Here is my conversation with Grammy-winning Howdy Skies recording artist Tim O’Brien.
Tim has earned an enthusiastic following throughout his illustrious career as a vocalist, songwriter, bandleader, multi-instrumentalist and world-traveling performer. The innovative bluegrass band Hot Rize, which he co-founded in 1978, is still actively touring nationally and internationally, occasionally featuring appearances by their alter-ego western swing band Red Knuckles & the Trailblazers.
Tim’s songs have been recorded by such artists as The Chicks, Garth Brooks, Dierks Bentley, Nickel Creek, Kathy Mattea, the New Grass Revival, and the Seldom Scene.
Tim was kind enough to take time from his busy schedule to speak with me about performance during a Wintergrass festival, while I was there teaching a live performance master class.
When did you first know that you wanted to be a performer? What did that feel like?
Well, when I started playing music, when I started playing the guitar, it was something that I could do. I had an aptitude for it, and I learned pretty fast, and it was a safe place for a kind of confused 12 year old, you know? I wasn’t an athlete guy, and kind of shy, so it was good to have something that I could do that was good for your self-esteem. But then I did some musical theatre stuff, too, later in grade school and in high school, and that was good – I found out I wasn’t nervous onstage, and people enjoyed it, so you get the positive feedback.
I think you’ll find that lot of people that perform regularly, they describe themselves as shy, and they don’t know how to fit in. But what happens onstage, see, is you have this sort of theoretically controlled environment where you put your best foot forward, and you can sort of leave out insecurities and leave out parts of yourself that maybe you don’t want. And you get to present this thing in some kind of a controlled way. And then, if you have songs, or if you’re in a play and you have your lines, then you have less question. It’s just kind of a safe place. It’s funny. A lot of people are like, “I would never get up onstage.” They’re not shy in a social situation, like I am, but then they won’t get up onstage because to them, that’s crazy.
So do you feel like yourself when you’re onstage, or do you feel like somebody else?
I do, I feel like myself. And maybe I’m fooling myself – I don’t know if that is me or not.
Do people who know you well see a difference between the person you are onstage and the person you are offstage?
They don’t say anything about it. I haven’t heard too many comments.
I had a funny thing where, I go to this festival in Denmark every year, and there’s a guy that makes mandolins that I know, a friend of a friend – I know him and his wife. And I’d always go and visit him at his instrument booth, and got to know his wife and everything. And he knew my music, but she didn’t. And one year at the festival, I played with Steve Earle, and so she saw me play with Steve Earle – I was in his band for that gig – and after the show, she was a little loaded, but she went, “I had no idea! I’m really embarrassed!” She was really embarrassed that she knew me all this time but didn’t know that that’s what I did. I mean, she knew I played – it’s weird…
She didn’t know you did that, though!
Yeah, she’d just go, “Whoa, I’m just embarrassed. I’m sorry!” I’m going, “What are you sorry about? So, you finally came to a gig. Fine.” To me, I’m the same. I think I’m the same – I don’t know if that’s true or not.
Well, you have a really laid-back persona onstage.
Well, that’s another thing – that’s like a Pete Seeger extension or something. He says he doesn’t have fans, he has friends. And, you know, that’s a way of looking at it that’s benign – it makes it easier. I mean, some people think the audience is their enemy, and they have to win them over. To me, they most often paid money to come see you. And maybe they don’t know what you do, but they have an open mind about it. They’ve reached out to you, so that all you need to do is reach out a little to them and everything’s fine.
You know, the thing about the performance, I think, it’s not so much about getting this particular song a perfect rendition, or telling this joke the right way – although there’s those who do that, and they can do that. But to me it’s just about getting people together and sharing a common experience. The audience has their role, and you have your role, but you can’t really get it going without each other.
There’s that energy that passes between the two.
Yeah, it goes back and forth. Actually, I’m so addicted to that sort of thing. You know, you’re up there and the magnifying glass is on you, and it makes you seem bigger than you are. But I think that there’s a real give and take there. It’s really addictive.
So given that, which do you prefer – big or little gigs, eye contact or darkness?
Well, I think the variety is good, because there’s a comfort zone, that sometimes it gets kind of old. So I think the variety is good for that reason.
And you do a lot of traveling, so you get to experience a lot of different cultures.
