I've always been a fan of singers who aren't afraid to stray from tradition now and again. Some might say that Tim O'Brien stays pretty true to the roots of folk and bluegrass music, but if you dig a bit deeper, you'll discover a man who's always been willing to change and push his own boundaries as an artist. He can sing the old songs and play bluegrass mandolin with the best of them, but at the same time, O'Brien sounds just as good singing an album of Bob Dylan songs, or tackling "A Whiter Shade of Pale."
Ever since he helped form the progressive bluegrass band Hot Rize in the late '70s, O'Brien has been known as a multi-talented force in roots music — a songwriter, singer, multi-instrumentalist, record producer, performer and bandleader. In 2005, he released two albums on the same day: an electric-oriented record called Cornbread Nation and the more traditional Fiddler's Green, which won him a Grammy. His most recent album, Chameleon, is yet another departure for O'Brien: While he's played many solo gigs in the past, this is the first time he's laid nothing but himself down on record before. He plays a different instrument on most of the tracks, including a 1943 Gibson guitar, a 1922 fiddle, a Martin made in 1937, a Nugget mandolin from 1975 and a bouzouki from 1989.
Recently, O'Brien stopped by the Folk Alley studios to play us some songs and talk about his career. We also discussed why bluegrass music never made it the mainstream, even after the success of the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? O'Brien himself had a chance at major-label success in the early '90s, but he was dropped from his label before his album was even released. It's possible that the mainstream world might have tried turning him into another country/pop superstar, but O'Brien probably wouldn't have let that happen. Personally, I'm glad they never even had the chance.