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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.

Singer-songwriter Bob Tyler, who's Krenz's collaborator in and out of the studio, says the deal with Bohemia Beat blossomed from his and Celeste's rapport with label owner Mark Shumate. "We've been friends with Mark for years, and to be honest with you, I don't think the thought of this happening ever occurred to any of us until recently," Tyler says. "I had just finished a new studio in my home, and we started talking about things, and it just went from there."

Shumate contributes a few more details: "I've always totally loved Celeste's music, and I felt the same way about Bob's songs. He was always giving me his tapes and CDs, and I just kept being more and more impressed with what he was doing. Then, when he was showing off the studio to me, he played some new songs that he and Celeste had written, and they were just great. And I thought that maybe it was time that we did something together." At first he was afraid that the three had grown too close for the situation to be workable: "I think we've all had relationships in our life that have soured us on trying to do business with friends." But, he adds, "we decided to try and keep everything on a fun level, and so far we've been able to do that."

Several intriguing musicians have already become part of the project, including co-producer Randy Rigby, Sally Van Meter (whose credits include work with Tony Furtado) and former Subdudes member John Magnie, with whom Tyler has been doing some writing. "We have about eighteen songs, and we're hoping to hone them down to twelve," Tyler asserts. "We're shooting for a spring release--and we think it's going to push Celeste to another level."

In this regard, Abra Moore is a potential role model. A performer who calls Austin home, Moore made a record called Sing for Bohemia Beat that got the attention of talent scouts at Arista Records. "They wanted to know if there was any reason to pursue signing her," Shumate recalls. "And at that point, I'd become acquainted with how much more a major label can do for an artist than an indie can. So I said, 'I'd welcome you getting involved, but first let me talk to Abra.' So I talk to her, and she says, 'Arista wants to do something, but I don't know--we really like the way your deal works, and we like working with you.' And I told her, 'Abra, you're crazy.'"

Moore's second album, Strangest Places, ultimately came out on Arista/Bohemia Beat and promptly racked up critical acclaim, loads of airplay for the single "Four Leaf Clover" and strong sales. "She got a review in People and articles in Interview and Spin and her own print ad for Visa," he crows. "She opened for Collective Soul, she's opened for Big Head Todd and the Monsters, and she's probably going to be on the Lilith Fair."

Shumate, who has a live CD by Jimmy LaFave and a studio package by Michael Fracasso in the works, stands to benefit from Moore's success, too; he's getting a portion of the Strangest Places action, and he will also have a financial interest in her next album. "The whole thing has made me wonder if my objective shouldn't be to work with an artist to the point where she gets national attention," he concedes. "Hopefully, that's what will happen with Celeste. Because she certainly deserves it."

Our final country item of the week is a sad one. KYGO-AM/1600, a classic-country station lauded in the December 12, 1996, article "Playing the Classics" and in this year's Best of Denver issue, is no more; it ceased broadcasting at midnight November 30 and is currently simulcasting the country programming heard on KCKK-FM/104.3. This sounds like more of an even trade than it is: While KCKK-FM is known for its concentration on commercial country from the Seventies and Eighties (not exactly the golden age of C&W), KYGO-AM played the best country tunes from a five-decade span, making it an oasis in an otherwise predictable radio landscape.

Says Chuck St. John, a seven-year veteran of KYGO-AM (he spent the last five as its program director): "The main reason we made the decision was from a long-term ratings standpoint. There's been some shrinkage in the size of the country audience nationwide, and with three country stations in the market [KCKK-FM, KYGO-AM and powerhouse KYGO-FM], it was hard to make room for them all. Plus, doing music on AM is tough. I think aside from us, only KEZW [an easy-listening station with a swing-music/big-band twist] has been able to survive."

Nonetheless, KYGO-AM had built a loyal, and sizable, audience. "I've gotten quite a few phone calls from people after the switch," St. John allows, "and I've been trying to call all of them back to explain why this had to be done. But if there's a plus side to all the calls, it's that it shows that people really had a love for the radio station. And that makes you feel good, knowing that you did something worthwhile."

St. John is hoping to ease the transition for listeners by tinkering with the format of KCKK-FM, which he also oversees. "We did some research and discovered that there's still a huge appetite for new music. So on KCKK, we probably won't be the station to break the new Garth Brooks single, but once the song is well-established and well-known, we'll pick up on it and mix it with some older stuff--not only from the Seventies and Eighties, but also from artists like Patsy Cline. We're hoping to broaden our demographic by going a little bit newer on one end of the scale and a little bit older on the other end."

The elimination of KYGO-AM's original programming has meant changes for its staffers. A handful of part-timers have been let go because there simply isn't anything for them to do anymore, but St. John says Jefferson Pilot, the broadcaster's parent company, is trying to make room for full-time air talent. "Doug Olipra, who did our news, is now going to oversee the news and public-affairs operations for all the stations. John Steele, who did mid-days, is helping us coordinate a lot of the overflow sports programming we run. Terry Jones, who did mornings, is going to do a country oldies show on Saturday and Sunday evenings, probably starting the weekend after Christmas. And we offered Rich Beall, who did afternoons, a new position, but he declined it; he has some investments that he wants to work on. But he's staying on until the end of the year."

