I’m a music journalist (whatever that means these days), but for me, Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott go far deeper than the many pieces I’ve written about each since the late 90s. Music changes lives, and these two artists certainly changed mine. At one point they were just guys I never thought I’d meet whose records I bought and loved. But I wound up taking chances and making moves, most fatefully to Nashville, under their influence. And then I did wind up knowing them and drawing deeper insights about music from them than I’d ever contemplated. So when they play as a duo opening this Wednesday night’s show – a blockbuster featuring some MCR favorites and one of the biggest stars in roots/soul – there will be a lot of experience and personal passion behind the performance for me.
Tim O’Brien’s brand of bluegrass and roots music – be it solo, with his historic Hot Rize band or (especially) through his duets with sister Mollie -became a lodestar not just in my tastes but in my value system. I equated bluegrass with the well-lived life and America’s finest things in large part because of Tim’s music. His West Virginia roots and Appalachian side felt close to home for this North Carolinian. His Colorado expansiveness with Hot Rize coaxed me out to the spiritually nourishing Rocky Mountains and to the magic Telluride Bluegrass Festival. I fell for a whole panoply of Nashville super-pickers as country/bluegrass took shape for me in the 1990s – but when I played I wished for Tim’s swing and when I sang I aspired to Tim’s clarity and ease in my voice – futile though that may be.
And because O’Brien drew me to the Americana/acoustic bandwagon, I discovered Darrell Scott, probably first at Merlefest in NC. Like most everyone, I was captivated by his robust voice, his songs and his multi-faceted musical skills. I wrote about him when he released his gorgeous Family Tree album. Then as I began to work with musicians on freelance video projects, Darrell Scott became an incredible collaborator and patron of my business. I shot his first music video as a very new producer/director who wasn’t sure his camera was going to work on a first frigid morning in southern Alabama. I worked with him during his residency with the wonderful Orchestra Nashville, watching him take on new challenges and achieving new things. We made several profile/album video pieces together and I got to write bios for a couple of his amazing albums. I got to meet his late father, Darrell’s own window on country music and I witnessed them record together with Pig Robbins and drumming guru Kenny Malone. As these astonishing projects unfolded, my respect for Darrell as among the very greatest overall musicians in our field just continued to grow.
With similar sensibilities and outsized talent, not to mention their Nashville closeness, It seems that O’Brien and Scott were meant to make music together. At their very first musical encounter they co-wrote the magnificent “When No One’s Around,” which was taken to the charts by Garth Brooks. Their 2000 album Real Time was one of the most vivid and honest recordings of the decade in Americana – a true landmark that left many of us hungry for more of the same. It’s taken a while, but it’s finally happened with the album Memories & Moments, a beautiful studio collection featuring their special chemistry and their country heart.
“When Tim and I get together, we push each other’s Appalachian roots buttons,” Scott says in the project’s official bio. “My Kentucky comes out, and so does his West Virginia. It happens naturally, it’s not a strategy. We know Southern gospel, Jimmy Rodgers and the Carter Family, and not just a little — it’s in our DNA. And when me and Tim sing close harmonies, that brother blend, like we do on Hank’s ‘Alone and Forsaken,’ neither of us is behind the other; we both stand up and deliver.”
Now I may have buried the other lead of this week’s news, and it’s safe to say that Amos Lee’s appearance – the product of a lot of hard work and good will by his team, our team and the artist himself – is a key reason the show sold out instantly many weeks ago. Only recently have I seen Lee’s name associated with the Americana movement, but with soul, country and folk flavors running through his music, he certainly qualifies in the format. I remember hearing his name for the first time because it came out of the mouth of the man who changed his life – then Blue Note CEO Bruce Lundvall. I’d interviewed Lundvall – about his epic career and his then recent discovery of the Norah Jones, but Amos Lee was his ‘next big thing.’ That was ten years ago or so, and Lee has met the promise with real popularity and undeniably excellent music. His newest project, Mountains Of Sorrow, Rivers Of Song, was made in Nashville with super-producer Jay Joyce and includes some great home-town guests like Alison Krauss and Jeff Coffin. But more to the point, it’s another in his thread of impeccable songcraft and affecting performances. It’ll be truly exciting to see Amos Lee on the Roots stage.
Rounding out the night we’ll have country tinged with its glorious 1960s golden age in the music of Bradford Lee Folk & His Bluegrass Playboys, the silken and serene folk pop of Angel Snow and cotton-field soul with our pal Sam Lewis. That’s about as well rounded an Americana menu as you could have. Maybe one or more of these artists has changed your life – or will yet.