Yes. Every place you play, every state in the Union, is a different vibe, the way people react. And then you go to Germany, it’s a whole different world. You go to Scotland and England and Ireland, it’s completely different from place to place. I was in New Zealand recently – that was a whole other thing. Luckily, I mostly play places that speak English as their main language. But it’s also true if you go to other places. Like I was in Italy last year, and they love music. There’s something there, whether they understand all the words or not – there’s something about the music. I don’t know, music, they say that it’s kind of a precursor to language. So I think there’s something there that calls everybody together to some sort of old place, some sort of cultural kind of DNA, a kind of reference or something.
How do you experience being in the zone?
Well, I think that there’s some sort of abandon that all performers hope to reach, and it’s elusive. There’s a certain discipline to putting on the show, where you want to be prepared enough to where you can do it even if you’re in a bad mood, or the sound’s bad, or your strings break, or whatever, you know – you can still go. But I think everybody wants this special feeling that comes up, like when you hear a piece of music that puts shivers up and down your spine – that is what you’re after.
It’s like when people go fishing, I think. They might not catch anything, but they’re holding out for that really good time, you know? And I think Bill Monroe was that way – his fans were that way – because he was kind of like Jerry Garcia in that he would not necessarily be good every night.
You never knew what you were going to get.
You didn’t know what you were going to get. But there was some amazing transcendence that would happen from time to time that if you weren’t there for it, you’d be mad, and you’d hear about it. And so, you know, there’s something about that. But I don’t know, getting in the zone, you want to be prepared.
How do you experience it when it happens to you?
I’m just kind of lost – I don’t really think about anything. And it happens every once in a while, but it’s elusive. But it’s the reward.
Now, the zone, the real zone that I experience in a bigger way is when I’m writing something, and I’m onto some kind of idea. And I get kind of giddy, and I get kind of excited, and I start laughing, and I go, “This is great!” And then I just wish that would continue, and it doesn’t. It can’t continue, but some glimpses, though – you get enough rewards of it that you keep going for it.
Can you think of a particularly transcendent performance experience that you’ve had, where all the stars were aligned and you just couldn’t believe what was going on, and it was well beyond what you had hoped for?
Well, I’ll tell you one thing came to mind, and I can’t recommend it for anyone. I used to get these terrible ear infections, or earaches, and after a while I got to where I used these ear candles. You know, you get antibiotics and wash out your ear and stuff, but ear candles will draw all this crap out of there, right? So then I was in London and this thing was welling up, and I could tell it was going to really get bad, and it just kept getting worse and worse, and it was the night before we left to go home, and we had this gig. And I never was able to find anything to help. And in looking for ear candles, I went to this herbalist, a Chinese medicine place in that neighborhood in London, and they gave me all these herbs to make tea. They said, “Don’t do the ear candles, it’s only a temporary fix. But if you take this stuff, it’ll fix it forever.” And actually, it’s true – it hasn’t happened since.
But to make a long story short, I was in really bad pain, still, at this gig, and I was with Darrell Scott, and I told him, “Look, let’s just kind of show up and plug in and play, no sound check.” We got there at a quarter to nine and plugged in and played. And after the gig was over, he said, “Man, you played your ass off.” And I remembered, when I looked back on it, that I was able to play a lot better, and it was because I wasn’t thinking about it. I didn’t put any expectation on the gig – I had real low expectations. I was thinking, I’m not going to play very long, I’m going to try to keep my effort to a minimum, blah blah blah. And instead, it just all sort of blossomed out. And the singing was good, and the grooves were better, and the playing was a lot more effortless.
And you experienced it while it was happening?
Yeah. Well, towards the end I did. And I realized that’s probably why – I was distracted. And so that’s kind of a thing with the writing, too – I usually get distracted. You have to trick yourself, almost, into being in the zone. And some kind of stimulant will help you, sometimes, but it’s only temporary. People try drugs and alcohol, and caffeine – and it might help for a while, but it’s not going to help every time. And then it gets to be a crutch, and then you’re fighting the effects of it. So I don’t know.
I guess I try to change up the set list, too, so that it’s not the same every night. And like I was talking before about discipline – like the discipline of being able to do it backwards and forwards, knowing exactly what you could do, and if you were totally brain-dead you could still do the show. And maybe that’s good, because then you’re not worrying about what the next lyric is, or what the next chord is – you know it so well that you can just let it flow. But sometimes I change up the set list just to get out of the comfort zone and try to find something new. But it’s elusive. It’s just as elusive if you do the same set every night as if you do a different set. You know, there’s no substitute for being in practice as a singer – you know, warmed up as a singer and a player.
