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By Tom Murphy
Country artist Tim O'Brien, who appears on Saturday, December 13, at the Houston Fine Arts Center in the company of Mollie O'Brien, the O'Boys and the Swallow Hill Swing Band, left his Denver home for Nashville eighteen months ago, partly because he thought that being headquartered in Music City might help him place tunes with other successful artists. He was right: "When There's No One Around," which O'Brien co-wrote with guitarist Darrell Scott, is track eleven on the new Garth Brooks CD, Sevens. For a C&W tunesmith, this is the equivalent of hitting the lottery. If Brooks's album is a smash (and given first-day sales of almost 400,000 units, it's already on its way), O'Brien stands to make a staggering amount of money--perhaps more than he's collected in his long career to date.
When asked about this windfall, O'Brien is modest. "It's more than major-appliance time," he says. "When the money comes in, we'll have to spend it wisely. But we'll have a cushion."
At the same time, O'Brien has no intention of shelving his own career in favor of becoming a hired pen. He's got a new recording of his own--When No One's Around, on the Sugar Hill imprint--and he's enjoying playing the songs from it live. "I definitely want to be on the road, and to do session work, too," he says. "Being just a songwriter can be sort of lonely. Nine years ago Kathy Mattea did a song of mine, and I could have gone down that path. But if I hadn't done anything else but write songs and try to get other people to sing them since then, I think I'd be a lot more depressed than I am now."
O'Brien's latest offers a strong argument in favor of staying the course. Produced by Jerry Douglas, the piece sports guest appearances by Hal Ketchum, Darol Anger of the Turtle Island String Quartet, Isaac Freeman of the Fairfield Four and onetime Denverite Randy Handley. But the focus is on O'Brien, who's among the most versatile artists around. From the bluegrassy "How Come I Ain't Dead" and the relaxed, good-humored "I Like the Way You Cook" to the deeply emotional "Think About Last Night" and "Out on the Rolling Sea," a rewrite of a ditty associated with island legend Joseph Spence, O'Brien operates on an extremely high level. The authenticity that so much contemporary country lacks is his birthright.
"When There's No One Around," the disc's de facto title cut, concludes the offering on a poignant note; the words concern a man examining the parts of his personality that he generally conceals from everyone, including himself. The manner in which it reached Brooks has everything to do with the Nashville connections O'Brien has been making of late. "The way it happened was that Darrell and I were writing the song at our publishing company, which happens to be partly owned by Allen Reynolds [Brooks's producer]. A song plugger, Matt Lindsey, heard us writing it and started talking about sending it to Garth right away. So he gives Garth a tape of it, and a couple of days later Garth comes up to Matt and starts singing it in his ear. Now, Garth and Allen had listened to a lot of songs. But his singing it was a good indicator that he liked it. And his liking it held up."
Not surprisingly, Brooks's rendition of the composition won't be mistaken for the original. Whereas O'Brien treats it with subtlety, coaxing it along in a light-fingered fashion, Brooks approaches it with his usual theatricality; it ends with him whistling the melody off-mike, as if he's walking into the sunset at the end of a Western. "It's amazing how somebody could make it so completely different and yet have it obviously be the same song," O'Brien admits. "For Garth, it's a power ballad, with screaming electric guitars--and he really belts it out, which stands to reason. But it's really cool that he did it. I know that Allen thought that it was something new for Garth--it has a six-eight thing in it and an introspective lyric about inner thoughts. So I couldn't be prouder."
Now that O'Brien has been given Brooks's vote of approval, it's likely that other popular artists in search of songs will come a-knocking. (Another O'Brien creation is already on the cusp of release; Ketchum will include "You Love Me, You Love Me Not" on a CD set to hit stores in January). The folks at the Grammy Awards have taken notice as well: Both Tim and Mollie, who's at work on a new solo record of her own for Sugar Hill, contributed to True Life Blues, which was judged the best bluegrass platter of last year. All things considered, Tim has no complaints. "It's been a pretty good year and a half," he says.
Although Denver's Celeste Krenz has not yet hit the heights of O'Brien, who's a friend of hers, she's taken a step in the right direction. She's hard at work on her first album for Denver-based Bohemia Beat Records, which has a glowing reputation, a new star in Abra Moore, and a national distribution deal with Rounder Records that's sure to raise Krenz's profile.