When Tim O’Brien weeps for his lost sister on “Guardian Angel,” you feel each and every syllable. Through unpacking his heart, O’Brien comes to greater peace over a tragedy that has long been washed in faded memories. “Well, I lost a big sister when that picture was new / 1956, just before I turned two,” he sings.
He’s stored that part away in his heart, and while he has made reference to his sister’s death in previous work, “Guardian Angel” rises as a profound and emotional tribute. “I don’t know much about her,” he then observes. “There’s not much to know.” While that might be true, the song embodies that delicate, innocent spirit in a truly cathartic and momentous way.
“Angel” is lifted from O’Brien’s most recent studio record, 2017’s Where the River Meets the Road, a playful mix of life’s sorrow and joy, wrapped neatly with gentle, well-crafted fiddle, guitar, mandolin and light drum work. The record is a dedication to his early roots in West Virginia and woven with snapshots of a simpler time amongst the Appalachian hills, honoring the past, its people and where he has gone since his youth. “I was always aware that there was a lot of great music from the state, but I learned a lot about it. Most of my life has been out of the state, so it is definitely great to bring it home,” he tells HashtagWV about how the album is almost a full circle for him.
Next month, O’Brien is set to make his big return to Lewisburg with a September 14 show at Carnegie Hall, alongside his partner and accomplished singer, songwriter and musician Jan Fabricius. “Lewisburg is a nice town. It’s an artsy town. It’s the only one that I can think of that’s like that. It’s pretty hip,” he reflects. “I’ve played a couple times now at Carnegie Hall. The last time I played was when Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project played there, which was probably about four years ago.”
Ahead of the show, he spoke to us about his latest album, why he chose to leave West Virginia, how writing about the death of his sister began and his live performance style.
The song that hits the most on Where the River Meets the Road is “Guardian Angel.” What led you to write about the death of your sister?
Well, my whole adult life, really, I’ve been grappling with the implications of losing a sibling. My oldest brother, Frank, we call him Tripp, he died in Vietnam when I was 14. He was very encouraging to me about the music and fed me influences that he was interested in with the records that he brought home from college. I had written about that before and also referenced my sister on “It Takes Time to Learn.” There’s another song I wrote called “The Church Steeple” that references that, too. But with my sister who died when I was not quite two, I got this picture out that had been in a box in the attic for probably 30 years or longer. It was such a touchstone. I mean, I looked at it and I couldn’t remember when it wasn’t around. It really is among some of my earliest memories. That print was up in my room. I always associated it with my lost sister.
It was only really about four or five years ago that Jan got the picture out. We had it out for awhile, and the frame was busted. She put it into a new frame and fixed it up and hung it up on the wall. I remember looking at it and going, “There’s a lot in there that I need to process.” The song was a very easy song to write. I had sort of processed a lot of this already anyway. A lot of people might not be able to sing a song like that, but I’ve been through this stuff so much. It’s funny. These things songwriters and artists do; they mostly mirror what other people have experienced. That’s what makes appealing art. It taps into something that’s universal. There are so many people I know that have come up to me and said, “It really hits me.”
In the song, you reference a letter your mother wrote about losing her daughter. Do you still have that letter?
My mother wrote her autobiography [an unpublished account, affectionately called “That’ll Be All She Wrote”] later in life, and she was supposed to have hip replacement. They had postponed it, and she was like, “Well, I gotta do something to keep my mind occupied.” So, she decided to write her autobiography. There’s a letter that she wrote to her parents and made copies to her siblings about the experience of her daughter dying. Then, she also comments on the letter in the same section of the book and how she was in such shock and mourning. The letter itself is saying all the stuff you would normally say.
But when she comments on the letter, she says something like, “I was just in a really bad way. I read this now and go, ‘My god, you poor thing.’” She said, “I’ll never get over it, but I know better now what I was going through.” She’s a great storyteller. The book is a great reference for me to remember things. I read it over and over as the years go by, and I find new things of interest, because I’m closer and closer to the age she was when she wrote it. I’m seeing life from a similar perspective.
“Old Memories” is another standout on the record.