What will be done with the 1600 AM signal in the future? "Instead of just turning it off, we decided to simulcast KCKK, which isn't perfect, but at least there's country on it for the old KYGO-AM listeners," St. John points out. "We'll probably keep doing that through the first quarter of next year, and after that, we'll go with something new." He hints that "there are a lot of ideas in the pot" in regard to what to try next, "but it probably won't be a music-based format.

"This has definitely been a personal loss for me. When you put this much time and energy and day-to-day work into a station, it's really a reflection of yourself. It's tough to let it go. And I love the music. But it's one of those things you have to do to move on to whatever's next."

Last year, Michael White, the man behind Denver-based NBT Productions, put together a benefit for two local charities--Santa's Toy Bag and the Adopt the Children program--that he dubbed "The First Annual Bella Ball." Three bands (Bella Coyote, Fast Action Revolver and 3.0), a comic (P.J. Moore), a jazz artist (Jack Wright), a performance artist (Eric Rieger), a poet (Tia) and three belly dancers (Letifa, Patty and Heidi) donated their time to the event, which was set to take place on December 7 at the Tivoli Brewery Restaurant in the Tivoli complex, which serves as the student center for the Auraria campus. But there was one small problem: The restaurant and nearby (america) nightclub were shut down several hours before the festivities because of what an Auraria spokesman cryptically described as "some violations under the lease." Thus, the happening was canceled, and White was unable to reschedule it before Christmas.

This year White hopes things will be different. On Saturday, December 13, at Seven South, NBT Productions is putting on this year's Bella Ball, which has been dubbed the "Second Annual," even though its predecessor did not actually take place. Rieger, Shannon Scott of KHOW-AM/630 and several unnamed poets, comedians and random performers are scheduled to appear in support of the Hectics, the Vermicious Knids and Product 626; a raffle for prizes will also be held. All proceeds are earmarked for Santa's Toy Bag, and attendees are encouraged to bring new toys for those less fortunate boys and girls out there. In the meantime, join me in a prayer that Seven South won't be shuttered prior to the show.

Following the release of 1996's KBCO Studio C, Volume 8, I was contacted by Scott Arbough of KBCO-FM/97.3, who informed me in no uncertain terms that I was a blithering idiot. For many of you, that's not exactly a news flash. The reason this time, though, was that I had not written about the disc in advance of its release. Since I'm desperate to be in Arbough's good graces, I promised myself to make amends this year. But unfortunately, I did not receive word from the station about the impending appearance of KBCO Studio C, Volume 9 until more than a week after my deadline and several days after it hit stores. Now, of course, all 25,000 copies of the platter, which benefited the Boulder County AIDS Project, have been sold, and I'm writing after the fact again--which is no doubt my fault. I could try to explain how this mistake occurred, but I'm just too dumb to know how I could have gotten KBCO personnel to have sent the material sooner. I promise I'll try harder next year.

Godmoney, a new film by director Darren Doane, features music by MXPX and others and stars Rick Rodney, the lead singer of Strife. It can be seen at 7 p.m. Thursday, December 11, at the Bluebird Theater, and after the screening, Rodney and Strife will play a set. Is it live or is it celluloid?

The LaDonnas have finished their latest album, which comes out on the Scooch Pooch imprint in February. It's titled Rock You All Night Long, and Scott Campbell, the booker at the 15th Street Tavern, says that it "sounds like AC/DC." Judge for yourself when the LaDonnas join Boss 302 at the Tavern on Saturday, December 13.

One of the folks in our classified department informs me that Big Head Todd and the Monsters were featured on Jenny Jones's talk show during Thanksgiving week. However, Todd Park Mohr was not on hand so that he could admit harboring a secret crush on his bandmates; the group simply played a song. Another scoop down the drain.

Here's a joke that only followers of the Denver music scene will get. After seeing Ron Howard on TV last week, my wife suggested a great new name for a band: Opie Gone Bald.

I'm not going to have to explain that one to you, am I? On Thursday, December 11, Half-Way There goes all the way at Cricket on the Hill, with Freak Hungre and Bears of the Sun. On Friday, December 12, Carolyn's Mother nurses Tina and the B-Side Movement at Herman's Hideaway; the Snatchers get grabby at Seven South, with Sizewell and Lower 48; and the Hot Tomatoes stew at the Mercury Cafe. On Saturday, December 13, Chaos Theory touts Toys for Tots at the Bluebird Theater (admission is $6, or $3 with a donated toy). On Sunday, December 14, electric guitarist/composer Richard Cummings performs at the Houston Fine Arts Center (info can be gleaned at 759-1797); Hazel Miller returns to the Fox Theatre; and Zero adds up at the Little Bear. On Tuesday, December 16, a taping of E-Town at the Boulder Theater features Ricky Skaggs and Jeb Loy Nichols And on Wednesday, December 17, Lionel Young visits Brendan's in support of his new CD, As the Sun Goes Down. Hot stuff.

--Michael Roberts

Backbeat's e-mail address is: Michael_Roberts@westword.com. While you're online, visit Michael Roberts's Jukebox at www.westword.com