Howdy Skies CD-2017

   No American acoustic artist has presented a more honest, deeply-rooted expression of bluegrass, old-time, Celtic, and roots music than West Virginia’s favorite son, Tim O’Brien. Whether it’s his early work with the Ophelia Swing Band, his initial solo records and songwriting work for Nashville stalwarts like Kathy Mattea, to his generation-spanning work with bluegrass legends Hot Rize and more, Tim simply can’t sing or play an unauthentic or inelegant note on any of the instruments he plays or through that immutable voice.

On his latest solo CD, O’Brien explores nearly every musical avenue he’s ever walked down, ranging from bluegrass to mountain modal to lush ballads, such as his glorious original “Guardian Angel,” which tells the true story of a guardian angel picture he grew up with and a letter written by his mom that helped his family endure the loss of his big sister. With younger sister Mollie on harmony vocals, it’s impossible to hear this without welling up deep emotions for the universal loss they endured.

The title tune perfectly captures his enduring love for Celtic and mountain music, telling the tale of an immigrant heading West to make his fortune. Backed by Mike Bub, Stuart Duncan, and Noam Pikelny, the tune is a modern classic like so many of Tim’s compositions. With his bluegrass itch soothed by his work in Hot Rize, O’Brien takes the opportunity here to use this solo release as a vehicle for multiple musical fascinations and visions. He delves into trad fiddling in a gorgeous duo with cellist Nathaniel Smith on “Queen Of The Earth And Child Of The Skies.” “Drunkard’s Grave” should placate any Red Knuckles fans looking for their hero on this album. (Never have understood how those two musicians got confused.) “Windy Mountain,” a Curly Ray Cline number, lets Tim demonstrate his unparalleled bluegrass chops, except mysteriously, he’s playing guitar here, not mandolin. The next tune, “Few Old Memories,” is another classic, uncovered from the trove of brilliant tunes written by Hazel Dickens. Here, O’Brien re-imagines the song as a country ballad perfectly suited to his world-weary, weathered tenor voice.

Where The River Meets The Road presents a clear portrait of one of America’s musical treasures, an artist equally at home belting out bluegrass and then singing with current Nashville breakthrough Chris Stapleton. With his broad-ranging interest in so many acoustic music styles, O’Brien has drawn on a range of sources and influences to craft a delightful record celebrating great American string music. Highly recommended. (www.timobrien.net)DJM

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