“We are but travelers on a road without end/ searching for signs that the spirit may send/ there are few answers in this life I'm afraid/ only more questions from this world we made.” - Travelers - Tim O'Brien-Allesandro Massa.

When West Virginia born singer-songwriter Tim O'Brien recorded 13th album Traveler in 2003 he used research from an Australian tour in 1987.

O'Brien and his band Hot Rize and alter ago Red Knuckles & The Trail Blazers played a Mittagong bluegrass festival and Sydney gigs.

So O'Brien drew on his knowledge of the historic Aboriginal song-lines to source the spirit of Traveler.

“The Australian Aboriginals speak of an individual's life as song-line,” O'Brien, now 60, said in the liner notes for the disc.

“You go on your walkabout, you become that line. It defines you and that's your song.”

O'Brien's song-line became richer spiritually and materially after his search mission for late Sydney promoter and multi-instrumentalist Chris Duffy.

The singer reaped hay from having his songs cut by Texas superstars Dixie Chicks and Oklahoma born icon Garth Brooks.

The Chicks cut More Love - penned by Tim and Gary Nicholson - for big selling sixth album Home.

And Brooks cut When No One's Around - written by O'Brien and Darrel Scott - for Sevens when he was a mega star.

Arizona star Dierks Bentley also recorded his collaboration with Jon Randall - You're Dead To Me - on 2010 bluegrass album Up On The Ridge that featured Tim on mandolin.

Fellow West Virginian singer Kathy Mattea's hits with Walk The Way The Wind Blows and Untold Stories persuaded him to leave Hot Rize and sign an ill-fated deal with RCA that produced an album but no release.

During a career that embraced many record labels O'Brien and Mattea had a #10 hit with Battle Hymn Of Love before he cut Dylan covers disc, Red On Blonde .

Nouveau bluegrass sensations Nickel Creek also covered When You Come Back Down .

But O'Brien, whose eclectic career has included five duet albums with partners diverse as sister Mollie and co-writer Darrell Scott, and more with roots bands, returns as a solo artist.


“I walked off the tread on the concrete pavement/ of London and Dublin and New York town/ I shook out sand from the ocean beaches/ I left it on the floor of an airport lounge.” - Kelly Joe's Shoes - Tim O'Brien.

O'Brien uses his haunting vocals as a vibrant vehicle for salient songs about his journey from entrée Kelly Joe's Shoes in borrowed footwear to gems Restless Spirit Wandering and ballast shedding finale Less And Less .

He weaves his wanderlust on a broad tableau with guest vocals from Jon Randall Stewart, Scott and Jonell Mosser.

There's inherent sadness in I've Endured, Let Love Take You Back Again, Family History and On The Outside Lookin' In .

That's balanced by subtle humour of Fell Into Her Deep Blue Eyes , with Randall, and joyous freedom in Another Day and Forty Nine Keep On Talking.

Travelling and singing about that long lost highway are tuneful therapy for a man whose music has hypnotic charm on repeated listening.

“Some roads are made for drivin' fast/ some roads are made for walkin'/ some roads are made to ease my mind/ forty nine keep on talking.'”

The playing, as always, is tasteful with Dirk Powell on accordion, banjo and bass, Kenny Malone on percussion, fiddler Casey Driessen, Jerry Douglas on lap steel and guitarist John Doyle.

O'Brien alternates between guitar, mandolin and bouzouki and Bela Fleck plays banjo on Another Day.

It's a far cry from acoustic album The Crossing and Songs From The Mountain , based on Charles Frazier's popular novel Cold Mountain .

And a career, which began on guitar at 12, and veered to bluegrass when Roger Bland - a banjo-playing patient of a girlfriend's psychiatrist dad and member of Lester Flatt's band - taught him to play in the three-finger style of Earl Scruggs.

Yes, O'Brien was a bluegrass success story long before the Coen Bros, T Bone Burnett and pals brought armies of pickers down from mountains into sales charts.


“Watched the news tonight/ is that download thing kinda hurtin' you some?/ who set's all your stuff up?/ when you play here again I sure hope I can come/ you know I tried that station/ it just won't come on inside these walls/ I'm hard of hearing but sometimes I hear your mother call/ not afraid of dyin', it's just waitin around that's wearin' on me/ just breathin' easy, it's a whole lot harder than it used to be.” - Not Afraid O Dyin' - Tim O'Brien.

