Tim O’Brien wouldn’t have been as convincing an Appalachian string band musician had he not grown up in West Virginia, but he wouldn’t have accomplished as much if he hadn’t left the state at age 19. Such are the complications of home and music.
O’Brien, who is Saturday’s headliner at the D.C. Bluegrass Festival this weekend, will be forever associated with Colorado, because that’s where he founded the legendary new-grass band, Hot Rize, in 1978. And since 1996, he has lived in Nashville, where he has won two Grammy awards and become fixture as a bandleader, songwriter and session musician.
But his musical sensibilities were first formed in his home town of Wheeling, W.Va. His latest album, “Where the River Meets the Road,” has O’Brien interpreting a dozen favorite songs from his birth state. Turning 64 next week, the singer can recognize the irony of having to leave West Virginia to appreciate the state’s music and to bring it to the world.
“It’s a normal reaction of youth to say, ‘Oh, that’s what happened before, but it has nothing to do with me,’ ” O’Brien says, a bit sheepishly, about leaving home. “I was reacting against my parents’ generation by embracing the counterculture. Then I saw longhairs playing bluegrass, and I saw it might be hip after all. I realized that I didn’t have all the answers, and the older generation knew a thing or two. And so I turned to traditional music. In Jackson Hole, Wyoming.”
That Rocky Mountain ski resort is where O’Brien landed the first winter after his departure. He kept his background under wraps, but when people started saying, “Oh, you’re from West Virginia; no wonder you sound good singing Hank Williams,” he realized that what he thought was a liability could become an asset.
“Being known as someone from West Virginia who played country music got me gigs,” O’Brien recalls. “The gigs gave more time with that older music, and my love for it built up over the years. In the beginning, it was, ‘I like Bill Monroe okay, but I’m also studying Charlie Christian and Randy Newman at the same time.’ I’m still studying all three, but the bluegrass is something that just fits me really well. Even when I did that record of Bob Dylan songs, I realized I had to sing them my way, and my way was the bluegrass way.”
Hot Rize (featuring O’Brien on lead vocals, mandolin and fiddle, joined by banjoist Pete Wernick, electric bassist Nick Forster and acoustic guitarist Charles Sawtelle) was a big deal in the bluegrass world, a welcome Rocky Mountain variation on Appalachian music. When the International Bluegrass Music Association gave out its first awards in 1990, the group anointed Hot Rize as Entertainers of the Year.
But by then, the band was already winding down. Though they’d continue to do short tours, they wouldn’t release a studio album between 1990 and 2014. O’Brien had signed a solo contract with RCA Records and had scored a top-10 country single as Kathy Mattea’s duet partner on “The Battle Hymn of Love.” The RCA deal fizzled out, but he soon became a successful solo act.
When the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame got up and running in 2005, officials needed high-profile musicians from the state for the organization’s board of directors. So they asked O’Brien, who accepted, thus closing a circle that brought him back to where he’d started. He still lived in Nashville, but he spent more and more time in his native state, digging into a musical past that was far richer — and more varied — than he had imagined.
“The Hall of Fame has been a catalyst for my own education,” O’Brien says. “As I learned about people’s careers and the stories behind the names of the 78s, I realized I could walk the same streets they did. It turns out you’re learning your own history as you go along. Over the years, I’ve sung songs by the Bailes Brothers and Hazel Dickens on the award shows. Eventually I had all these West Virginia songs that made for an obvious album.”
The recording includes those numbers by the Bailes Brothers and Dickens, as well as songs by such contemporary West Virginia songwriters as John Lilly and Larry Groce. But there are also welcome surprises, such as a version of Bill Withers’ “Grandma’s Hands” played on clawhammer banjo and two original songs by O’Brien about his family’s history in Wheeling. For the singer, though, the key number is Billy Edd Wheeler’s “High Flying Bird.”
“It’s a song,” O’Brien points out, “about the singer wanting to get away from where he is, and yet it’s a song made possible by where he’s from.” It’s the story of O’Brien’s own career.
The Gibson Brothers: Eric and Leigh Gibson won the bluegrass field’s highest honor, the IBMA’s Entertainers of the Year, in 2012 and 2013. Raised on an Upstate New York dairy farm, the siblings have a deep connection to rural life that’s reflected not only in their ability to pull off classic bluegrass harmonies and repertoire, but also in putting a pastoral spin on material from other genres. Their latest album, “In the Ground,” features 13 original songs about the challenges of keeping families and farms going.
The Becky Buller Band: Minnesota’s Becky Buller belongs to the post-Alison Krauss generation of female fiddler-singers, but she stands out for her songwriting. Her tunes have already been recorded by Ricky Skaggs, Rhonda Vincent and IIIrd Tyme Out, and her new album, “Crepe Paper Heart,” boasts several songs ready-made for other singers to grab hold of, especially the outlaw number “Calamity Jane” and the cold-kitchen blues of “Heart of the House.”
The Molly Tuttle Band: Molly Tuttle grew up in the Bay Area, playing bluegrass with her father and her brothers. She soon emerged as a skillful multi-instrumentalist as well as a contest-winning songwriter. With echoes of Sarah Jarosz and Sara Watkins, Tuttle released her debut solo album, “Rise,” last year on Compass Records.
The D.C. Bluegrass Festival will be held at the Sheraton Tysons Hotel on Friday evening and all day Saturday. 703-405-6230. dcbluegrassfest.org.
Dates: Friday and Saturday.