Telluride Bluegrass Festival: Tim O’Brien, Friday, 6/17!

Telluride Bluegrass Festival: Tim O’Brien, Friday, 6/17!

The 49th Annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival takes place June 15 – June 17. The event is sold out. There is no waitlist. If you are looking for tickets, use the Festivarian Forum to connect with other festival goers. Or you can sign up for Nightgrass tickets here.

Learn more about other Planet Bluegrass festivals at

Please scroll down to check out our email interview with Tim O’Brien, who performs Friday, June 17, on the Main Stage.

Go here for more on Telluride Bluegrass. (Podcasts with Bluegrass legends on Telluride Inside…and Out go back to 2009.)

Over four decades years ago, Telluride musicians John “Picker” Herndon, Bruce Lites, J.B. Mateotti, Kooster McAllister, and Fred Shellman, collectively known as “Fall Creek,” played during the town’s Fourth of July celebration. After returning from the Third Annual Walnut Valley Festival and national picking championships in Winfield, Kansas, the Fall Creek boys decided to start a Bluegrass Festival in Telluride. And just like that, a toy town in the southern Rockies came to host a world-class outdoor musical happening, which became home (at least once a year) to Festivarians (Bluegrass regulars) and some of the greatest performing artists in the world, among them, Grammy-winner (Traditional Folk Category, 2005) Tim O’Brien.

“I first listened to Tim O’Brien on a road trip in 2004,” explained Grace Barrett.“My dad played Tim’s album Red on Blonde, and I, previously meh on bluegrass, was absolutely hooked. Tim has been one of my favorite artists since then. He was my introduction to the genre, and I find great comfort in his music. We’re so lucky to have him back year after year.”

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 though, such as the fact Tim bagged a liberal arts education following his bliss to Boulder, Colorado, where a burgeoning, eccentric roots music scene was forming. 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.

The legend comes to life again on Friday June 17, when Tim performs with his “family band” on the Main Stage in Telluride Town Park.

How do we get by in trying times? How do we make sense of the world we live in? Music has always been a balm and a tonic for those who need a little help on their journeys, whether that’s needed in the form of inspiration, comfort, or relief. And, as veteran multi-instrumentalist and singer Tim O’Brien demonstrates on his latest solo effort, He Walked On,  music can also provide a handy map for tough roads.

Tim O’Brien, Q & A:

TIO: The release of He Walked On is your first new music since the Age of Corona began in 2019, the year that also marked the last time you performed in Telluride before a happy, healthy audience. Would you describe the tracks in the aggregate as socio-political? Are the songs about healing the red/blue divide in our country – and throughout the world? About connection? Trolling the contents, He Walked On feels more like social commentary than bluegrass. The tracks seem speak to a lot of current events and the theme feels more “political” than most of your previous work; the tone more somber, more serious.

Tim: I was at Bluegrass last year on the first weekend. It was a joy to play for folks again, although let’s admit last summer’s post-pandemic reopening was a bit of a false promise. I had a new record ready about to come out the next week. Lots of folks delayed releases last year because touring, which reinforces any new release, was spotty at best. Through the whole pandemic, bookings got rescheduled several times. In 2020, Jan and I sat still, enjoying a sorta forced vacation for about three months. We saw the seasons change and slept in the same bed at home, and had a better garden because we could! We watched the birds a lot from the back porch.

Soon enough I started writing some songs. Back in 2016 when Trump started his first campaign, I had subscribed to the New York Times, which became a kind of addiction. Then, in 2020, I had even more time to dive into the daily feed. Jan and I had traveled to Arizona in February, invited by a couple folks from the Green Valley Samaritans, who advocate for migrants in Tucson on the north side and Nogales on the south side of the US border. In July we wrote a song – “El Comedor” – about our experience. When John Prine died of Covid in April, it was a heavy blow to the community, and like always when someone of his stature leaves, I went on a jag listening to his music. One song I wasn’t familiar with, “That’s How Every Empire Falls” came up, and soon Jan and I were singing it here at home and on a few live streams we did. Turns out it wasn’t a Prine song at all, being written by Knoxville’s beat poet songwriter R.B. Morris. Of course by then, we were in the wake of George Floyd’s killing. Congressman John Lewis died. I read that he liked the old African proverb, “When you pray, move your feet”, and a song by that title came quickly. I’d been interested in the conundrum of Thomas Jefferson for a long time, and on a deep internet dive I found out more about his children with Sally Hemmings, and that a few of them had eventually “passed” as white, while the others lived as free people of color after Jefferson’s passing. I was in contact with the Scottish songwriter Paul McKenna and we ended up writing “Can You See Me Sister” with a few emails back and forth. I already had a few pre-pandemic songs that commented on the digital age – “Nervous” and “Pushing On Buttons, Staring At Screens,” so I saw there was a little pattern of social commentary developing. Dale Keys had sent me a song about the 2010 Big Branch mine disaster in several years before, and it sorta kept tugging at me, and this seemed like the right time to bring it forward.