Sure, being in good musical shape.
And having rest and being sharp. But it’s good to get away from everything. The contest is to get away from the workaday and just let stuff happen.
Are there things about yourself as a performer that you feel have changed over the years, or that you’ve consciously tried to change, or that you still want to change?
Oh, I’d like to be more consistent.
Consistent how, as a player?
Yeah, as a player and, you know, with tempo and tuning and tone. I have so many different roles that I play that I never really get into that.
How about as a front man? Are there things that you feel that you do differently with your years of experience as a front man than when you first started out?
Well, maybe I’m not as worried about it as I used to be. I used to be real worried about making sure there was no dead air, making sure that I said everything that needed to be said about a piece, or about the persons playing on the stage, or whatever. But I know now that the main thing is to let your guard down. I think that’s the trick for me, with an audience, to sort of let them know, right off the bat, first of all, that I’m fallible. And if I make a mistake, which is inevitable, I will often call attention to it right away, and that kind of cuts the ice.
Sort of like the custom of the host spilling some wine on the tablecloth so that no one else has to worry about it.
Yeah, that makes sense. Yeah, it’s that kind of thing. And you poke fun at yourself – you don’t take yourself seriously. You take the music seriously, or the subject matter seriously, but you don’t want to make believe that you’re perfect. I mean, I know people who don’t want any photography during their show – they don’t want anybody to record their show. And I’m thinking to myself, I can understand that, but don’t they like the way they look? Don’t they like the way they sound? Or they want this illusion that they are what they sound like on a record or something?
Or needing to be in control of everything?
Or do they think that they sometimes do sound that way? I don’t know that anybody sounds that way, or is perfect, so I don’t see any problem with that stuff. I mean, the taping, one of the things about that is people think that that means they’re not going to buy their recordings, and that’s one issue that’s a different issue than we’re talking about. But there’s also the issue of, well, if it was a bad sound day, or if I was bad, then I don’t want that to represent me. And yet, to me, that’s who I was that day.
So I don’t aspire to that other way – I don’t think it’s possible for me. I don’t have that sleight of hand kind of thing going. It’s more like, we’re here, I’ve got some instruments and some songs I can sing, and I might forget them, but we’ll probably have a good time in the end. The idea that you can be in control of, really, anything – I mean, you can be sort of in control of yourself in certain ways, but you know, let it all hang out, because it’s going to anyway.
When you’re in the audience, what are the qualities of a performance that enthrall you?
Well, I don’t know, in a show the performers have so much more going for them than they do with a recording, or even with a video, because they have this sort of visual thing and this one-time-only version of it that’s just kind of like, “Wow, well here we are.” Like, if somebody buys a CD or a DVD of a performance, they go, “Ok, well, we can watch this now, or we can watch it later, or we can watch it again.” They might not ever really pay attention to it. But when it’s the one time, you just tend to be there – I think it tends to draw you in.
So when you think of your favorite performers, why are they your favorite performers? What qualities do they have?
Well, there’s the great instrumentalists that are improvisers, and you’re kind of waiting to see what they’ll do, what they’ll come up with, or just the fascination of someone’s incredible technique – the amazement. It’s like a feat of an acrobat or somebody – it’s exciting. There’s the exciting part.
I mean, bluegrass is that way. People go to bluegrass shows to get excited by the music, because a lot of it is fast tempos, and you wonder if they’re going to be able to do it. And so you’re kind of rooting for them, and then you’re excited when they do. It’s like a football game. And there is a sort of competition in the bluegrass thing – sometimes they call it a cutting contest – where you’re trying to play everything you can to show the other guy how cool you are, and the other guy does the same, and then you’ve got to even come up with more. It’s kind of a contest, so there is that sort of sporting thing.
But, you know, when you go to a show, people are on your side – they’ve come through the door with the intention of sitting down or dancing or whatever to your music and your performance. It’s like going into church. Everybody prays a different way. You know, you have silent prayer – it would be ridiculous to think that everybody’s thinking the same thing. Even if they’re on the same prayer, I’m sure they interpret it differently. And yet, everyone has the same intention, which is to get spiritual. And it’s not far off with a concert or a festival. A festival is like a hundred concerts – it’s like you have a hundred concerts over three days, and you never stop – it’s like an immersion in that.
