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Published: 2005/10/14
by Brian Gearing

Cornbread Nation – Tim O’BrienFiddler’s Green – Tim O’Brien

Sugar Hill Records 4005

Sugar Hill Records 4006

Since emerging from the Blue Ridge of West Virginia to chisel the pioneering Hot Rize from the Colorado Rockies, multi-instrumental acoustic stringster Tim O’Brien has never been afraid to update America’s time-honored musical traditions. Such irreverent revision would be downright sinful if it weren’t for the undeniable fact that few people in this country have as much respect for American music as O’Brien himself, who always maintains a certain worshipful decorum in the church of Americana, regardless of how many pews he may decide to rearrange.

O’Brien’s most recent renovation demands two discs, Fiddler’s Green and Cornbread Nation, both of which gather and polish relics from rural American history; but while the former explores the faraway roots of mountain music, stretching from the shores of Ireland to the peaks of Appalachia, the latter takes a newer road through the dried up cottonfields of the South.

Fiddler’s Green splits time between Irish folk ballads and Bill Monroe’s bluegrass, occasionally pausing for the more modern country sounds of “Long Black Veil” and Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain,” which gets a faint Caribbean bounce from Kenny Malone’s hand-drumming. Much of the Irish material, including the traditional “Pretty Fair Maid in the Garden” and Pete Goble’s “Fiddler’s Green,” is borrowed, and O’Brien has the good sense to return it as he found it. String Cheese fans will recognize the original “Land’s End/Chasin’ Talon,” and on “Look Down That Lonesome Road,” Jerry Douglas adds a cool dobro wind to fan mandolinist Chris Thile’s brush fire solo on “Train on the Island.”

A similar locomotive rhythm chugs through the opener, “Hold On,” as well as the title track of Cornbread Nation. Electric guitars and denser production bring the record over the Atlantic and down from the mountains. Though some of the songs, like the spiritual call and response of “Moses,” date back from long before the European immigrations of the mid-19th Century, the ever-present blues of Cornbread Nation feels more modern, perhaps because of its direct connection to rock and roll. “Boat Up the River” puts the banjo back in the blues while a gospel choir gives hope to the mournful electric stomp of “When This World Comes to an End.”

O’Brien takes a different road through the mountains to New Orleans on “House of the Risin’ Sun,” and his rearrangement of “Walkin’ Boss” is jarring. For the most part, however, O’Brien’s defense of his revisionism in the liner notes to Cornbread is unnecessary. Most of his rewrites sound as authentic as the originals, especially to those unfamiliar with much of the source from which he taps, and while his voice sometimes lacks the rich tones of his chosen instruments, his guitar, fiddle, banjo, mandolin and bouzouki more than adequately carry the extra weight. At times, the West Virginia boy seems a bit too whitebread for the blues and a bit too modern for old-time (check out the I.T. jargon on “Runnin’ Out of Memory”), but O’Brien’s sincerity is beyond question. Cornbread Nation and Fiddler’s Green are a signpost pointing to where the past is headed from here.

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