club in Chicago called Somebody Else’s Troubles. I drove to Chicago and probably stayed with Jay at his place in Evanston. There was a good folk music scene in Chicago, with flagship venues like the Old Town School of Folk Music and the Earl of Old Town. “Troubles” was a new club owned by Earl Pionke (the actual “Earl” in the Earl of Old Town) along with folksingers Steve Goodman and brothers Ed and Fred Holstein. The audition was more like an open stage, but my 15 minutes went well and I was offered a job playing there later that summer. I made friends that night with another aspiring musician: the ace bluesman Johnny Long, who would also move to Colorado in the coming year.

Meanwhile the Rocky Mountains beckoned. My friend Ritchie Mintz had showed me around Boulder CO the previous February. I sat in with his Bluegrass group, the Town and Country Review, and hung around the music store, Folk Arts Music, where Ritchie worked teaching guitar and banjo and repairing stringed instruments. His boss Ned Alterman who owned the store with his wife Laurel, had offered me a job and both Ned and Ritchie wanted me to join their band. I knew from my earlier visit that there was a vibrant music scene going on in Denver and Boulder, so I called Ned and asked if his job offer was still good. By early September, I had arrived and rented a basement apartment on west Pearl Street. Kelly McNish, a fine guitarist and singer I’d met the winter before, lived upstairs.

I worked the counter and gave guitar lessons at Folk Arts Music, playing various shows with Town and Country as fiddler and guitarist. Besides Ned and Ritchie, band members included guitarist Keely Bruner and bassist Steve Carnes. One day a tall skinny guy named Dan Sadowsky came into the store, and we played some swing and ragtime tunes on some shop guitars. Dan had started a little group called the Ophelia Swing Band with bassist Duane Webster, fiddler Linda Joseph, and vibraphonist Jane Reed. Within a few months I was drafted into that band as well. Both Town and Country and Ophelia played at the Walrus, a bar and restaurant downstairs from the music store, and Ophelia also played a bar attached to the Best Western motel called The Lost Knight.

One group I often went to see at the Lost Knight was the Bluebirds, Kelly McNish’s ultra tasteful trio with harmonica player Ray Bonneville and bassist Eric Johnson. Kelly’s folk and blues repertoire was deep and his finger picking on a National steel or a Gibson flat top guitar was top notch. Another group that played both venues was the tenor sax player Spike Robinson’s quartet which featured guitarist Dale Bruning. I soon learned that a lot of the better guitarists on the front range studied with Dale, and he would later become my teacher and mentor. Over at Shannon’s bar on Pearl Street the popular act was Dusty Drapes and the Dusters, a bunch of young rockers who’d remade themselves into a western swing group. Nationally touring artists played at Tulagi’s on the hill by the University of Colorado, and later at a new downtown club called The Good Earth. As fall faded into winter, I was playing more with Ophelia and gave notice to both the Town and Country review and Folk Arts Music. When we weren’t rehearsing the band’s 1930’s swing repertoire, Sadowsky and I would play a set in exchange for lunch or dinner at the Carnival Café, a co-op vegetarian restaurant at Broadway and Walnut. Boulder was much smaller and more affordable in those days and a lot of the streets were still unpaved, but the University students provided a young and open-minded audience for musicians like me.

Soon after arriving in Colorado, I went with Ned, Laurel and Ritchie to Winfield Kansas for the third annual Walnut Valley Festival. I entered the guitar contest and met fellow contestants like Mark O’Conner and Peter Ostroushko, who placed 2nd and 3rd that year. I met Steve Kaufmann while waiting to compete and we agreed to back each other up. Bill Hinkley played the Irish harp piece “O’Carolan’s Concerto” as his second tune in the first round, which impressed one of the judges - Norman Blake - enough to get Bill into the second round. I had a wonderful weekend and became picking friends with a bunch of folks from Minneapolis and Saint Paul, including Bill Hinkley, Judy Larson, Rudy Darling, Sam Dillon, and Mary MacEachron. With acts like Norman Blake, Dan Crary and Doc Watson, it was a flat-picking extravaganza, but also featured venerable standbys like Jimmy Driftwood, Ramona Jones, and the Lewis Family. New Grass Revival played an exciting set on Saturday night. A certain unfamiliar fiddle tune kept being played in campground jams and onstage, and I kept asking its name. That was the weekend of “Grey Eagle”.