The record is social commentary for sure, but also just about living life. It’s where we come from, where we are now, and maybe a little of where we’re headed.  “I Breathe In” is just about Jan and me. I’m happy to report we’ll play Telluride 2022 as a married couple. We snuck in an out of doors gathering in July and got married after 9 years together. I heard “Sod Buster” on YouTube and kept going back to it. Jan’s ancestors were some of the first wheat farmers in Western Kansas, and so were those of songwriter Bill Caswell, so we took to the song. I kept writing, but also looking for more outside songs to fill out the project. Yip Harburg was an old lefty who wrote so many fine lyrics in the 30’s and 40’s (all of “the Wizard of Oz”) and his piece with Earl Robinson – “We’re In the Same Boat Brother” – really fit the bill. My old friend J.D. Hutchison’s song “Ready On the Firing Line” was ready for this set as well.

One trick I picked up during the pandemic was learning protools recording software, and we recorded three songs at home with regular band members Mike Bub and Shad Cobb. Then when I had the other songs ready, we booked a few days at Cowboy Arms here in Nashville, hired a few more musicians and tracked the rest of the songs. I’d just finished the song “He Walked On” when we went to the studio. I had folks – Odessa Settles, Edgar Meyer among them – come by and add parts at home. On January 6th 2021, Shad came to overdub fiddle parts, but we never really got started that day. The phone kept pinging and we turned off the recording rig, and watched the insurrection on TV.

TIO: In the past, when you talked about the state of the world at large, however dark, you introduced a bit of whimsy, but “Pushing on Buttons” for one example is pretty somber.

Tim: “Pushing on Buttons” might be the saddest song I’ve ever written. It’s kinda like Hank Williams in his “Luke the Drifter” persona, a little preachy, but illustrating true life. J.D. Hutchison had told me about the Greek philosopher Epictetus who warned “You become what you give your attention to… If you yourself don’t choose your thoughts, someone else will.”

But I hope there’s still some whimsy on He Walked On. “Nervous” starts out that way. I keep writing a new last verse for that one.The latest one is: “Omicron is waning but Trump is still campaigning, here comes the Metaverse, I think it might get worse and I’m nervous.” And “See You At the Funeral” is a bit of fun about Irish Travelers in America – Tinkers is a more common name for these Irish gypsy’s – a kinda hidden culture that fascinated me for a long time. I’d long known there was a Traveler graveyard in Nashville, then on the web I found a clipping from 1930 about their annual visit here. We actually found Bridget Sherlock’s headstone right after I wrote the song.

TIO: In addition to your business partner and new wife, who else did you bring into the project? How did He Walked On come together? Was producing the release cathartic?

Tim: It was cathartic for sure to write the songs, and it seemed like it was important to put this out rather than wait. I called on my regular band members Mike Bub and Shad Cobb and Jan of course, and we added folks like Justin Moses who’s playing with us at Bluegrass. Others include Nashville aces like drummer Pete Abbott, keyboard man Mike Rojas, steel player Chris Scruggs, and guitarist Bo Ramsey.

TIO: How do John Prine and Bill Withers figure into the picture?

Tim: Losing those two early in the pandemic was a signal to keep their legacy alive. They’d already saturated the fabric of American music before passing, and it’s just natural for those who follow them to include them. We sang “Lean On Me” and “Hello In There” quite often last year, even if we didn’t record those songs.

TIO: How and why did you select the 5 cover songs?

Tim: Like I said, some songs just grab me more than others and I kind of file them away for a rainy day. They came in handy here.

TIO: What or who inspired “He Walked On”? Is the project what you did to get through Covid? This release – and your marriage?

Tim: The song “He Walked On” is written in the third person, but it’s really just me. On tour sometimes I’ll rise early and walk the local streets, and there are times when the beauty of life jumps in front of your eyes, you perceive it more directly, and then it vanishes again. Songwriting is like that. There’s nothing more exciting than finding the way into a song. You grab it when you can, it lasts a while then goes away. After a while you learn to wait for its return. In between, you walk on.

TIO: In 2015, you and your new wife and long-time business partner, Jan Fabricius, launched the digital download label, Short Order Sessions (SOS). Is that still happening? And what is the focus of Howdy Skies these days?

Tim: The Short Order tracks are still up on streaming services, but we haven’t used the platform for new releases in recent years. That may change. In this digital age, indie recording artists have increasingly adopted the strategy of putting singles out ahead of full releases. Of course that’s an old strategy, but it’s more affordable for indie folks now. We were a little left of that idea and a little ahead of time maybe, but might get back to that. Short Order Sessions is handy for topical songs though. You can put stuff out spur-of-the-moment when you have a topical song with a shelf life. We’ve put out some iPhone videos now and again in that mode. I wrote a song on January 6th this year called “Looking For Some Wise Men”, and we put that out in video form a week later.

