O'Brien is known as a musician's musician, an innovator steeped in the roots of bluegrass and traditional country with impeccable skills on guitar, mandolin, fiddle and bouzouki (an octave mandolin). As a singer, he delivers his rootsy Americana originals with unusual clarity and pitch-perfect tenor vocals, skills influenced by growing up watching artists like Charley Pride and the Country Gentlemen at the legendary Wheeling Jamboree.
His latest album, "Traveler" (Sugar Hill Records), features more personal singer-songwriter tunes that all fit thematically within the realm of "travel songs," with several tracks fueled by jaunty Celtic and Cajun grooves.
"I find the stuff I write about as I get older is more about who we are as people and trying to figure things out before it's too late," he says, laughing. "The best of the new songs are always reminiscent of [traditional] things they're always telling a similar story, but through the filter of DNA and personal experience."
Speaking of travel, O'Brien just returned from a brief stint teaching at the Sore Fingers bluegrass camp in southwest England, which he describes as a "cool camp" that reminded him of "Hogwarts" (from the "Harry Potter" series).
When he's not touring, O'Brien is a highly sought-after producer and session player, having recorded on numerous albums, including the huge commercial breakthrough "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" which reignited interest in traditional bluegrass.
"That was a great thing. The same sort of thing happened with 'The Beverly Hillbillies' show and the movie 'Deliverance' people who probably would have eventually found out about the music found out all at once," he remarks.
A literature major in college, O'Brien knows quite a bit about the history of American traditional music and was recently named president of the International Bluegrass Music Association.
"There used to be a great radio program in Richmond, 'The Old Dominion Barn Dance' with Mac Wiseman, one of the great Saturday-night shows," he notes between musing on West Virginia's secession from Virginia.
O'Brien explains that a major appeal of playing traditional music is learning about history and the challenge of "making the music new again."
"I'm getting ready to record this song 'Big Boat Up the River,' and one reason I'm really into it is because I just read all about the terrible floods of the 1920s in the Mississippi Delta and all the things attached to it, like black migration and trade expansion.
In the shadows behind the lyrics are all these slices of life for me."
Most of the money O'Brien makes comes from royalties on songs he wrote that were recorded by mainstream artists like The Dixie Chicks and Garth Brooks.
O'Brien is currently working on two albums due out next fall. These are full of traditional material he hopes to update into different styles, with one album acoustic and the other electric.
"Bluegrass music is a living thing that keeps regenerating," he says, comparing the enduring appeal of the genre to our country's national parks. "You want to preserve it, you know?
Music is made for people's souls. For me, I know it'll never get old, there's always gonna be another verse. My favorite song is always the one that I'm learning." STim O'Brien plays Ashland Coffee & Tea May 5 at 8 p.m. General admission tickets cost $19.50 in advance at www.ashlandcoffeeandtea.com.
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