And he proved that on his 2011 Port Fairy Festival gigs with new band Oceans Two.

Documentary-maker Ken Burns also included O'Brien's Art Stamper in his three part 2011 film, Prohibition .

"It's a little bit of irony there," says O'Brien.

"Art Stamper was a great old-time fiddle player, a great character and roots musician. He liked to take a bit of liquor. So it's kind of funny that he gets a song named after him on the soundtrack to a film on Prohibition ."

Stamper died in 2005.

O'Brien also dedicated 2010 album Chicken & Egg , highlighting life's imponderables - love and death, sin and redemption, exhilaration and world-weariness - to his teacher father who died at 96.

Tim wrote or co-wrote 11 of the CD's 14 songs.

Not Afraid O' Dyin' and Letter in the Mail were inspired by O'Brien's father.

< Tim O'Brien live at Port Fairy

Tim is backed on his cosmic explorations by A-list session acoustic players - guitarist Bryan Sutton, fiddler Stuart Duncan, bassists Dennis Crouch and Mike Bub, banjoist Charlie Cushman and drummer John Gardner.

Abigail Washburn, Chris Stapleton, Darrell Scott and Sara Jarosz supply vocal harmonies.

He also combined with Darrell Scott for 2012 album Live: We're Usually a Lot Better Than This and 2013 album Memories and Moments.

In 2014 Hot Rize toured for the first time in 20 years to support its debut studio album with Bryan Sutton, When I'm Free , on Ten in Hands Records .

Hot Rize also performed as Western swing band Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers .

Tim was also in the Earls Of Leicester band's 2014 all-star salute album to Flatt & Scruggs.



“She went back to Wichita/ went back to her ma and pa/ reckon I saw her next to my truck/ pumping gas with the car packed up/ she came in 85, she came here as a July bride/ but it never got easy, never got rich/ ain't got much but what she came here with.” - Wichita - Gillian Welch-David Rawlings.

Colorado chanteuse Mollie O'Brien and her brother Tim have impeccable taste - they were the first act to cut a Gillian Welch tune.

The duo recorded two Welch tunes on their 1994 album Away Out On The Mountain by the then undiscovered Los Angeles refugee.

Welch - daughter of a couple who wrote for the Carol Burnett Show - and writing partner David Rawlings were pitching songs from their pick-up truck in Music City.

They alerted Emmylou Harris to her when they cut the tunes Wichita and Orphan Girl - later a hit for Harris.

“Gillian's wonderful, isn't she?” O'Brien, now 62, told Nu Country TV in a call from Albuquerque in New Mexico on the eve of her first Australian tour in 1999.

“She went up to my brother Tim in a bar in Nashville and gave him this tape of home recordings. They were awesome songs, they needed to have someone else record them. She was just getting started.”

Mollie and guitarist Nina Gerber - the woman who produced Kate Wolf tribute album Treasures Left Behind - performed at the Continental Café on April 14 after playing the 1999 Byron Bay blues festival.

Gerber, who toured and recorded with Wolf, recruited 14 artists including Eric Bogle to honor the late singer who died of leukemia in 1996 aged 44.

Ironically tragedy struck again on the eve of the tour when Mollie's producer and Hot Rize co-founder Charles Sawtelle died at 53 in California on March 21, 1999, after a bone marrow transplant two years before.

“His liver and kidneys finally couldn't handle the stress of the medication, a result of his bone marrow transplant of two years ago,” fellow Hot Rize member Pete Wernick revealed.

“He had been unconscious for over three weeks with family and dear friends there to help any way they could. In the last few days he had been declining and it was understood he wouldn't last long.”

Sawtelle, an Austin native, began his career with the Country Blue Boys in Colorado and was later in Twenty String Bluegrass Band with Lynn Morris.

Sawtelle, Wernick, Mike Scap and Tim O'Brien formed Hot Rize in 1978 and toured here in 1987, also performing under their alter ego - Red Knuckles & The Trail Blazers .

But that's a far cry from the embryo of the career of the five O'Brien siblings who began their career 32 years ago in their home town Wheeling , West Virginia - locale of the famed Saturday Night Jamboree radio show which was broadcast nationally.

“We sang at folk masses in church and then started playing for a living,” Mollie recalled.

“We sang Home By The Sea which was so infectious with accordion. Tim and I weren't exactly from a family who sat around the kitchen table and sang gospel and bluegrass. We were listening to Motown, The Beatles, Stones, Ray Charles, Supremes, Four Tops, Temptations - a real eclectic mix.”


