Tim O’Brien: Somewhere John Hartford is smiling, along with the rest of us (Photo:TimOBrien.net)

In The Hartford Spirit
By David McGee

Tim O’Brien
Howdy Skies Records

It may be sacrilege to say so—and a certain artist in question here might thrash me about the head for it—but with each new album Tim O’Brien asserts himself as John Hartford’s most worthy heir. Apart from their different vocal colors, O’Brien and Hartford shared an affection for old-time music, a bit country, a bit bluegrass, a bit folky, that has a point both musically and lyrically. As did Hartford, O’Brien loves bringing other master musicians into his fold and letting it fly when the red light comes on; and being a formidable multi-instrumentalist, O’Brien welcomes the challenge other virtuosos bring to the material and, like Hartford, always proves himself worthy of their company. He too can write songs in a variety of roots styles (you figure his “Gentle On My Mind” is right around the corner), and when he searches out material from other sources, he looks for things abundant in warmth, humor, clever takes on the verities, a certain rhythmic gaiety, rooted in populist values and often evocative of an earlier, rustic America. Also, as per Hartford, you can hear him engulfed in the pure joy of making music, whether it’s in the joy emanating from his friendly tenor voice or in frisky byplay with his fellow pickers.

Chicken & Egg is yet another—and arguably the best—of O’Brien’s solo ventures, engaging from the first notes of “You Ate the Apple,” a winning variation on the Adam and Eve story in which he takes a lady to task for falling prey to temptation, and continuing unabated into the final cut, “Space Between the Lines,” a moody contemplation of existential stasis and the search for inner peace as chronicled in his co-write with Lucas Reynolds (the latter plays steel guitar on the track, too). In assembling his supporting cast, O’Brien didn’t mess around. Stuart Duncan (who steps away from fiddle to sit in on banjo on a lively reading of Woody Guthrie’s “The Sun Jumped Up”), Bryan Sutton on guitar, Dennis Crouch and Mike Bub sharing bass duties, John Gardner filling the drummer’s post when needed; guest vocalists include young Sarah Jarosz, Abigail Washburn and the SteelDrivers’ Chris Stapleton, who makes his mark with a high, crying tenor harmony adding to the intensity of the bluegrass gospel tune, “Sinner,” written by Darrell Scott’s father, Wayne Scott, and as much about the singer’s own failings as it is an advisory to others to think twice about the depths awaiting them should they “go sinnin’.”

Tim O’Brien and Sarah Jarosz perform ‘Nelly Cane’ at the 2008 Rice Festival in Fischer, TX. Jarosz appears on O’Brien’s new Chicken & Egg album. The band in this clip is rounded out by Sam Grisman, Greg Liszt and Alex Hargreaves.

These folks enable the mighty fine music found on Chicken & Egg, but none dim the luster of the star’s own performances. Gotta love his determination to change his ways and give his gone gal a reason to change her mind in “Gonna Try To Make Her Stay,” an O’Brien co-write with Jimmy Stewart done up hot swing style, with Sutton contributing a couple of lively guitar solos and O’Brien himself spicing the festivities with a succinct mandolin retort. The old-timey toe-tapper, “Suzanna,” sounds for all the world like one of Hartford’s big river songs, but in fact it was penned by Hal Cannon, who founded the wonderful Cowboy Poet’s Gathering in Elko, Nebraska. Herein he builds an infectious tune around the “oh, Suzanna, don’t you cry for me” refrain and makes reference to a “remote control in the hand of God” as it makes its frolicking way to a conclusion fueled by O’Brien’s clucking banjo, Bub’s steady bass and Duncan’s discursive fiddling. A sprightly bluegrass blues lamenting the lonesome road and yearning for home, “All I Want,” surges ahead on the strength of the ensemble sound (with Charlie Cushman sitting in on banjo) but is carried by the forceful energy of O’Brien’s deeply felt vocal. (It may also be the first road song to reference Red Bull as opposed to pills as a stimulant. That’s progress.) A Tim O’Brien record may be the last place you expect to hear some rockabilly, but lo, it is here, at least the tint of it, in the piledriving original, “Workin’,” with Crouch clickin’ and clackin’ on acoustic bass and Sutton moving to electric guitar to add twang and sizzle, goosing O’Brien’s breakneck vocal singing its affection for workers everywhere. The frisky slice-of-life thumper, “No Way to Stop the Flow”; the laid-back acoustic blues concerning the wearing effects of time on a body, “Not Afraid O’ Dyin’” (nice, fleeting Roger Miller flourish at the start); the syncopated story-song celebrating the day to day panorama witnessed by a cemetery keeper, “Old Joe,” all herky-jerky rhythm behind O’Brien’s proud vocal; “Mother Mary,” a prayer for deliverance from earthly woes co-written by O’Brien and the Dixie Chicks/Court Yard Hounds’ Martie Maguire and featuring Washburn’s evocative harmony vocal, is an exotic bird even here, with its minor-scale Jewish folk song feel—you can figuratively drop the needle down on any track and hear something you’ll want to hear again, and again. This is Tim O’Brien at the apex of his art; you think he cannot possibly top his previous album, and he does. Somewhere John Hartford is smiling, along with the rest of us.

Tim O’Brien’s Chicken & Egg is available at www.amazon.com

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
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Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024