Grammy-winning bluegrass and folk songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Tim O’Brien grew up in the mill and steel town of Wheeling, W.V., along the Ohio River. His Leave It to Beaver upbringing included a lot of country music on the radio but little in the way of local job prospects, so he headed west to Colorado before moving to Nashville.
Since becoming a famed figure in that city’s music scene, O’Brien has released over a dozen acclaimed albums that have made him a household name for bluegrass fans across the country. O’Brien returns to his roots with his new album, Where the River Meets the Road, inspired by his home state. O’Brien performs off the new record April 8 at he Sebastopol Community Center.
“When I sang bluegrass and country music, people took me more seriously because I was from West Virginia,” O’Brien says. “The love of the music kept going, but I kept viewing it from afar.”
West Virginia’s long musical heritage includes eclectic popular artists like Bill Withers, Blind Alfred Reed and Billy Edd Wheeler, as well as traditional mountain music from the likes of the Lilly Brothers and the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers.
O’Brien rediscovered these artists and learned about many others when he became a board member of the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame several years ago. He was also inducted in 2013.
Where the River Meets the Road is the culmination of O’Brien’s rekindled interest in West Virginia music. Ten of the 12 tracks on the new record are covers of songs written by the state’s diverse array of native talent, including bluegrass singer Hazel J. Dickens. “A lot of them are old favorites,” says O’Brien of the songs he chose to record. “I tried to make the best set of songs that would show some of the breadth of the music.”
O’Brien’s two original tunes on the album are among his most personal songs. The title track is the story of his family’s arrival in West Virginia from Ireland in the 1850s, and “Guardian Angel” is the heartbreaking story of the death of O’Brien’s older sister when he was just a toddler.
“If I look at it one way, I’ve been spending my whole artistic life getting ready to make this record,” O’Brien says. “It’s a reflection of where I’m at and what I’ve experienced.”