October 2005

Tim O’Brien - Cornbread Nation
Sugar Hill SUG-CD-4005
Format: CD
Released: 2005

Musical Performance ***
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ***

Tim O’Brien - Fiddler’s Green
Sugar Hill SUG-CD-4006
Format: CD
Released: 2005

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****

by David J. Cantor

Released in stores on the same day, these two similar but distinct albums by bluegrass master Tim O’Brien act as lessons in what tradition really means. This is not just "old stuff." It’s material shaped by basic principles and nurtured by cultures over time.

Fiddler’s Green combines folk songs -- centuries-old tunes usually labeled "traditional" -- of Ireland and the US with songs penned by O’Brien and other recent or current writers. The title song, easily mistaken for a folksong generations old, is by Pete Goble. O’Brien wrote Corn Bread Nation’s title song, and that album’s tradition is much more American, including slave spirituals.

Of the two discs, I favor Fiddler’s Green, largely because its more Irish and less-bluesy orientation makes it more melodic, without lacking rhythm. Even with its less musically interesting song assortment, Cornbread Nation is all over the place in its arrangements. I find the song "Cornbread Nation" dull. Although O’Brien and the other fine players handle the spirituals skillfully, I am a bit uncomfortable with songs rooted in the utmost misery and oppression when they are being used commercially and without a protest connection. The album also revives "Let’s Go Huntin’" -- as Fiddler’s Green does "Buffalo Skinners." Both would be better forgotten till the atrocities on which it is based go the way of human slavery.

Cornbread Nation does boast a version of "House of the Rising Sun" that someone who likes music can actually listen to. Even the best 1960s versions belong in the Monotony Hall of Infamy. Most of the performances are flawless. Fiddler’s Green generally has more appeal, with O’Brien’s song "Look Down That Lonesome Road" bolstering the album’s traditional nature. O’Brien’s renditions of the Irish tunes "Pretty Fair Maid in the Garden" and "Fair Flowers of the Valley" are especially pretty. Also well done: Dill & Wilkins’ "Long Black Veil," a superb choice for the collection since many people mistake it for a traditional ballad. Because it is about departure, O’Brien’s take on Gordon Lightfoot’s "Early Morning Rain" makes a fine closing track.

These two albums, recorded in the same period, differ from each other enough that one can easily understand the decision to market them as two separate discs rather than one two-disc set. The CDs’ recording techniques accomplish two essential things: O’Brien’s expressive, clear, straightforward voice is always audible, and the sometimes large number of players blends nicely, though you can usually distinguish individual instruments.