“Sun is hangin' in the sky/ sinkin' low and so am I/ just for the love of someone/ and a big red sun/ how am I gonna lose these big red sun blues/ big red sun, big red sun.” - Big Red Sun Blues - Lucinda Williams.

Although Mollie has three duet albums with Tim in her catalogue she received a rude shock when she headed to New York as a teenager.

“I moved to New York City to do musical comedy and theatre,” Mollie revealed.

“I was 19, naïve and stupid. I thought ‘I'll get an audition, I'll start working right away. I learned you don't have to go to New York or LA to make your mark. You can find a good living and a good life outside of those territories.”

Instead Mollie, who worked in the rag trade to supplement her meagre music income, moved south to Denver , Colorado , in 1980 - six years after her brother made it his base.

O'Brien was a finalist in an independent label awards in 1981 and made her recording debut.

It wasn't quite as controversial as one of Mollie and Tim's sibling bands The Mother Folkers who formed for a mother's day concert in 1984, and became the springboard for her debut disc in 1987.

Although Tim fronted bluegrass bands diverse as the O'Boys and Hot Rize and western swing alter ego Red Knuckles & The Trailblazers , sister Mollie branched out into blues, jazz, swing, R & B, country, folk and pop on her solo albums.

O'Brien, mother of two daughters and creator of two albums with singing spouse Rich Moore, toured to promote fourth solo album Big Red Sun Blues - the title track was penned by Grammy award winning frequent Australian tourist Lucinda Williams.

“I love her tunes,” says O'Brien.

Big Red Sun is such a great song, so understated, kind of laid back narrative of love gone wrong. I slowed it down a bit. I thought ‘what the hell. I'll pick it up and try it one more time.”

Tim & Mollie also recorded the Lucinda composition The Price I Pay on their most recent duet disc Away On The Mountain .

Tim wrote and performed hits with fellow West Virginian Kathy Mattea in between duet albums and helped Oklahoma superstar Garth Brooks push his album sales beyond 95 million. Their duet albums veer more towards bluegrass, country and folk than Big Red Sun whose writers are as diverse as Memphis Minnie, Randy Newman, Chuck Berry and John Hiatt to President Clinton's favorite folk singer - the late Steve Goodman who also died of leukemia in 1984.

“Steve was best known for his comical songs,” says O'Brien of the singer who wrote You Never Even Called By My Name, City Of New Orleans , Face On The Cutting Room Floor, Video Tape and Elvis Imitators , “but Looking For Trouble is anything but comical.”

It was fate that drew Mollie to the John Hiatt tune Love Like Blood.

“I heard it on a cassette I got at a truck stop,” says Mollie.

“It was between record deals and never on major release. It's an unbelievably sensuous tune, so to the bone. I can dig doing it.”


“I never drink in the afternoon/ I never drink alone/ but I sure do like a drink or two/ when I get home/ every evening what I do

I sit here in this chair/ I pour myself some whiskey/ and watch my troubles vanish into the air.” - Rollin' - Randy Newman.

Equally as vibrant is her cut of the Randy Newman tune Rolling.

“It's a little gem, an off the cuff thing about who cares about gambling, drinking, everything's going to be OK feel,” says Mollie.

Also winning acclaim is No Ash Will Burn penned by prolific tunesmith Walt Aldridge - author of the Ricky Van Shelton hit Crime Of Passion.

“Walt kind of lives in Nashville but no-one knows where he surfaces,” Mollie added.

“The song is a perfect example of a love song, a parting of the ways. It's a beautiful song, it doesn't matter what else he wrote. This is good enough to last him until the end of eternity”

But the highlight is the riveting narrative From Denver To Dallas - penned by Judy Roderick, Don DeBacker and Dexter Payne.

“I knew the author Judy Roderick,” Mollie recalled.

“She used to sing with a blues band 15 years ago. I mined it from my past, it's a great, great tune.”

O'Brien has refused to compromise her music to fit the tight formats of American radio and admires the Dixie Chicks who rejected a demand to remove fiddles, pedal steel and banjo from the title track of their album Wide Open Spaces to get exposure on pop cable TV channel

“They deserve credit for sticking to their beliefs,” says Mollie who appeared with revered guitarist Nina Gerber at the Continental Café on April 14, 1999.

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