On the surface, Tim O’Brien’s career seems maddeningly eclectic. But over the years, he’s become a subtle master at mixing the primary musical colors into his distinct sound. You hear the numerous influences in every note, yet each and every note is uniquely his own.
The Wall Street Journal has characterized O’Brien’s work as “classic-sounding material stamped with his own perceptive personality.”
It has been four years since Tim’s last solo recording. Between collaborations with Darrell Scott, the recent Grammy-winning recording with Jerry Douglas’s Earls of Leicester and the rebooting of Hot Rize; he’s barely had time for a shower. Still, somewhere in O’Brien’s vivid imagination, the seeds of Pompadour began to sprout. The fruits of his recent wanderings, music making and worldly observations have blossomed into eleven exquisitely varied, true-to-life and above all musical tracks.
Each of O’Brien’s solo albums has a distinctive identity. Many have specific themes, including Red on Blonde, an insightful collection of Bob Dylan compositions, and his Grammy-winning celebration of Appalachian music and its Celtic roots, Fiddler’s Green. So it is with Pompadour, or at least most of it. “It’s kind of a breakup record,” O’Brien says. “I separated from my wife four years ago and got divorced a year after that. So there’s a breakup, an assessment and ultimately delight at the end.”
What separates Pompadour from his previous thematic albums? O’Brien answers by looking back to his first nationally released album. “When I did Hard Year Blues, a friend said, ‘This is kind of like a Chinese menu; there are so many options here. What’s the theme?’ It was really eclectic. Now, with Pompadour, I’ve sort of melded things together, like the flavors in a stew.”
That’s an astute observation. Pompadour swirls together bits of bluegrass, deep-roots Appalachian music, field hollers, old-school rock ‘n’ roll, traditional jazz and even James Brownian funk. The same applies to the perspectives from which O’Brien addresses the central theme. The spare lyrics of “I Gotta Move” and use of everyday images on “I’m A Mess For You” imply rather than spell out a story of loss and then redemption. A rock steady groove drives the classic trope of asking a doctor for a cure to heartache on “Give Me A Little Somethin’ Take Her Off My Mind.”
But there’s also celebration on Pompadour. “Get Up Offa That Thing” spells out the real prescription for curing the blues: “Dance! You’ll feel better,” O’Brien insists while an improbable instrumentation of acoustic bass, guitar, banjo and just a bit of organ churns out an irresistible beat. His original title track suggests that fate just might make your day by arranging your hair perfectly as you wake up and take that first look in the mirror. The closing track “The Water Is Wise,” a co-write by O’Brien and Sarah Jarosz, channels life’s currents into a stream of acceptance and surrender.
The seeds of Pompadour took root about three years ago when O’Brien welcomed some traveling colleagues to Nashville. “Gerry Paul is a guitarist from Wellington, New Zealand, and Trevor Hutchinson is a bassist from Dublin, Ireland,” O’Brien says. “We grabbed a couple of days and recorded. We meant to tour together behind this recording, but we’re all so busy with our other projects. The tracks had sat around a while before I started finishing them on my own. Then on the first of this year, my partner Jan and I made a leap and launched Short Order Sessions (SOS) to put some of this stuff out while I was touring with Hot Rize.”
Short Order Sessions releases two download tracks each month on Amazon, iTunes, and other digital outlets. “I was inspired by Mo Ash and his Folkways vision. He recorded tons of stuff, down and dirty, and kept it all in print. He dodged commercial pressure somehow and was still able to do his own thing. I was thinking; Friends come to town, and we might jam at my house, and I’ve often thought it would be great to catch some of those moments. And I had these tracks in the can and ideas for others. The digital delivery system has changed everything, and I figured – why not carve my own model? In a way, the Pompadour CD is really just a way to advertise SOS.”
Four Pompadour tracks have recently been released on SOS: the Celtic-flavored Woody Guthrie / Billy Bragg composition, “Go Down To The Water”, the mandolin blues of Michael Hurley’s “Ditty Boy Twang, Dan Reeder’s ironic “The Tulips On The Table” and the aforementioned James Brown tune. All these pieces unify through O’Brien’s vision for this project. “Pompadour jumps a little bit more into electric music than usual for me,” he says. “I play more banjo and electric guitar on it than mandolin, which is a switch. It’s more personal than a lot of what I’ve done before.” Again Tim is coloring outside the bluegrass.
And that means Pompadour will likely touch listeners more personally than much of today’s new music. “This album feels really good to me,” he sums up. “I love collaborating with other people, but I also like to stretch out and achieve things I might be best able to do on my own. It hangs together and tells a story. It’s honest. It shows who I am as a person as well as a musician. That’s something I can be proud of.”