So the idea that you’re supposedly going to take time to appreciate art, and you’re going to be entertained – under the guise of entertainment, you’re coming through there – well, really what’s happening, I think, is that people get their own ideas about what’s happening. And then, somewhere along the line, like with song lyrics and a good performance of a song lyric, you’ll strike some kind of nerve that’s common to everybody in the room. Certain songs will do it every time, because they’re just good.
And then also it’s songs that everyone knows – I mean, there’s nothing more sure-fire than that, if you get a song that everyone knows. Like if I play “Gentle On My Mind” [by John Hartford] at a gig, I’ve recorded that song, but mostly I’ve done it since Hartford passed, and that brings up so much context. Everybody in the audience that has heard of John Hartford, everybody that has ever seen him, they’re thinking about him. So you get everybody on the same page, and it’s like that power of everybody getting pointed in the same direction, and you never know when that’s going to happen.
And I see performers sometimes that I’ve never seen before and I’m just totally blown away, and you go, “That’s the best band I’ve ever heard.” And it’s just because they took you to that place, I think.
And sometimes it’s the circumstances of the show. For instance, I was in the front row of your Red Knuckles reunion show at the Wildflower Pavilion at RockyGrass [in 2009].
And that was, like, the place to be on the planet Earth at that moment.
It was a pretty good moment. Yeah, that was good.
Because everybody was so charged.
Yeah, it was contagious, the mood. But it’s like the public’s perception of it. Like, if I come from Nashville to Wintergrass, they go, “Oh, they came all the way from Nashville. These people came from far away. Well, let’s go!” If I was playing the same music and I came from Tacoma, they’d go, “Oh, yeah, well he’s coming from Tacoma. Maybe I’ll stay home this weekend.”
“He’s a local guy…”
But you set up this kind of condition, and it’s not hard to win in that situation.
But, I don’t know, my perception of that Red Knuckles show was that it seemed like you guys really got to take your leashes off, even though you were doing what was expected of you for that show.
Yeah, what was good was that, well, we have a big backlog of experience together, and so much that we forget it all, and then it was amazing to all of us to see each other do their thing. And those guys are all so funny. And it’s also funny to get a sideman that’s unsuspecting. I mean, Hoot Hester [playing fiddle] knew what we did, but he hadn’t really done this with us before. So it’s a process.
A wild card.
You just put it through this process and see what happens.
But the energy was just flying.
If you could have made a visual representation of the energy that was flying around, it would have been like one of those Pink Floyd laser light shows. It was actually one of the most amazing things I’ve experienced as an audience member in terms of having that sense of being in the vortex – that this is the place to be, right here, right now. What do you think accounted for that energy?
Well, there was no plan. Like I say, we have a lot of context, and we have a lot of common experience as a band. And yet, we were kind of on the edge, wondering what was going to happen next. And we tried some songs that we hadn’t even talked about playing, and that kind of thing. You know, you haven’t played them for ten years or something – that’s kind of fun. And then if it goes well at all, then you’re amazed, so that’s contagious to the band.
I think that the audience picks up on that, when you’re working harder. I find as an instrumentalist, when you play these solos in bluegrass situations, you get more interest from the audience when you’re trying. When you maybe don’t succeed as well other times when you’re so prepared with a solo and it looks easy – it probably sounds easy, and the audience goes, “Well, that’s good and everything, but…” But when somebody kind of grimaces, and they screw up and they try harder, they give them applause for that. So it’s kind of funny.
Do you ever find it difficult to connect to the emotional “nugget” of a song, even when it’s your own song? Do you ever feel that there’s too much distance from what caused you to write the song in the first place?
Yeah, well, some of the songs don’t have a staying power, and some of them just never go out of style, so you’ve just got to go with your heart on that. But then people want to hear songs, and you go, ok, well, I’ll try this one. But at some point you have to sort of say, ok, this is in my bag, or it is not, and kind of be ready for it. I get in the trap, particularly when I’m playing solo – when I don’t have anybody else, and I can’t complain if the other guys in the band don’t know it – and they’ll request these songs, and I’ll say, “Oh, yeah”, and then I play it, and a lot of times I’ll just stop in the middle and say, “Sorry, I don’t remember the rest of this!” And it’s because I’m not into that song, really. I’m kind of past it.
Actually, my buddies in Hot Rize – I think it was Charles [Sawtelle], or it might have been Pete [Wernick], I’m not sure – he said, “You know, it’s like baseball. The best hitter in baseball gets a .400 average – that’s 40 percent of the time he gets on base.” You know, so, you’re doing pretty good just starting and ending together – that’s pretty good! I don’t feel so bad if I mess up, sing out of tune, sing the wrong lyric here or there – it’s ok. Mostly, in the end, we win. We have a good win/loss average.
