Telluride Bluegrass: Tim O’Brien

Telluride Bluegrass: Tim O’Brien

Tim O’Brien returns for the umpteenth (actually 40th) time to perform on the Main Stage at the 43rd annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival on Saturday, June 18, 2016. The band includes Ian Fitchuk, Hammond organ; John Gardner, drums; Viktor Krauss, bass; Doug Lancio, guitar; Jan Fabricus, background vocals.

“O’Brien’s appeal largely lies in the intimacy of his songs and the laid-back energy he exudes both on stage and in person. His songs range from quiet introspections on lost love to wry observations of our vexing species. He delivers train songs, mythical folk excursions, ruminations on marriage and aging, and the pratfalls of a few whiskeys too many, all with heartfelt authenticity and a humble, ‘been there, too’ warmth. That’s where he connects deeply with his audience. No rock star airs with this fellow. He’ll pull up a chair and sit right down with you,” Tim in a nutshell by Suzanne Cheavens, writing for Telluride Inside… and Out.


I say “short order.”

You say, what?


As in someone adept at quick-fix meals like burgers and fries, eggs and pancakes.

But would you associate those words with Tim O’Brien?

Those in the know know Tim can do just about anything. Not sure about plumbing – or pancakes for that matter – but anything musically for sure.

The Grammy-winning folk and bluegrass pioneer (and Telluride adopted son) is one of the best multi-instrumentalists on the planet, a master of guitar, fiddle, mandolin, bouzouki, and mandocello.

In other words, Tim is an entire rhythm section unto himself.

And a bandleader, songwriter, vocalist, mentor and producer  – now for his songwriting and bluegrass mentor J.D. Hutchison – to boot.

We know Tim’s sound by heart, comfy music with an old slipper feel, and an artful blend of bluegrass, folk, swing, plus Irish and Americana stylings, with just a touch of the blues and funk for spice, a sound that has been a central part of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival line-up for 40 years. (Tim was absent from the Main Stage in ’74, ’77 and ’07 only.)

A sound and style described by The Wall Street Journal as classic-sounding material stamped with his own perceptive personality.”

But with Tim as the filter, everything old comes out new again, whether’s it’s a reinterpretation of an old fiddle tune, a revitalized honky-tonk shuffle from the 1950s, or an original bluegrass-inflected folk tune, the sound is always at once familiar and fresh.

What’s also fresh and new is the way Tim is doing business these days, proving you can teach an old dog new tricks.

You can turn him into a short order cook – of sorts.

Tim and his partner Jan founded Short Order Sessions in January 2015, a project he describes as “his musical kitchen.” Think new record label for the tech age, a new model for changing times in the industry.

“I’ve long viewed musical arrangements as recipes, and know well that music feeds the heart and soul. Short Order Sessions cooks up fresh sounds and delivers them while they’re still hot.”

Short Order Sessions (SOS) releases one new track a month, ranging from rare live performances to one-off jam sessions recorded in Tim’s music room.

Audio soul food from straight from the kitchen of master chef Tim O’Brien.

(Find SOS tracks under Tim’s name on all your digital outlets, including iTunes, Spotify, and Amazon.)

What else is new is Pompadour, a cd that also winds up being a colorful way of promoting SOS.

It has been four years since Tim”s last solo recording, but between collaborations with Darrell Scott, the recent Grammy winning recording with Jerry Douglas’s Earls of Leicester, and the rebooting of Hot Rize, the redhead has barely had time for a shower. Still, somewhere in Tim’s vivid imagination, the seeds of Pompadour began to sprout, and the fruits of his recent wanderings, music-making and worldly observations blossomed into 11 exquisitely varied, true-to-life musical tracks.

Each of O’Brien’s solo albums has a distinctive identity. Many have specific themes.

Red on Blonde is an insightful collection of Bob Dylan compositions.

The Grammy-winning Fiddler’s Green is a celebration of Appalachian music and its Celtic roots.

Pompadour, or at least most of it is “a kind of a breakup record,” Tim says, “I separated from my wife five years ago and got divorced a year after that. So there’s a breakup, an assessment, and ultimately delight at the end.”

What separates Pompadour from his previous thematic albums?

Tim answers by looking back to his first nationally released album.

“When I did Hard Year Blues, a friend said, ‘This is kind of like a Chinese menu; there are so many options here. What’s the theme?’ It was really eclectic. Now, with Pompadour, I’ve sort of melded things together, like the flavors in a stew.

Pompadour whirls and swirls together bits of bluegrass, deep-roots Appalachian music, field hollers, old-school rock ‘n’ roll, traditional jazz, even James Brownian funk.

Four Pompadour tracks have already been released on SOS: the Celtic-flavored Woody Guthrie / Billy Bragg composition “Go Down To The Water”;  the mandolin blues of Michael Hurley’s “Ditty Boy Twang; Dan Reeder’s ironic “The Tulips On The Table”; and the aforementioned James Brown tune.

Again Tim is coloring way outside Americana-bluegrass lines.

How did Pompadour come together? What inspired Short Order Sessions? What is Tim’s prescription for curing the blues?

Click the “play” button and listen to Tim’s podcast.

More about Tim O’Brien:

Tim O’Brien’s early history is common knowledge around these parts, how he grew up in Wheeling, West Virginia surrounded by classic country and bluegrass music. We may not remember some of the finer points of his life such as the fact Tim bagged one year of a  liberal arts education following his bliss to Boulder, Colorado, where a burgeoning, eccentric roots music scene was forming back in 1973. We may not have that information at our fingertips, but Telluriders for sure know what followed: Ophelia Swing Band, Hot Rize, and its alter-ego country swing band, Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers, the stuff of Telluride Bluegrass Festival legend.

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