Tim O’Brien & Darrell Scott- The Power of the Unknown

In 2001, I interviewed Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott at the Edmonton Folk Music Festival and wrote about them in the October 2001 edition of That High Lonesome Sound, a local bluegrass society newsletter. While writing about their recent live release We’re Usually A Lot Better Than This for Lonesome Standard Time, I reviewed that piece  of writing and found, much to my surprise, that it didn’t embarrass me too much. It is clunky in spots, but I thought I would retype it and post it here, with most of its blemishes intact, in light of the new album’s appearance. It may afford some insight into the thoughts of these two master musicians, one of whom was much less widely- known then than he is now. Additionally, O’Brien took the time to write to me later about John Hartford, and that is appended below. Remember, this was all written in 2001.


imagesAcoustiblue music- music that includes elements of bluegrass performed by musicians with respect for the genre with an acoustic approach but which is not exclusively, for reasons of theme, style, or instrumentation, bluegrass- is becoming increasingly popular across North America. The O Brother, Where Art Thou? phenomenon is indicative of this growing popularity. As well, artists such as Gillian Welch, Patty Loveless, and Doc Watson fit nicely into this category.

One of the strongest acoustiblue albums released over the last year was Real Time from the team of Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott. O’Brien and Scott performed in August at the Edmonton Folk Music Festival and it was there that I spoke with them about their music- past, present, and future.

Tim O’Brien has long been a leading carrier of what he lightly calls ‘Peter Rowan Disease.’ That is, listeners are not always sure what they will get at a concert or when a new disc is released- bluegrass with the O’Boys, newgrass as with New Grange, Celtic sounds when with The Crossing, or delightful folk-influenced country when appearing with sister Mollie.

When working with Darrell Scott, O’Brien produces contemporary acoustic music rooted deeply in the traditional sounds of country and bluegrass music blended with an improvisational spontaneity that a due setting affords.

“In a duo you can establish a very responsive relationship that, with a larger band, makes it harder to build momentum,” O’Brien explains.

“Seldom do we play the song exactly the same way twice,” he confides, referring to performing “Walk Beside Me” in a concert setting. While admitting it may appear, from the audience, to be an effortless performance, it is not. “You put your attention on the song, trying to make it move, but you can’t force anything to happen. You let your mind be free but I’m aware of what I’m doing as I’m playing, deciding if I’ll play harder here or there, hit the seventh beat of eight instead of the third.” [Note: I don’t understand that any more today than I did eleven summers ago!]

And while he understands how some fans may get frustrated with this ever-evolving musical repertoire or wish to pigeonhole his sound, O’Brien does have a logical response. “Bill Monroe was radical for the time- He became traditional over time. He knew he had done something which needed to be preserved.”

“But, people are changing and are expecting that (variety) of me. I have to surprise myself to remain fresh and creative. It is the same music but it’s different every day. I’ve wandered, [Note: see The Crossing, “Wandering.”] and I’ve decided that is where I belong.”

Darrell Scott’s influence on O’Brien comes to light at this point. “Darrell taught me that the unknown is your friend, and change is your friend. The Expected limits you.”

Songs from the Mountain, O’Brien’s album inspired by Charles Frazier’s novel Colduntitled Mountain, was naturally conceived. “I started reading the book and just a few pages in I felt that this author knows traditional music. He was able to nail the descriptions- not only the feelings required to play the music, her presents the textures, the nest the novel rests in- the tradition, the culture. There are references that you may not catch if you aren’t as familiar with the music. But I could hear the novel as I read it. Dirk Powell was thinking the same things I was and the recording just came together.” With their trio rounded out by John Herrmann, an album that expanded the Civil War-era novel was recorded and became a landmark historical showcase for the music preceding the setting of O Brother by two or three generations.

While his family had its roots in Kentucky, Darrell Scott was raised farther north. However, he spent every holiday in Nashville- “I got to see Bill Monroe at the Opry and bought my first guitar on Broadway.” He played country music including a stint touring Canada with the Mercy Brothers almost twenty years ago. Despite not being raised on bluegrass, or playing it that much professionally, Scott brings a soulful banjo sound to his and O’Brien’s Real Time recording. When he came to Nashville to pursue his musical dreams, Scott found acceptance from other musicians. “I’m welcomed into this Bluegrass World. I’m welcomed into this Folk World. The world is open and welcoming to me- I’ve just got to put one foot in front of the other and walk through the doors.”

His first solo recording never saw the light of day although it contained his best songs. Aloha From Nashville, his first commercially released album was a response to the bitterness of the situation he found himself in- having a terrific album recorded but not having it released. Parts of Aloha are cutting, and Scott took careful aim at the country music industry. Check out “Title of the Song” or “The Ballad of Martha White,” as examples. “Country music used to be the voice of the people, of country people. But it became a cardboard cut-out. The Martha White flour emblem stood for something to country people, but it was really just a corporate symbol. When Aloha From Nashville was released, I was ready to be run out of Nashville, ready to heave the career ended. Instead, the music community in Nashville embraced my music, embraced me.”

