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Tim O'Brien and Darrell Scott with Scott Miller and Robinella and the CC String Band

Thursday, Aug. 17
5 pm

Market Square
Part of the Sundown in the City concert series

It's the Music, Silly

O'Brien and Scott concentrate on the quality of the song and not the glitz of the show

by John Sewell

Veteran songwriter/instrumentalists Tim O'Brien and Darrell Scott have done more than their share of dues-paying in their collective 40-plus years as Nashville fixtures. O'Brien and Scott have both appeared as session players on top-selling country albums. And each has penned big hits for high-visibility artists as well—O'Brien writing tunes for (among others) Kathy Mattea and Nashville giant Garth Brooks, and Scott writing for pop/country worldbeaters the Dixie Chicks.

But don't let either musician's tenure on the commercial country treadmill fool you. Though having top-tier artists cover their songs is a highly profitable icing on the cake, it is not the sole impetus for their creative muse—far from it, in fact.

"Both of us have gone through the motions of trying to write songs on demand for the publishers here in Nashville, trying to get the songs recorded by the people in the machine here," says O'Brien. "But both of us have had our success just from writing songs for the sake of writing something good and being something that just presents itself to us—something that we would be doing anyway. We just write songs about things that occur to us in our heads. And those songs are the ones that mean the most."

This focus on emotive songwriting has proved to be a productive approach for the duo, whose new recording, Real Time (Howdy Skies Records), captures their songs in all of their raw intensity. Playing together for just over three years, O'Brien and Scott used no backup musicians for their first album together. This bare bones method presents the songs at their barest essence—a formula that works well when the material is of such high caliber.

"There's a kind of freedom in doing a duo which means you can add as much as you like or pull back as much as you want," says O'Brien. "It's kind of a free form thing with a little bit of a jazz approach even. Mistakes can be OK, because it's all a part of the entire process.

"There are certain parameters we work within—we're kind of folk music oriented and use simple harmonies. But we're informed by the adventurous, slightly more modern stuff and it shows up in there too. We like to not talk about it too much and just do it."

O'Brien and Scott are both exceptionally gifted players with a mastery of several instruments. And both have scores of high profile appearances as sidemen. But the two have the good taste to keep their skills from overshadowing the expression of the songs.

O'Brien is especially noted for his killer musical chops. He first came to the fore as a member of bluegrass fusionists Hot Rize in the '70s. His most recent Knoxville appearance was with dobro master Jerry Douglas. On Real Time, O'Brien keeps his formidable skills tightly reined, delivering an album that has more in common with Steve Earle or Dave Alvin than Bela Fleck.

"Well, I kind of long since rejected the instrumentalist sort of virtuosity for virtuosity's sake sort of thing," says O'Brien. "And these days I choose more to take whatever strengths I have and put those in service of the material. I think people really prefer that approach.

"I've been cited in the press as being this instrumentalist, but I've always been somebody that is a collaborator with Hot Rize or Jerry Douglas or whoever I'm playing with at the time. I think that the interaction and the good material are the kings of the approach we have. That's what I'm interested in more than anything else. What was good about this record is that we didn't talk much about arrangements. We just wanted to get 'em out in a simple and honest way—and let the interaction between the two of us rule."

As their collaboration flowered into an ongoing project, O'Brien says that he and Scott have been unencumbered by the usual constraints. The duo have uncanny communicative skills that almost border on telepathic.

"Darrell and I don't really like to dissect stuff. We'd rather just let it happen and then see what's good. That started from the very first time we played together. Onstage, when we first started playing, we realized that one guy could just start singing a song and the other would be able to follow him and complement without even discussing what key it's in or even what's gonna happen. We just listen really closely.

"Insofar as being honest, I think Darrell's stuff is remarkable," O'Brien continues. "He's a real hero to me because his stuff is so true to life. All the details in his songs are things that have actually happened to him—or really close anyway." (For example, Scott's song "There Ain't No Easy Way" has the line, "When I was just a young boy, I learned to play guitar/ It was me and old Jimmy Beam and the Crossroads Bar." Jimmy Beam was an actual person from Scott's first band, not the popular whiskey brand. Who would have guessed?)

"Darrell has this explosive quality to his playing and singing which I really respond to, and the audience seems to also. It's not like we set out to write a bunch of material expressly for this recording. It just sort of fell together. We just went by the heart—because really heart and the soul are the best teachers. We just try to make the songs honest and it's always gone over great. So we thought it was about time to get some of these songs down on tape."

August 10, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 32
© 2000 Metro Pulse