In January or February 1975, I sold my 1966 Volvo sedan and bought a 1970 Ford station wagon for Ophelia – with Jane Reed’s departure now a four piece – to travel in. A few weeks later we drove it to Jackson Hole for a weeklong engagement at the Mangy Moose Saloon. Our next show was in Red Lodge Montana, but on the way there I crashed the wagon into a snowplow on Togwatee pass. No one was hurt but the car was a total loss, and we were stranded a night or two in Dubois while Duane hitch hiked to Red Lodge and brought his brother’s truck back to rescue us. That truck, an International Crew Cab with a second row of seats behind the driver and a topper covering the bed, became our band vehicle for the next few years.

Ophelia Swing Band was playing at the Lost Knight one evening in March of 1975 when my friend Arthur Knapp came in and introduced us to a guy named Fred who was starting a music festival in Telluride, a little town in the southwest corner of Colorado. Fred Shellman lived in Telluride but was partners with Arthur in a startup on the front range called Boulder Notch which was manufacturing a new kind of preamp for acoustic guitar pickups. Fred and his bluegrass band Fall Creek had held a one-day event the summer before in Telluride town park, and now they planned to expand the event into a three-day festival with New Grass Revival as headliners. We shook hands on the deal and made plans to play the second annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival, never expecting the event would grow and endure like it has these past 50 years.

Ophelia Swing Band drove the truck over the mountains in June and we were all stunned by the incredible view as we drove into Telluride, which was then about halfway through its transformation from mining town to ski resort. There were few restaurants and fewer hotel accommodations. The four of us stayed in a room in a house on the hill opposite town park. It had two bunk beds – I’m pretty sure I took the top bunk - and a double bed. Other Colorado acts included Boulder’s Magic Music, Aspen’s Liberty, and the Fort Collins band Everybody and His Brother. I remember seeing New Grass Revival arrive and file into a backstage shed. Having listened to live tapes and seen them perform at Warrenton VA and at Winfield, I was excited to hear them. I put my ear up to the shed’s wall and heard Sam Bush, Courtney Johnson, Curtis Burch and new bassist John Cowan blaze through some fiddle tunes and then sing Bill Monroe’s gospel quartet “The Wicked Path of Sin”. When I see pictures from those early years at Telluride, I realize it wasn’t such a big event, but it seemed epic to me at the time. I’ve often described the early festival as a sort of chemical experiment – scrape up all the hippies from a four-state area into one field, add New Grass Revival, then stand back and see what happens. Fred Shellman and his crew wore special t-shirts that said “Official” and “More Official”.

In the summer of 1975, Pete Wernick came to Boulder with his new wife Joan (AKA Nondi) who was from Denver. The two had been living in Ithaca New York, where Pete had been a full time Sociologist and part time bluegrass musician. He’d released some of the first recordings on the new Rounder label with the group Country Cooking and then published an instruction book called “Bluegrass Banjo” that sold 250 thousand copies. Now he had quit his day job with a tentative plan to relocate to sunny Colorado and play his banjo full time. It wouldn’t be long before we crossed paths.

Dan and Duane and I had tried busking on Boulder’s streets with limited success. Guitarist Duck Baker would often join us, and one weekend we decided to drive to Aspen to see if there was more loose change to be had there. We saw that Liberty was playing at a club that night in co-bill with the current version of Country Cooking which included Alan Senauke and Howie Tarnower. Liberty’s band members included Vick and Jan Garrett, Danny Wheetman, and Jerry Fletcher, and they had opened shows recently for fellow Aspen resident John Denver. John Summers, who played fiddle and banjo in John Denver’s band, was there at the club and offered us a place to stay in a house he’d just bought, presumably with the royalties from his song “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.” Summers had yet to move in and the house was unfurnished, but we were grateful for the roof over our heads, even if Duck hated the song which was a big hit for John Denver in 1974-75.

Pete and Joan Wernick stayed around Colorado, looking for a place to settle on the front range. Pete was also looking for musicians to play with. I knew Charles Sawtelle from the Denver Folklore Center, where he managed the music store, and one day that summer he called me asking if I could play a wedding gig. I had no wheels at that point, so I hitched a ride with my fiddle to Broomfield where I got a lift with bassist Gene Milligan to the venue somewhere in the Denver area. The other band members that day were Pete Wernick on banjo, and Warren Kennison on mandolin. Those four – Kennison, Sawtelle, Wernick and Milligan - would soon name themselves the Rambling Drifters (just as often they were the Drifting Ramblers) and start playing weekly shows at the Denver Folklore Center concert hall. That was my first gig with Pete and Charles who I would eventually play with in Hot Rize. Charles drove to the gig that day wearing a nice gray western style suit, and he brought the sound system which would later belong to Hot Rize in the trunk of his pink 1959 Cadillac Sedan Deville.

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.