A founder of Hot Rize, the Colorado-based bluegrass band that wowed national audiences in the 1980's, O'Brien long ago demonstrated not only impressive mandolin and fiddle chops, but also a clear, expressive voice with a wry turn of phrase, and a broad sense of humor as the leader of Hot Rize's western-swinging alter ego, Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers.
His ability to leaven the Trailblazer comedy act with convincing swing vocals gave an early signal that he was a singer in command of more than the bluegrass idiom.
O'Brien's songwriting abilities were both an early ticket to country music success and a major factor in his move to Nashville last year. Even before Hot Rize retired in 1990, he had scored Top 10 hits with Kathy Mattea's recordings of his "Walk The Way The Wind Blows" and "Untold Stories," followed in 1990 by his own appearance in the Top 10 as her duet partner on "The Battle Hymn Of Love."
In an all too familiar country music story these days, O'Brien actually completed a major label album for RCA, only to find in the fall of 1990 that it was permanently shelved.
That was then.
Today, Tim O'Brien may not be in the hunt for commercial country radio success - "at 43, I'm not going to be a fresh new face," he says - but he's found a way to write successfully for himself and others (including Garth Brooks), a way to keep in touch with audiences while carving out more time at home with his family and a sound and style that he's comfortable with.
That sound can be heard on O'Brien's new album, "When No One's Around." (Sugar Hill)He says it has a "consistent sound, like the recipe's getting those final corrections."Built around acoustic guitar, bass and drums, with O'Brien adding a third stringed instrument - often mandolin, but sometimes bouzouki or fiddle - it's an intriguing amalgam of singer/songwriter and country filtered through a bluegrass sensibility.
Not a sharp break from his earlier albums, the all-Dylan "Red On Blonde" and his Americana chart-topping "Rock In My Shoe," or from his duets with sister Mollie, but not the same, either; at once more individual and more broadly appealing.
"Country radio is pretty much all one-on-one love songs," he says. "The songs on the album are a little more quirky, kind of introspective; not so many love songs. Co-writing (O'Brien shares credit on 8 of the11 originals) feeds different streams; when I got together with other people, we could be a little more free, because they knew that as long as I liked a song, I would cut it. Concerns about how songs would fit other people weren't an issue."
Sometimes, O'Brien adds, a song fits someone else anyhow. "'When There's No One Around' was written with Darrell Scott (guitarist on the album). Garth Brooks has recorded it, and people who know him say it's really him." The song is expected to be on Brooks's next album, "Sevens."
Even with such mainstream enthusiasm, though, O'Brien aims to stick with his program of building an audience among those looking for something deeper than summer novelty songs and dance beats.
The growth of Americana radio, he believes, is reflective of a steady growth in that audience.
"It's good to have a place with a name for this kind of music, and to document performances. It gets people's attention and interest, at least as far as who's where on the charts. Audiences are getting more and more aware of what's going on, and the scene continues to grow."
Growth, O'Brien says, is good - if it's the right kind. "This audience isn't mushrooming, which usually ends up being artificial," he says.
"If a couple of commercial stations pick up on the format, if it becomes a viable commercial concern, then there will be a small market, and that'll be good. There's a lot of play-acting in country these days, and even though there's bound to be another breakthrough, more honest music, it's hard to imagine Nashville really getting away from a pop sound," something he's simply not interested in.
"Alternative country," on the other hand, piques his curiosity: "I'm amazed at what's going on, with new artists and old crusty ones side by side."
For O'Brien, maintaining a career in a small market is a matter of keeping things simple and staying open to a variety of audiences. Though he continues to work some bluegrass festivals with sister Mollie and his almost-bluegrass band the O'Boys (upright bass and guitar), he's even more likely to be found at folk festivals, arts centers, and concert series, as well as the inevitable acoustic-oriented clubs.
Touring in support of the new album will be mostly as a solo act, which makes it easier to reconcile more time at home with financial realities - especially when the schedule calls for some dates opening for Alison Krauss & Union Station.
Not that O'Brien's dropping out of the band scene altogether, at least around Nashville; a recent side project of sorts has been playing around town with the Flatheads (or Flattheads; "it's been spelled both ways"), an all-star bluegrass ensemble featuring country sidemen Jeff White (Vince Gill Band), Jerry Douglas and Charlie Cushman, plus O'Boys bassist Mark Schatz.
1997 will be the last year for O'Boy Scott Nygaard, and O'Brien's still thinking about what's next.
"I set myself up for some kind of change by moving to Nashville," he says. "I want to trim the road dates a little bit, do more songwriting, spend more time with my family."