'There’s a Mystery to West Virginia:' Tim O'Brien Unlocks the Magic of #WVmusic

Jun 30, 2017

"[West Virginia] affects everything about how I do my job and the way I live my life."

From West Virginia Public Broadcasting and A Change of Tune, this is 30 Days of #WVmusic, the interview series celebrating the folks who make the West Virginia music scene wild and wonderful.  

And we conclude the second season of our 30 Days of #WVmusic series with a West Virginia music history lesson from a legend of bluegrass and, arguably, one of the Mountain State’s musical figureheads. This… is Tim O’Brien.

Tim O’Brien’s latest release is a tribute to West Virginia music and is titled Where the River Meets the Road. Hear more #WVmusic on A Change of Tune, airing Saturday nights at 10 on West Virginia Public Broadcasting. Connect with A Change of Tune on FacebookTwitter and Instagram. And for more #WVmusic chats, make sure to go to wvpublic.org/wvmusic and subscribe to our RSS / podcast feeds.

Interview Highlights

Mollie and Tim O'Brien performing back in 1969.
Credit Courtesy of the artist

On starting in music in West Virginia and early inspiration:

My sister Mollie and I were the musical youngest of five in our family. We’d sing in harmony in church, which was kind of uncommon in the Catholic church. But we were into the British Invasion stuff and folk music. She started playing piano, and I started playing guitar. I kept doing it, and so did she.

I’m from Wheeling in the Northern Panhandle. My dad was an attorney, and we lived in a middle class, Leave It to Beaver kind of neighborhood, a block and a half from the Catholic school where we went to grade school. My parents were into the big band-era of their youth, and I was into any kind of music, really. When I started showing interest in it, my parents were good at feeding the fire. They got me some guitar lessons and gave us student tickets to the Wheeling Symphony. There might be jazz, Count Bassey, Ray Charles, all kind of stuff. I got to see live music. The Wheeling Jamboree was going on and you could see people like Merle Haggard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Jerry Reed.

My girlfriend when I was 14, her father was into the music, and he collected some instruments. He had a nice mandolin and a nice guitar. A guy he knew was named Roger Bland, a great Earl Scruggs-style banjo player who ended up being a staff musician at the Wheeling Jamboree. He was the guy that all the bluegrassers in Wheeling learned from. He later took his own life, but he was a wonderful guy to learn from, and I got inspired to play stuff.

Tim O'Brien waits to see Charlie Pride in 1970 at the Capitol Theater in Wheeling.
Credit Courtesy of the artist

On becoming a professional musician:

I was 19. I went to college for a year, and I realized I was spending most of my time playing the guitar, and I started playing the fiddle. I went back the second year, and the band I had been playing with had hired somebody else over the summer. The wind went out of my sails, and I thought, “I don’t want to be here… I just want to play music.” I withdrew from college and thought maybe I’d learn how to make instruments, but I ended up going full bore and becoming a performer. I went out to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to be a ski bum and play in bars.

I wanted to get away from West Virginia. I couldn’t wait to get away. As soon as I left, if I would sing a country or bluegrass song, people would say, “Oh you’re good at this. You’re from West Virginia!” It became sort of a calling card. I was already interested in the music of West Virginia, but it became kind of an important thing commercially.

Tim O'Brien performing on Mountain Stage in 2016.
Credit Josh Saul

On musical opportunities growing up in West Virginia:

The Wheeling Jamboree seemed out of my reach. I was playing at community events, and I was not of-age to play in bars. There wasn’t much to do. I was itching to do it, but I was too young. My parents weren’t stage parents. Brad Paisley, I think his grandfather and father made it possible for him to play as much as possible. I don’t think my parents wanted to promote the idea to me that I could be a musician because they didn’t see that as being a viable way of supporting one’s self and living one’s life. Over and over, people like me disprove them, and we decide we’re going to do it no matter what. I just decided I had to do this. I just love it. So I found ways I could play for people, mostly for free.

On winning a few Grammy Awards:

It means a lot. The Grammy win is a major endorsement by your peers, people from all over the country. When you win a Grammy, it’s not necessarily because you put out the best folk record of the year. It’s more like you’ve been doing your work, and people remember your name. It is a folk record even amongst your peers. They tend to view the quality as well, and it makes me feel like I’m doing something right.

Being from West Virginia, most of us that make a name as musicians or artists have to leave the state to make headway. When I was with Hot Rize a dozen years full-time out in Colorado, we were a Colorado band. I’m proud to be underlining with this new record now that I’m from West Virginia, and that it means a lot to how I play. It affects everything about how I do my job and the way I live my life.

There’s a mystery to West Virginia. The music is vulnerable, and it’s interesting.

Music featured in this #WVmusic chat:

Tim O’Brien- “When the River Meets the Road”

Tim O’Brien- “Grandma’s Hands” (Bill Withers cover)

Tim O’Brien- “Few Old Memories” (Hazel Dickens cover)

Tim O’Brien- “High Flying Bird” (Billy Ed Wheeler cover)

Tim O’Brien- “When the Mist Clears Away” (Larry Groce cover)

Support for 30 Days of #WVmusic is provided by Bunj Jam Music, Bunj Jam Music, featuring Todd Burge’s most recent studio album, Imitation Life, Produced by Tim O’Brien. information at toddburge.com.

Support for 30 Days of #WVmusic is provided by Kin Ship Goods, proud supporter of DIY music and the arts. Locally shipped worldwide at kinshipgoods.com.