At a point in his career where you’d think he’d be charging at full speed toward the next big thing, Tim O’Brien confounded expectations by doing something else: he took time—and plenty of it—to create the next small thing. ‘Chameleon’ is an intimate project that, in its blend of virtuosity, wit and warmth, is unmistakably his. And this time around, it’s literally his alone.
For most artists, winning a Grammy and two IBMA awards within a single year would serve as a stimulus to tour more often, maybe get a bigger band—and, of course, get back into the studio as quickly as possible to capitalize on the honours. But O’Brien’s never been one to follow a typical agenda and with the push of road weariness and the pull of family life, he’d already decided it was time to recharge. So the winner of 2006’s Best Traditional Folk Album Grammy (for ‘Fiddler’s Green,’ one of two albums he released simultaneously in the fall of 2005) and the IBMA’s Male Vocalist and Song of the Year awards, dialed back his road dates, took time to write and wound up recording a set of original songs with nothing more than a few of his favorite instruments and his own voice.
“Back in January of 2006, I said to myself, I’ve got to do something different than flying every which way all year,” O’Brien recalls. “And when I got the Grammy award in February, it sort of woke me up. It was so validating, because I’d already been feeling that pushing was not getting me anywhere, that I was just getting worn out and disillusioned—and when you get disillusioned doing what I do, something’s wrong because it’s a great job. So winning the award was like hearing that I have been doing something, that I’ve got a body of stuff to rest on. And by June, I was telling people that no, I’m not going to be doing as much next year.”
Of course, even at his most relaxed, the veteran O’Brien continued to be more productive than most. He still offered occasional performances, both on his own and in various configurations and he worked on the acclaimed Blind Alfred Reed tribute, ‘Always Lift Him Up,’ both performing Reed’s best-known song and sharing in the album’s production. But mostly he wrote, both on his own and with collaborators—and, in August of last year, he began work on Chameleon with award-winning engineer Gary Paczosa.
“Every time a recording comes around, I think about doing a solo record,” O’Brien says, “but when I get to the time where I really have to decide, I juggle a bunch of concepts around, and when one falls into place the others just fall away and doing it solo always wound up falling away. On several records, like Fiddler’s Green, I’ve done a solo track or two, but this time I thought, it’s just time to finally do it all on one record. If I’d done it the last time, it would have been a traditional record, but this time it was a songwriter record.”
Though he first won renown as a member of one of bluegrass’s premiere bands, Hot Rize, O’Brien’s been doing solo performances for a long time and pressed for antecedents, he offers up figures like James Taylor and Joni Mitchell. “The folksinger with a guitar is a sort of unassailable icon,” he says with a laugh. “Dylan, Woody Guthrie—what can you say. And I remember that when I heard the first Doc Watson album, I thought, what does he need a band for? This guy has got it all. But what happens is that when you go into the studio, you can play with a band and get the juices flowing and maybe do things that you might not be able to do on the road. So there’s a temptation to go that way. But this time, I thought, let’s just bring it inside.”
With the concept in place, O’Brien turned to song selection, crafting a set that would stand both repeated listening and serve to give live audiences a rich, satisfying experience. “This is a stretch for me, to go with so much new material,” he notes. “But because the last two records were so traditional, there was something of a backlog of things I’d written but hadn’t recorded. And because I mostly want to have fun playing, I’m looking for stuff where I can do that, and for things that will keep the show up. And I wanted to make it a little autobiographical, too—there’s a song in there about the guy who sold vegetables on our street when I was growing up, and there are parts of some songs, like the verse in ‘Where’s Love Come From’ about my mom, that are straight from life.”
Yet while Chameleon rambles from the autobiographical to the whimsical, themes emerge, whether it’s the nods to tradition found in the appearance of hoary lyric phrases in “Where’s Love Come From” and the sly quotation from Bill Monroe in ‘Hoss Race,’ or the wry political observations in a trio of songs (‘This World Was Made For Everyone,’ ‘When In Rome’ and ‘World Of Trouble’) planted in the back half of the collection. Sometimes deliberate, they’re also sometimes serendipitous—and sometimes just plain fun. “Right toward the end of the time when I was writing and getting ready to record, I wrote ‘Get Out There And Dance,’” he notes. “That’s one of my favorite songs I’ve ever written, and it’s totally fun. I really liked the idea: if you want to live life, you’d better get in it. And it’s in ‘The Only Way To Never Hurt,’ too, which comes right before it: ‘If you don’t get on the floor and dance/You can’t hope to win the game of love.’ I used to lean toward ballads more with my writing, and when I tried to write funny things, it didn’t work—but now I’m finding ways to do it, and it’s nice.”
“There are a lot of characters in these songs,” he adds. “Jesus is in there a couple of times, Judas is in there, Clinton and Bush and Bob Geldof…There’s the guy in ‘Hoss Race,’ who’s making his bets, or the guy in ‘This World Was Made For Everyone’ who’s got that manifest destiny sort of drilled into his head, or the guy in ‘World Of Trouble,’ who’s thinking, well, no matter who I vote for, I’m probably still going to be poor. I like that—in a lot of these songs, I just wanted to write about people.”
“The thing with this solo stuff is that it seems like the smaller the group, the more people get up close to it. Bluegrass is generally that way and so the first thing you hear about bluegrass from a new fan is, they don’t have any amplifiers, they can just do it in a field or something, they’re just fantastic. It’s because they’re seeing something up close and it’s like they actually feel the wind off the instruments, the sound coming out. But it happens with recordings, too—like on this one, it sounds huge, because with just the instrument and the voice, there’s room for all of it to be right in front of you. So it’s big, but it’s intimate, too. I noticed it with the record I did with my sister Mollie—people felt real at home with it, and it seems like the more simple it is, the more inviting it is. So that’s what I’m aiming at here.”