Tim O'Brien

O'Brien listens to bluegrass and hears the music's roots in modal Irish ballads and vintage swing. He insightfully re-examines and reconstructs those styles, and many others, in his own music, throwing off new sparks by reawakening the tension and interplay of the colliding components at the heart of American music. "Over the years," he explains, "my music has become a certain thing. Each time I go into the studio to make a new album, I could make an Irish record, or a bluegrass record, or a country record…but it seems artificial to sift anything out. I feel like I'd be leaving out something important. In the end, I just try to make it round…"

That roundness of vision and scope permeates every aspect of Chicken & Egg, O'Brien's thirteenth solo album. Mixing O'Brien originals, collaborations, and a handful of outside compositions, Chicken & Egg is an illuminating, engaging, and ultimately life-affirming meditation on the art of living. "This stuff reflects what goes on in the life of someone my age," O'Brien reflects. "I'm 56 years old. I'm not the young kid on the scene - and I'm happy about that. I'm at a strange point in my life: my kids are growing up, while my parents and teachers are passing on. There's a lot happening - but it's just life, and that's what this album is about. There's a little love song action here and there, but mostly it's about living life."

As a songwriter, O'Brien has a gift for finding the profound hiding within the mundane, and bringing it out in a way that is both casually conversational and deeply felt. The earthy wisdom of Chicken & Egg's songs are delivered in appropriately spontaneous fashion, largely recorded live in the studio with a core group of collaborators. In following his previous album, 2008's entirely solo Chameleon, O'Brien says, "It was time to make a more acoustic record - more along the lines of a bluegrass thing, with an ensemble and not a lot of production: something pretty down-home, featuring a more consistent band." To do so, he spent four days in the studio with master musicians Stuart Duncan (fiddle, mandolin, cello, banjo), Bryan Sutton (acoustic and electric guitar), and bassists Dennis Crouch and Mike Bub. O'Brien contributed mandolin, guitar, bouzouki, fiddle, and banjo, while drummer John Gardner enlivens many of the tracks. The cast of harmony vocalists includes Abigail Washburn (Sparrow Quartet, Uncle Earl), Chris Stapleton (the SteelDrivers), and Sarah Jarosz.

Once the players were determined, O'Brien dug into his vast reserves of unrecorded material. "I figured out what songs would work best with these guys, then I began singing and playing them around the house for a few months before the session," he recalls. "I got familiar with them. These musicians can all play amazingly well, and they play a lot better if they are backing up someone who knows what they're doing. If you're going to add your part later, it doesn't give them as much to go on. I didn't think much about arrangements or what instruments I'd play - we just went in, sat down, and I started calling them off."

What emerged, almost subliminally, was a thematically-linked fourteen-song suite - largely recorded in that original four-day session - that matches invigorating, spry performances to heartfelt, probing material dealing with the challenges imposed by passing of time. "I wanted the songs to have a progression to them," O'Brien says. "They eventually formed this little story, like a novelette or character study. I didn't plan it like this, but from one track to the next, the songs form something larger."

Growing up in Wheeling, West Virginia, O'Brien was surrounded by classic country and bluegrass music first, subsequently augmented by the revolutionary folk music of the era, including Bob Dylan, whom O'Brien paid tribute to on the acclaimed 1996 release Red On Blonde. While his sister (and occasional collaborator) Mollie took piano lessons, O'Brien pursued guitar and banjo on his own, eventually adding mandolin and fiddle to his arsenal by the time he left for college. Dropping out of a northeastern liberal arts college after a year, O'Brien headed west, eventually settling in Boulder, Colorado, where a burgeoning, eccentric roots music scene was forming. Following a stint in the endearingly ramshackle Ophelia Swing Band, O'Brien co-founded the bluegrass band Hot Rize in 1978, with guitarist Charles Sawtelle, bassist Nick Forster, and banjo player Peter Wernick. Combining a healthy reverence for bluegrass tradition with a playfully postmodern sensibility, Hot Rize became a fan and festival favorite, recording a series of acclaimed albums for the Flying Fish and Sugar Hill labels until dissolving in 1990 - at which point O'Brien had already begun to establish himself as a solo artist. (Hot Rize continues to perform on occasion, with different guitarists, most recently NC's own Bryan Sutton, in the place of the late and much-missed Sawtelle.)

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