By Kate Laddish
Bluegrass/country/folk star Tim O’Brien is no stranger to collaborations and reinventions — and his latest is O’Brien Party of 7, a family band chock-full of O’Briens including Tim, talented sister Mollie O’Brien, Mollie’s husband and duets partner Rich Moore, and four twenty-something O’Brien progeny.
O’Brien Party of 7 recently completed “Reincarnation: The Songs of Roger Miller,” and will be playing a CD release show at The Palms Playhouse, 13 Main St., Winters, on Wednesday Sept. 5. The Seattle-based progressive bluegrass duo Cahalen Morrison & Eli West will open the show, which will start at 7:30 p.m.; tickets are $23.
The stage for this band and album was set years ago by a sister and brother swapping tunes. Siblings and frequent collaborators Tim and Mollie O’Brien grew up in Wheeling, W. Va., and were steeped in traditional folk, bluegrass, Celtic, and old-time country music from an early age, augmenting this with influxes of Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul, and Mary, The Beatles, and (yes) Roger Miller. Performing together since high school, the O’Briens’ voices have that extra blend that some very lucky sibling duos are able to achieve.
Fast-forward a few years, Tim O’Brien became recognized as a creative powerhouse in the bluegrass/country scene. Multi-instrumentalist, singer, and songwriter O’Brien first made a name for himself as a member of Hot Rize, which was on the forefront of the progressive bluegrass movement and renown for their vocal harmonies and instrumental mastery. O’Brien’s sense of humor also found outlet via Hot Rize’s country and western alter-egos “Red Knuckles and The Trailblazers.” Hot Rize won the International Bluegrass Music Association’s inaugural award for Entertainer of the Year in 1990, just before disbanding.
Even before Hot Rize’s demise, O’Brien was making a name for himself as both a solo artist and talented and versatile sideman. Equally at home in traditional acoustic music and bands pulsing with a rock sensibility, O’Brien has won a fist-full of awards including IBMA’s Male Vocalist of the Year (1993, 2006) for his clear, warm tenor voice and a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album for “Fiddler’s Green” (2005). Even though O’Brien’s description of himself on his Twitter page simply says, “I play the friggin mandolin,” O’Brien is also a recognized master on guitar, fiddle, banjo, mandocello and bouzouki. In addition to his successful solo career (each of his five solo albums in the last decade has gone to the top-10 in bluegrass and other charts), O’Brien’s remarkable ability to blend his vocals with other singers’ and instrumental versatility has made him the musical equivalent of a utility infielder and is a much sought-after collaborator and sideman for artists including Steve Martin, Kathy Mattea, Peter Rowan, Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler, Kris Drever, Steve Earle — and sister Mollie O’Brien.
Mollie O’Brien, who has recorded and performed both solo, as part of a duo (with brother Tim or with husband Rich Moore), and in bands and collaborative settings (including the Grammy Award-winning “True Life Blues: The Songs of Bill Monroe” and Prairie Home Companion host Garrison Keillor’s Hopeful Gospel Quartet), has a voice that can transform from powerhouse R&B to homespun folk to warm pop to gospel — and never sound contrived.
The O’Brien family just can’t help but collaborate, it seems — and certainly nobody’s complaining. Tim and Mollie O’Brien’s duet work has been received very warmly (Chip Renner of AllMusic called “Take Me Back” “a masterpiece”); they’re also notable for being the first to record songs by then-unknown (and now chart-toppers in their own right) singer-songwriters Gillian Welch and David Rawlings on “Away Out On The Mountain.” Mollie O’Brien and her singer/guitarist husband are a successful duo act, described by Americana powerhouse Dave Alvin “Mollie O’Brien and Rich Moore are two national musical treasures.
From the Carter Family to the Louvin Brothers to the Everly Brothers, there is a strong history of family bands in bluegrass, country music and rockabilly. Take a family such as the O’Brien clan whose members cut their teeth on this music and that has a strong penchant for collaborating and eventually the next generation will be brought into the fun. Calling themselves O’Brien Party of 7, Tim O’Brien and his sons Jackson and Joel, and Mollie O’Brien and Rich Moore and their daughters Lucy and Brigid recently released “Reincarnation: The Songs of Roger Miller.” The impetus behind the project? “Something fun to bring the family together other than funerals and weddings,” Tim O’Brien said. They hit on doing Roger Miller songs after having some family fun belting out “King of The Road” at a festival.
At the Sept. 5 show at The Palms, audiences can expect a combination of songs from the new album as well as gems pulled from Tim, Mollie and Rich’s long and storied careers. Morrison and West, who are celebrating the release of their CD “Out Lady of The Tall Trees,” will open the show with their fresh take on old-time and traditional music.
Tickets are available at Pacific Ace Hardware in Winters, Armadillo Music in Davis, Watermelon Music’s Woodland branch, and at the door if not sold out. For more information, call (530) 795-1825 or visit palmsplayhouse.com, timobrien.net/obrienpartyof7 and cahalenandeli.com.