Many artists, including The Dixie Chicks, Brad Paisley, and Travis Tritt, have cut Scott’s songs. Patty Loveless’s recording of “You’ll Never Get Out of Harlan Alive,” on her recent Mountain Soul album, is a favourite of Scott’s and one on which he played. “Patty changed some of the chords, changed some of the words, and really made it her own. I like the timelessness quality of her version.”

“There is a fine line between bluegrass and country music and my family came down on the country side. If country radio played it, I heard it and in those days, country radio played the Osborne Brothers and Jim and Jesse. I heard Emmylou’s Roses in the Snow, and started reading the names on that album- Skaggs, Rice, Jerry Douglas- and I just went from there. I started messing around with other musicians, getting together at festivals. New Grass Revival- bluegrass musicians who had their ears open to the world, to blues, rock, reggae- was also an influence. Old & In the Way introduced me to Peter Rowan,” Scott states.

Scott is eagerly anticipating releasing a re-recording of that lost first album. While unsure of when it will be available, he is excited having these songs finally heard. [Note: Those re-recorded songs were released as Theatre of the Unheard in 2003.]

When asked for a personal, defining bluegrass moment, Tim O’Brien doesn’t hesitate. “I saw Doc Watson on a public television broadcast- Doc, by himself, at the Berkley Folk Festival. I decided I had to do that. Once I went through that doorway, I found more doors that led me to other people- Ralph Stanley, Bill Monroe, blues artists, Doc’s father-in-law, Gaither Carlton. I got lost in that hallway for awhile.”

A few years ago, O’Brien started his own record label, Howdy Skies, on which both Songs From the Mountain and Real Time were released. “It is important to own your own stuff, to grab control. I’ve made records and it ends up with someone else owning them. You need to own your own publishing. The artist is usually responsible for promoting and organizing the project, so why not own it?” After twenty-five years of touring, O’Brien would like to, as he puts it, “cut back a bit and concentrate on recording projects. I’d like to but it is hard to do.”

The most glorious advantage of being involved in bluegrass during the early years of this young century is the opportunity to bask in the incredible diversity of musicianship currently available under the ever-expanding banner of ‘bluegrass.’ Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott are two musicians who, while forging their own paths, eagerly and reverently embrace and enhance our music.


Subsequent to my interview with Tim O’Brien, I remembered that I had neglected to ask him about his participation in a John Hartford tribute event that occurred last November; selections from the performance were released on Blue Plate Music with the title A Tribute to John Hartford- Live from Mountain Stage and include Tim and Kathy Mattea interpreting “Gentle on My MInd,” Hartford’s classic song. I e-mailed Tim and asked him to reflect on the recorded event. To my delight, and I hope yours, his response follows and goes well beyond what I asked him to comment upon:


hartfordWell, here we go…I think Hartford really appreciated all of us getting together on his behalf. I don’t know if it made it to the CD, [Note: It did.] but during his own segment, he said, “I know why everybody’s here. You all think I’m gonna croak..but we got the whole month of October is booked so I can’t do that.” He sang “Give Me The Flowers While I’m Living,” with his additions- “slip some goddamn lilies in my hand!”

It was great to see him hanging with Norman Blake and Vassar Clements again. The three of them jammed backstage. Wild double fiddle stuff.

The Mountain Stage show was a prelude to other such tributes, like a notable one at MerleFest that was the finale of the whole festival. The best tribute of all was the more than six weeks between his last show (April 7 near Austin, where he transcended the need to play his instruments) and his death June 4th. There was a constant stream of visitors to his home and to the hospital. He croaked out requests, we hung out and talked and played and sang for him. It was like a wake except he was there with us. I spent a few beautiful afternoons up there. Hospice at its best.

The memorial service was, of course, momentous. The Osborne Brothers, Earl Scruggs and his group, Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, Emmylou Harris, and many more sang and testified to his greatness. He had requested that I sing “Gentle on My Mind” at the end and I was honored. The band behind be was Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Alison Brown, Darrell Scott, Stuart Duncan (Vassar played during the run through but had to leave early to get to a gig), Mark Schatz, and Kenny Malone.

The steamboat General Jackson came by and blew its whistle. Hartford had purchased gallons of moonshine that were to be drank that day. After the burial lots of us went back and played more music.

I am still a-tingle thinking about that event which was ironically so life affirming. He changed things. We owe it to him to keep the music going in his memory. I’ll do my best.


One thought on “Tim O’Brien & Darrell Scott- The Power of the Unknown

  1. Hi Donald,
    Thanks for re-posting your excellent review and interview with Tim. I was prepared to give The Crossing my album of the decade honor and then along came Tom Russell’s The Man From God Knows Where and I ended up giving them co-album of decade honors.
    When JH passed it was a very sad time for those of us at the radio station. A colleague of mine produced a four hour tribute to John and many of the rest of us paid tribute to John on our shows, too. If I recollect, John’s wife (Marie?) passed within a few months of John.
    I have a cool digi-album of images from Hartford, Seeger and Grisman at the Century Ballroom in Seattle, let me know if you would like a look.
    Happy New Year, Donald.

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