Born in Wheeling, West Virginia, Tim O’Brien was exposed to broad-ranging music traditions from a young age. Looking to rockabilly icons like Jerry Reed and Jerry Lee from a young age, his sonic pallette expanded with Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Dave Brubeck. At the Wheeling Symphony, where his parents were season ticket holders, he absorbed the shapeshifting sounds of Ray Charles and The Beatles. But it wasn’t until a teenaged O’Brien watched Doc Watson distill the uniquely traditional Appalachian sound on a television special that he found an inspirational path.
From 1974 to the mid-‘90s, O’Brien led the blossoming contemporary Bluegrass scene in Boulder, Colorado. That’s where he joined the notable quartet Hot Rize, with whom he earned a Grammy nomination for their 1989 album Take It Home. The artist moved to Music City and became the first-call mandolin, guitar, fiddle, and banjo player on Music City sessions to continue on his upward trajectory. Here, O’Brien began collaborations 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 supergroup the Earls of Leicester. In 2005, O’Brien won a Grammy for his album, Fiddler’s Green.
Having covered much of the United States by bus or in adopting regional music traditions, O’Brien’s latest album, He Walked On, serves as a handbook of what you need to survive in America. Lyrically, the album speaks to the ever-present issues in a relatively new nation and the enduring oppression that came to light in a new way over the last year.
“This album is more of a social statement than what might be usual for a Bluegrass artist,” O’Brien tells American Songwriter.
O’Brien himself produced the new record, which was recorded between October 2020 and January 2021 in Nashville, Tennessee. The singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist provided vocals, mandolin, fiddle, guitar, mandola, and mandocello to the record. Additional contributions included drummer Pete Abbott, guitarists Bo Ramsey and Chris Scruggs, bassist Edgar Meyer, keyboard ace Mike Rojas, and vocalist Odessa Settles, as well as regular band members Mike Bub (bass), Shad Cobb (fiddle), and Jan Fabricius (vocal and mandolin).
Released June 25 via Howdy Skies, the Bluegrass virtuoso’s 18th solo album includes eight new original tracks and five covers from Yip Harburg, R.B. Morris, Bill Caswell, Dale Keys, and J.D. Hutchinson. Several songs existed pre-pandemic, but the covers are familiar songs from friends and influences that took on new meaning within the devastating context of 2020.
O’Brien stumbled upon Morris’ “That’s How Every Empire Falls”—featured on his 2012 LP Spies, Lies and Burning Eyes— while scrolling through old John Prine videos after his untimely passing from COVID-19 complications last April. Prine cut the track in 2008 on his Fair and Square EP.
“When Prine died, that was a real touchstone for me,” says O’Brien. “Losing Bill Withers was another moment that hit home for the artist. Prine was a friend, someone he not only recorded with but would bump into at the grocery store.
“That was the first moment of ‘Oh, people I know are dying from this,'” he recalls. “It was like, ‘okay, gigs are canceled and our hero died, now what do we do?’ It was bleak. So I was listening to a lot of Prine and came across that song which I had never heard. It’s some of the deeper listening that you get into when somebody passes away and thought ‘Wow, this song really hits the nail on the head about what’s going on.'”
Digging around, he discovered it was a Morris original, which added value. The two artists are mutual fans of each other’s work. Morris’ lyrics fell upon his ears as racial protests swept the nation admist an unparalleled economic crisis due to a global pandemic.
Padlock the door and board the windows / Put the people in the street / ‘It’s just my job,’ he says ‘I’m sorry.’ / And draws a check, goes home to eat / But at night he tells his woman / ‘I know I hide behind the laws.’ / She says, ‘You’re only taking orders.’
That’s how every empire falls,” he laments.
And this was all before January 6, 2021, when the nation’s Capitol was besieged by violent protestors as a climax of boiling political division. The closing verses grew eerily pertinent: A bitter wind blows through the country / A hard rain falls on the sea / If terror comes without a warning / There must be something we don’t see / What fire begets this fire? / Like torches thrown into the straw / If no one asks, then no one answers / That’s how every empire falls.
Other covers like Keys’ “Five Miles In and One Mile Down” about the Big Branch Mine disaster and Caswell’s “Sod Buster” about the American farmer, pay homage to the working-class people who suffer at the hands of a system that has yet to evolve.
His original work continues to seek answers to social and economic questions. Highlights include the Latin-tinged “El Comedor,” co-written with O’Brien’s fiancée Jan Fabricius, reflects on time the couple spent last year at the Mexican border near Tucson, visiting with a grassroots humanitarian group that offered water and food to hopeful immigrants waiting for asylum.
“Can You See Me, Sister?” explores, through an imagined encounter between two of Thomas Jefferson’s children with the enslaved woman Sally Hemings.
Though tackling the toppling questions of a nation’s existence, He Walked On is not a story of doom or collapse. The album opener, “When You Pray (Move Your Feet)” sets the tone for the album with a simple love song about speaking with action. The track takes its title from the African proverb that was a favorite of the late Civil Rights hero Congressman John Lewis.
“It’s not necessarily about praying or about civil rights. It’s just about how we can live our lives in a certain way that is meaningful to me, and helpful to the rest of the world to the world” he explains. “Maybe a golden rule, or it’s a Buddhist thing, but it just seems to make sense. You know, it makes life simpler. Your life is simple if you know where you’re headed, and what your ideals are.”
The title track was the last song he wrote for the project. To accompany the song, he hand-illustrated the album cover to portray the sentiment he hopes to share with the new album.
“I didn’t really think about it too much. He’s got blue jeans, which are what I wear every day. And he’s got a red hat, which he could it could be a MAGA hat, I don’t know. But I like the red, white, and blue thing. And then he’s kind of walking through the world,” O’Brien describes of the cover art. “It’s not necessarily about going through hard times, it’s about not noticing how great everything can be. Also, the power of determination, just getting up in the morning. Sometimes, like during the pandemic, it was like ‘What’s the point? But you know, you got to get up and keep going.”
Order Tim O’Brien’s new album, He Walked On, here.