Tim O’Brien grew up in a family that appreciated music.
“My parents sang in church, but my sister and I were the only ones in the family who were musical. We were the two youngest, and we were red-headed and left-handed. She played the piano, and about the same time, I started playing guitar. While our parents didn’t play musical instruments, they always encouraged us.”
Tim grew up in Wheeling, West Virginia. “I played guitar all through high school. I guess I was mostly into folk music, like the Peter, Paul, and Mary sphere, but I also got caught up in the British invasion and all things Beatles.” He left home at age 18 to go to college, but after a year, Tim left to play music. “I ended up in Colorado, which became my base of operation.”
Around that time, Tim discovered bluegrass. National Public Radio was a new thing, and bluegrass festivals were springing up across the country. “I heard Doc Watson playing on television and liked what I heard.” That led him to become a lifelong devotee of old-time and bluegrass music.
Tim started a bluegrass band called Hot Rize with banjo player Pete Wernick in 1978. The Hot Rize website quotes Tim as saying, “I got a call in the fall of 1977. It was Pete on the line, and he had a proposal. Since we each had solo recordings coming out the following year, and since we'd helped each other record them, he thought we should join forces and form a bluegrass band to play our music to folks. He even had a name for the band – Hot Rize.” The name was a way to connect them to the bluegrass community since Flatt and Scruggs sang on radio and television about Martha White Self-Rising flour with its special leavening ingredient, “Hot Rize.” The band began booking gigs in 1978. “We had a pretty good production run for about a dozen years.”
Hot Rize indeed had a “pretty good production run.” They were presented with the International Bluegrass Music Association's first-ever Entertainers of the Year award. They were nominated for a Grammy, had a four-star review in Rolling Stone, and toured the world, playing on four continents. “It was like being in school,” he says. “We learned how to make music, how to record, and about the music business in general.”
Kathy Mattea recorded a couple of songs Tim wrote for Hot Rize. “Walk the Way the Wind Blows” and “Untold Stories,” both of which were Top Ten hits. He left the band in 1990 and had a record contract, continuing with his music on his own. He pursued songwriting more, and little by little, he carved out a career for himself. Songs he wrote for his solo projects have been covered by artists including Nickel Creek, Garth Brooks, and The Dixie Chicks. He has also collaborated with his sister, Mollie O'Brien, songwriter Darrell Scott, old-time musician Dirk Powell, Mark Knopfler, Steve Earl, Sturgill Simpson, and Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys.
“I moved to Nashville in 1996 to plug into the system here,” he says. Tim enjoys the process of writing songs. “To me, writing songs is like a little puzzle. You have to find a way to arrange the words to put them in a frame. It’s kind of subjective, just like any other work of art. But it’s exciting when it works out.”
Songwriting has become the most important part of what Tim does today. “I studied up on how to play various instruments and other aspects of music. When you are writing a song, however, that is unique to you.”
Tim still has a busy schedule performing and playing music. He performs with his wife, Jan Fabricius, who plays mandolin, sings, and collaborates with him on songwriting. The couple has been performing together nationally and internationally as a duo or as part of the Tim O’Brien Band. A new album, Cup of Sugar, was released last June and features original songs co-written by Tim and Jan.
Awarded Grammys in the Folk and Bluegrass categories, Tim was inducted into the West Virginia and the Colorado Music Halls of Fame.
Tim says he’s slowing down a bit as he looks at 70. “Keeping busy helps me stay healthy.” He and Jan enjoy traveling, and it's easy to hop in the car and go as a duo. ”We have made traveling one of our hobbies. I read up on the places where we are going to play. I like history, and I like to read. I also enjoy cooking, and I like to get out and walk. It seems that most of my leisure activities are somehow tied into my life in music.”