Tim O'Brien - making the Celtic connection

How would you rather spend the latter half of January: putting up with the rain, wind and snow in Glasgow or cruising around the South Seas?

Last year, Tim O’Brien, a regular at the festival over the past dozen or so years, broke his Celtic Connections habit in favour of a cruise ship gig. “I had a great time,” he says, “but it wasn’t as good as hanging out with everybody in the late-night club and backstage at the Transatlantic Sessions concerts and wandering around the streets of Glasgow.”

This time it’ll be different. O’Brien will be back with the Transatlantic Sessions troupe, “listening as Phil Cunningham runs through all his jokes yet again.” He’s also looking forward to taking part in Canadian banjo player and composer Jayme Stone’s celebration of the work of US folklorist Alan Lomax and teaming up with his partner in American roots music, Darrell Scott, with whom he recorded last year’s Memories & Moments album, which by the time they arrive in Scotland may have earned them a Grammy award.

“The Grammys presentation ceremony is two nights before we’re due in Scotland and with the time difference, that would mean flying in the day of the first gig,” says O’Brien. “I have a feeling that Darrell would like to be at the Grammys but I’m not sure I could cope with the jet lag. It’s quite a choice to have to make but in some ways, just being nominated is enough of an award in itself.”

Memories & Moments was a long overdue studio follow-up to the duo’s 2000 release, Real Time. With busy schedules in their careers outside of the partnership and Scott being hired to play with Robert Plant’s Band of Joy for the two years before they got together to record, it was getting to the stage where they had to set time aside and make an album or go on talking about it when their separate paths crossed on the festival circuit.

“Music’s a bit like cooking,” says O’Brien. “You can have all these nice, fresh ingredients and as long as you have the time to use them, you’ll make a nice dish. Fortunately our fruit hadn’t rotted by the time we got together and we’re even luckier that when we do meet up to play we fall into the groove as usual but at the same time, it’s like we’re hooking up for the first time. That’s a rare thing but we do seem to spark off each other. Songs come together quickly and we kind of agree not to disagree. We’ll change the key if it’s not comfortable but mostly we’re a natural fit. We start playing a song and off we go.”

O’Brien and Scott’s compatibility was obvious from the moment their respective music publishers arranged for them to meet up in the time-honoured Nashville songwriters’ fashion. A room was booked and they got together and wrote Daddy’s on the Roof Again, which went straight onto O’Brien’s Rock in My Shoe album. A couple of writing sessions later they came up with When There’s No-one Around, which was pitched almost immediately to country star Garth Brooks who turned it into a hit.

“I was aware of Darrell before we met,” says O’Brien. “I’d see him playing with Sam Bush’s band and we’d run into each other on the road. That’s the great thing about living in Nashville: your home town becomes almost global. When I lived in Colorado, I’d go on the road and never see anybody I knew for months on end. But in Nashville, everybody – or so it seems – is a picker and a touring musician, so you’ll be in some city somewhere thousands of miles away and bump into the guy from across the road. Anyway, as well as being able to write with Darrell, I quickly discovered that he’s an explosive musician with a huge supply of ideas that he turns on instantly. I had some dates in Ireland booked and was looking for someone to share the driving and do some playing. Darrell agreed to do it and we’ve been having a ball ever since, or at least as often as time allows.”

The two have similar musical backgrounds. O’Brien, from West Virginia, grew up with bluegrass and country music and the Kentucky-born Scott inherited a love of Hank Williams from his country-singer father and developed a facility with rock and blues guitar.

“Hank Williams is probably where we meet most naturally,” says O’Brien, “and one of the things we really wanted to do with Memories & Moments was to pay homage to the country music tradition. That’s why we have Hank’s Alone and Forsaken on there and George Jones’ Just One More. We also wanted to go for less of the one-on-one love song style and more of the spiritual and although we’re not particularly political writers, we wanted to show that we could touch on something that matters and that’s affecting people out there in rural America.”

Enter one of O’Brien and Scott’s heroes, singer-songwriter John Prine whose Paradise was written round about the time he was being feted as one of the many “new Bob Dylans” in the early 1970s.

“Just to have John Prine answer the phone when you call him is an honour,” says O’Brien. “He’s a national treasure and to have him singing on our album is still unbelievable for me. We had Keep Your Dirty Lights On, which reminds people that open cast mining is still happening and that’s there no quick fix alternative if they want electricity in some areas, and we thought John’s Paradise would be the perfect complement. So he came into the studio – we had the whole album, bar a few adjustments, done in three days – and he chatted for about an hour and a half about Paradise before we got down to work. When he wrote that song, the whole community turned against him because he was saying that the coal wouldn’t last and there’d be no work. He’d seen the writing on the wall and forty years later, they’re seeing that he was right and they’re not mad at him any more.”

Before they began recording Memories & Moments, O’Brien and Scott drew up a big list of songs that were contenders but when they recorded the first track, Time to Talk to Joseph, they went with what felt right as the next track and worked from there. It was, says O’Brien, like putting a set-list together for a gig or compiling a mix-tape for a friend. Being a multi-instrumentalist who can play guitar, fiddle, banjo and mandolin equally well, O’Brien wanted to ensure that the colours these instruments bring were all represented, as they would be on a live performance.

Something similar happens, he says, on Transatlantic Sessions, which this time around will include himself and Scott as part of the ensemble and as featured artists.

“The great thing about Transatlantic Sessions, the TV show, is that it’s really the best combination of a jam session, a recording session and a live gig,” he says. “You start by choosing a song and you go away and learn it. Then you have this really resourceful band of musicians that can bring in all these different colours to the arrangement. It’s very relaxed and everyone has a lot of fun – it’s much mellower than a regular recording session or TV show - but you’ve still got to get the programme done. The concerts have pretty much the same aim without the TV cameras being there and I always look forward to them. It’s a good mixture of running into old friends – from both sides of the Atlantic – and meeting, hearing and working with new talents who might well become fixtures. As, of course, is Celtic Connections itself. All things considered, it’s not a bad way to spend those dark days of January.”

From The Herald, January 11, 2014.

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