It was really hard to pick a short set of songs. I wanted to show the breadth of the music but hang together as a project. This is a Hazel Dickens song. She’s one of the major voices that came out of the state as a writer. Bill Withers is so revered, and I was able to put together a version of a song that could work with a string band when I perform it live. But Hazel is straight up the middle of what I do. She had a lot of political songs, too, about women’s issues, working class. So many musicians learn perspective about their upbringing by leading the state. I imagine it served her well. She went to Baltimore to work. People worked in factories and as housekeepers. I know she did various jobs. They played honky tonk music at night. There were these northern folkies she ran into, like Mike Seeger and Alice Gerard. She got a different look on life. It was really vital. She had “Custom Made Woman Blues,” and they found traditional songs that fit their viewpoint, as well. Those recordings are just incredible.
Another moment called “Friday, Sunday’s Coming” has a nice, jazzy lean to it. How did you approach that song?
That’s John Lilly. He’s an old friend. I knew him away before he moved to the state. I love the vibe of this song. It’s got a little sing along bit, and I wanted to do something with the drums and some electric guitar — to widen the texture of the overall project a little bit. Chris Scruggs played the guitar, and he played steel on another track called “Drunkard’s Grave.” He’s wonderful. Part of the fun in making a record is to ask people to collaborate that maybe you’re curious in how it would work. I had Chris on some recordings before and heard him play live enough. I was glad to get him involve.
You also have another West Virginia native on the record — Kathy Mattea, who hails from Charleston — singing harmony.
Kathy and I met in Nashville. One of the reasons we hit it off right off the bat is we are both from West Virginia. It was great to get her involved. She’s certainly done a lot for the state. I remember when the floods happened in the late ‘80s. She participated in a telethon. She displayed an integrity there and continued with her music. She’s a thinking person’s country artist.
There is such a unity that people from West Virginia innately have, even when they leave and never come back to the state. Most other states don’t have that kind of binding connection.
I think we’re all really proud of where we come from. We stand up for the state because it gets much maligned. It’s a forgotten place. Being a West Virginian is worth a whole lot to who you are as a person. Take people out of the state, they remain West Virginians. I’m proud of that.
When you were younger, had you always known you wanted to leave or was there a moment you realized you needed to get out?
I guess I was the restless teenager. I wanted to go away to school. My dad said, “Oh, you just want to go as far away as possible.” I said, “No, I’ll just go to New England.” [laughs] I went for about a year to college up in Maine. I was mostly playing guitar. I started to play the fiddle. As much as I love learning about other stuff, I felt like music was the future for me. I guess I could have moved to Morgantown or something to go to college, but I always wanted to see the rest of the world. I ended up in Boulder, Colorado instead. I had spent a winter in Jackson Hole and thought maybe I’d be a ski bum and play music. But there weren’t enough collaborators there. So, I found that in Boulder.
Being from Wheeling, West Virginia, were you that familiar with other parts of the state?
Not as much as I should be. I’m still not. Wheeling is like another part of the state. I did hike down around Cooper’s Rock and Dolly Sods. But it’s funny, people who go on vacation don’t go to some place in West Virginia. They go to the coast or the Rocky Mountains. Last month, my partner Jan and I drove down through Thomas and played in Canaan Valley with the Wheeling Symphony down there. God, what a beautiful part of the state. I had been to Elkins and Dolly Sods, but I had never been on the other side of that mountain. In more recent years, I’ve gone several times to the [Appalachian] String Band Festival in New River Gorge. It’s a beautiful area.
With your live shows, as it relates to this most recent record, do you have a straightforward approach or do you get to really play with the songs in new ways?
Live shows are a whole different application of music. You’re exactly getting feedback from an audience. You can adjust the show to the audience depending on what seems to be right. The venue itself suggest things, of course. I play these concerts, festivals and things, and I’m mostly up there playing guitar. It’s basically a duo show with Jan singing. I play a little bit of mandolin and fiddle. The arrangements are more elastic when you’re on your own. You can change them on the fly. With a band, it gets a little more defined, but even then, things change up when you least expect it. It’s exciting. I love the immediacy of the live performance and seeing what’ll happen. It’s an adventure every night.
What song on the record gets the biggest reaction?
You know, they do like that “Guardian Angel” an awful lo. “Drunkard’s Grave” goes over really well, too. [laughs] It’s this bouncy little number, but then, it’s about this terrible, sad subject. It’s so simple. Harlan Howard, the dean of country songwriters, said country music is “three chords and the truth.” Well, The Bailes Brothers are maybe a little more true and one less chord. [laughs] It’s just really vital. It’s the essence of the experience that comes through in those songs. I really love that song.
– Jason Scott w/ B-Sides & Badlands. HashtagWV #105. September 2018.