Well, you must have to maintain a fairly encyclopedic knowledge, especially with all the different jobs you do. I’m sure that a lot of times you’re just kind of flying into a situation, having to just jump into it and be expected to know stuff.
Yeah, it’s an interesting thing, the different situations. I mean, it’s really good, those different situations – like I say, the variety is good. I’m getting ready to do a tour with Mark Knopfler – six weeks, I’m filling in for a guy – and so I get this glimpse into this other world. But it’s like an eight-piece band. I’m usually either solo or with two, maybe three, other guys. And it’s also not me. I was worried about it, that I wouldn’t be good at it. I thought I might get fired after the first week for being not used to being a sideman! But it was good because a couple weeks ago I did a tour with twenty pieces – it was called the Transatlantic Concert. And it was like a revue. But I could play on anything I wanted to play on, as long as the performer heading up that piece was in agreement. And it was a real great thing about contributing to everyone else’s parts, and finding the subtle little thing that might add to it.
So that’s the role that’s coming up, and it’ll be good instruction, instead of being the guy – you know, the other guys are following me, and there’s a little more on my plate when I’m the front man than when I’m a sideman. I’m very comfortable in that role, but part of that job is, you’re the one that relates to the audience in a verbal way – non-singing way – and if you’re the singer, you’re the one that’s speaking to them in that way – with lyrics. Communication. So you’re doing the main front part of the work, and you’re the focus.
And it’s a wonderful, very powerful, position. Even in a room with ten, twenty people in the audience, it’s still a powerful thing. And I like that challenge. And, like I say, I like to kind of mess it up and see what happens. And I’ll turn to the guys, if it’s a band, sometimes – you know, we have this set list and we practice and everything – and I’ll go, “Look, we didn’t practice this, but just follow along here, because I just need to break out of the straightjacket.” And then sometimes really good stuff happens. Sometimes it’s terrible, but you sort of have to try.
And, you know, if it’s a train wreck, then chances are people love you anyway.
Yeah, there can be train wrecks. That’s why I say, if there’s an obvious one, even if I might get away with it, I go, “Uh, yeah, I sang that verse already, didn’t I?” And they go, “Oh, yeah!” They don’t mind. But they like it better if you acknowledge that, I think. Because then you’re one of them. I mean, you are one of them, and you get that understood right away.
It’s like, “We’ll get through this.”
Yeah, well, like I say, I could never be the one who didn’t allow the flash photography and the recording, because to me it would be hypocritical to say, “I don’t want that to go out because it doesn’t represent me.” Well, how could I stand myself? I know what I’m doing is bringing some kind of happiness to people, and it’s helping in some way, even if I do screw up. And, in fact, maybe if I do and acknowledge it, it even makes it better. So I’m not saying that you need to mess up, but I think you need to show yourself as a human being.
You know, [the late] Rosalie Sorrels – she talks and talks and talks, and it’s not like she has a sort of set thing she’s going to say, and it’s kind of this ramble. It doesn’t necessarily connect to the song. She eventually gets back to the thing, but by the time she’s introduced the first or second song, you kind of get to know her. And that’s the thing – you’re just cutting the ice, you’re taking the barriers down, you’re all trying to get together in a performance. It’s a thing where you meld souls together or something. And, you know, the power, the abandon of that – things can lift up in ways that they can’t when you’re just doing this on your own.
Like I say, I get excited when I’m writing sometimes, and when I’m recording sometimes as well. But getting a group together and sort of leading them into something is really very rewarding, and it’s fascinating. And there’s something mysterious about it that I don’t know. I think I’ve told you everything I can tell you about planning it. But there’s something that happens, and can happen, that’s really wonderful, and that’s what I go back for. That’s why I lose sleep, and cramp up in airplane seats, and eat bad food. It’s because of that.
I think it probably helps me as a friend, as a father – this practice. I mean, I think for anybody, doing the best you can makes you a better friend. And I don’t know, you just want to be a solid citizen, and I try to be. But this performing thing, that’s kind of the best thing I can do. If I could invent cures for cancer, that would be good, that would be probably better, you know, stuff like that – or build a bridge, that would be good. But my own particular job is this, and it seems like I can do it. So I keep trying.