Tim O’Brien might be the hardest working folker that I’ve ever heard of. It seems like almost every time I pick up a folk or bluegrass record that has guests on it, he’s among them, and now he’s touring and recording some live shows with Steve Earle. O’Brien and Darrell Scott were drafted as the Bluegrass Dukes upon the departure of Del McCoury’s band from the tour. It seems that Steve and Del might’ve been fussin’ over Steve’s cussin’, and Del departed before the fall season of bluegrass festivals came up. In any case, O’Brien and Scott have picked up the mantle, and from all accounts have been turning in some great performances.
Historically, some of the strongest work that a folk or bluegrass musician creates will be autobiographical in nature. I suppose that if you have the skill to put your experiences into words and to write music to accompany it, it’ll be a little closer to the heart, more genuine, and much easier to find and keep a passion for. O’Brien certainly has the skill. Since his earliest Hot-Rize days, his relentless touring and constant session and solo work have kept him razor-sharp. All this effort and all of the exposure to ideas both new and old have resulted in his reaching a level of competence that is rarely attained. This release is truly biographical, as it traces his great-grandfather’s migration from Ireland to America, and Tim’s somewhat disappointing loop back to try to find his roots (or “tubers,” as he cleverly calls them). The imagery is wonderful. It captures the feel of freedom that his ancestor found in his mountain homeplace, and the values that he holds dear and hopes to impart to following generations. It also shows how reality is not always the same as our romanticized visions. Envisioning a warm welcome from a very distant O’Brien cousin that he happens upon in his search for his roots in Ireland, he is instead is met with a shopkeeper cousin who could care less, and a barkeep who brings him down to earth by responding to him, “Cavan man, eh? Some people wouldn’t admit to that,” as well as a rusty old building that is the remnants of the old homeplace. This is a very warm and complete story with just the right amount of humor. Although a couple of these songs might get some airplay, it’s not a collection of singles. For the full effect, it’s really best listened to in its entirety.
Alula Records, P.O. Box 62403, Durham, NC 27715-2043; http://www.alula.com