TIO: Assuming Telluride Bluegrass is an extension of your family, what are you looking forward to most about returning to the Main Stage? And what do you hope Festavarians will take away from “He Walked On?”

Tim: I guess the pandemic isn’t exactly over, but we’re walking on! It’s a new world where we are a little more cautious, but still determined to live our lives well. We won’t let Covid keep us from the family reunion at town park this year. We’ll underline our friendships and refill our hearts with fine music in one of the most beautiful places on earth. Bill Monroe held my son Jackson in his arms on his first birthday back in 1983, and he and his wife are coming back for his 40th birthday to see Tenacious D.

Tim O’Brien, more:

Born in Wheeling, West Virginia in 1954, the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter (and West Virginia Music Hall of Famer) absorbed a broad range of American music growing up, from country and rockabilly icons like Jerry Reed and Jerry Lee Lewis backed by local ringers at the famous Grand Ole Opry-style Wheeling Radio Jamboree to Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Dave Brubeck at summer concerts in the park.

His parents had season tickets to the Wheeling Symphony and brought along the young O’Brien and his sister Mollie, who would become his first band mate; they also saw Ray Charles and the Beatles when they came through town.

Tim took it all in, but something clicked when he first caught Doc Watson on TV as a teenager: that versatility, and the distillation of so much into the framework of traditional sounds, would be one of his biggest inspirations:

“Doc Watson’s a great roadmap for anybody, really, because he played all kinds of music and made it sound like Doc Watson music,” said Tim. “Of course, people put him in a bluegrass-folk music pigeonhole, but he really brought all of it together, and that’s kind of what I was interested in.”

Tim found a simpatico musical community in Boulder, Colorado, where he moved in 1974 and became a leading figure in the world of contemporary or progressive bluegrass – most notably in the quartet Hot Rize, which toured nationally over its 40-year tenure and earned a Grammy nomination for its 1989 album Take it Home.

In the mid-’90s, Tim decamped to Nashville, where he became a first-call mandolin, guitar, fiddle and banjo player on Music City sessions, and collaborated with artists like Steve Earle, Sturgill Simpson and Dan Auerbach; Kathy Mattea, Garth Brooks and the Dixie Chicks cut his compositions, and in 2015 he won a Grammy as a member of the bluegrass super group the Earls of Leicester, a nice companion for O’Brien’s 2005 Best Traditional Folk Grammy for his album Fiddler’s Green.

“When you sing something, it kind of sneaks in, in that music is a powerful medium,” Tim said. “It’s a language that’s mysterious on its own – it tugs on the emotions. It grabs people’s attention in a certain way and prepares them to hear things, and music kind of draws people together.”

Jan Fabricius, more:

Jan Fabricius grew up in WaKeeney, Kansas. Her father was a wheat farmer and US Postal worker and her mother was a nurse. Her older sister Diane taught her piano and later mandolin. She played clarinet in her high school band and sang in school and church choirs. Since first attending the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield KS in 1976, Jan has enjoyed campground jamming at various bluegrass festivals over the years. Her early influences include Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Hot Rize, New Grass Revival, Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell and Norman Blake. A Registered Nurse, she raised 2 sons and has 3 granddaughters. She started dating Tim O’Brien in 2011 and in 2013 moved to Nashville.

The two played fiddle tunes and bluegrass songs around home, and when Tim made his recording “Pompadour” in 2015, Jan sang background vocals on several songs and was soon singing on stage with Tim. Her vocals and mandolin have since been featured on 2017’s “Where the River Meets the Road,” 2019’s “Tim O’Brien Band,” and 2021’s “He Walked On.”

Tim O’Brien Band, more:

The Tim O’Brien Band is just as versatile as its leader’s music is diverse. With a large repertoire that ranges from traditional bluegrass grooves through contemporary singer songwriter styles, this Nashville based, five-piece acoustic string band makes it all shine. Long-time session and touring stalwarts Mike Bub (bass) and Shad Cobb (fiddle) join mandolinist and singer Jan Fabricius and new member Gaven Largent (dobro and banjo) to provide backing to O’Brien’s vocal, guitar and fiddle.

Bassist Mike Bub, originally from California, is a bluegrass standby, having toured the world with the Del McCoury Band and others.

Fiddler Shad Cobb, from Wisconsin, grew up in a musical family and is known for his uniquely improvisational style.

Originally from western Kansas, Jan Fabricius plays mandolin and adds beautiful harmony to O’Brien’s lead vocals.

Virginian Gaven Largent brings classic dobro and banjo sounds to the band.

The band’s songbook draws from recent Tim O’Brien releases like 2021’s He Walked On, but also includes songs from earlier CD’s like the Celtic tinged The Crossing and the Dylan covers of Red On Blonde, with an occasional Hot Rize song thrown in for good measure.

No Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.