A CONVERSATION WITH TIM O'BRIEN (continued)
PM: Where are your people from?
TO: From Ulster. My great grandfather was from Cavan, and my great grandmother from Donegal. Both places are part of the Republic now. Both of their families moved to West Virginia.
PM: Which is where you grew up, wow. What instrument did you pick up first?
TO: I played the guitar. I learned Beatles songs, and Peter, Paul and Mary, and Roger Miller.
PM: Man, I loved Roger Miller.
TO: Oh yeah, Roger Miller was my hero. Funny songs, a good guitar player, and a great singer. The Jamboree was there, you know, the WWVA, so I would go down and see the shows. My mom and dad would drop me off, I was about 13.
PM: Where were they held, what kind of a place?
TO: It was a big theater. It started off as a kind of an Opry thing, but tapered off into more of a concert series. They had regulars, and weekly guests.
PM: And, at 13, you would go down and catch these shows by yourself?
TO: Yeah, I'd go down by myself. [laughter] I'd pay $2.50 to get into the cheap balcony seats. But then on special Saturday nights you might see Buck Owens, Charlie Pride, Jerry Reed, or Merle Haggard.
PM: Tell us about the Irish-American cross pollination in The Crossing and Two Journeys.
TO: It started out as an excuse for me to play some Irish music with people that really knew how to do it. I'd sort of hide behind them when they were playing a tune. Bluegrass tunes, they come from the same place, some of them are the same tune, but the inflection or accents are a little bit different. I wanted to learn more about it, and I certainly have in the several years I've been doing it. But when I started thinking about making a record in that direction, I started noticing all these topics I could write about, and songs started popping up. And it just continued. I had a lot of ideas from outside, too, other people's songs. I'd like to do some more records like that, and probably will.
PM: Since I'm Irish all the way back, I'm interested in your take on the Irish/English situation.
TO: It's like the Americans and the English, you know. We like to think that we kicked their ass, but we're still interested in royalty. We're fascinated with where we come from. The Irish have a lot of English in their system, they never really abandoned it. They want to be free from it. Then you have the Presbyterian vs. the Catholic thing in the North, which has been festering so long it's like Palestine and Israel. It never ends, and can't seem to resolve itself. When you put your hand up against something and push, it's gonna push back. I think the great majority of the population doesn't want any part of the conflict. The paramilitary groups involved are like the Mafia or something. If they didn't do what they're doing, they're out of a job. When you hear that IRA guys are busted down in Colombia training rebel forces, you know full well how some of their weapons are being financed. It's nothing new, and it's not unique to them. It's an old story.
PM: One thing that distinguishes you and Darrell Scott from your talented peers is that you've achieved publishing successes. How has that changed your life?
TO: Well, for me, when I first got the Kathy Mattea cuts back in '88 or '89, it gave me an excuse to do what the heck I wanted to do. I went after a major label Country deal, much like Darrell did, which didn't work out. There were administration changes right as we reached the mastering stage. We cut some more songs, and by then there were a few more changes, and they got cold feet. I tried to sell it around town, and realized it wasn't going to happen. So I just went my own way. But that was just an episode.
The main thing about getting the cuts is that it gives you another source of income. Once it happens, it's just there. You got to keep writing songs, but I would do that anyway. I've only ever written songs I wanted to write. The publishing machine here wants you to get together with other writers with whom you may produce things they think they'd like to pitch, so I do some of that. But mostly, I just write songs with whomever I want to write with. And I also don't put any more stock in cowriting than I do in just writing songs by myself.
PM: It's another overdone thing in town, gets more publishers involved, et cetera.
TO: Yeah, and that's a good thing, but I also get to where a little bit of my soul drains away in the process sometimes.
PM: I've rarely had a cowriting experience that didn't incorporate some level of dilution of the ideas on the table.
TO: Especially with someone you don't know. I like it with Gary Nicholson or someone who's really been around, and will just write something they want to write. continue