Sterling: What’s your next challenge now that Chameleon is out?
O’Brien: I have so many ideas for my record projects, but I’m not sure which one will come into focus next. One change in direction now is making more room for studio production. I like the process of helping others realize their music, and living in Nashville there’s so many musicians and studios available, plus I get to sleep in my own bed each night. The travel has lost some of its shine, so recording and writing are good antidotes to too much road time. Writing seems more and more important. It’s something I can leave behind when I’m gone. Being self-employed is something like fishing—you set out lines and hope for enough little fish and the occasional big fish. Compared to Boulder, Nashville’s a much bigger stream, and being there has helped me be a part of some bigger projects like the “O Brother, Where Art Thou” soundtrack, and the “Cold Mountain” soundtrack, plus television things and recording with people like Steve Earl and The Chieftains. It can be hard to keep your own soul together there, in the face of the big commercial marketplace. I wasn’t ready to go to Nashville until I already had an identity of my own. These past 12 years in Nashville, though, I just kept doing what I wanted to do as an artist, except I've been able to use assets that weren't available to me before.
Sterling: As well known as you and Hot Rize became, there must have been hard times and struggles along the way. What (or maybe who) kept you going during those times?
O’Brien: The four Hot Rize members were best friends, and we had a lot of fun trying to fit into the traditional bluegrass scene. I mean our hair was too big and we were from the wrong part of the country. But we carved our own circuit, and by accident made a new sound in the genre. …
There was always a bigger and bigger carrot at the end of the stick and we kept running toward it as fast as we could. I learned I could write songs and how to be on stage. We blew up several engines on our bus, but we had a bus, which was something amazing to me. Even when it wouldn’t start, we were cool. I read about the Beatles and how it was sort of them against the world. It was the same for us. We spent a lot of time just driving, and we found ways to laugh in the face of cancelled gigs and breakdowns (not the kind you play on the banjo). Somehow we toughed it out until about 5 years into it, when we started making a better living.
Public radio was coming on strong in those early days, and we benefited greatly from airplay on those stations around the U.S. Plus, the relatively new bluegrass festival movement and the sprouting of various localized bluegrass organizations provided a touring base. The organizations, festivals, and radio all combined to make it work. Our first recording was very well received and somehow it all worked together.
Sterling: After leaving Colby you got your first gig playing for room and board in a pizza joint in Jackson Hole, according to a Colby magazine profile, but there are a few years between there and Colorado and forming Hot Rize. Are experiences in those years that sent you in a direction that you wouldn’t have expected?
O’Brien: During the winter of ’73-74 in Jackson Hole, I visited a friend in Boulder CO. During that visit I made several more friends, one of whom asked me to play in his bluegrass band as well as work in his music store. After rambling through the summer of ’74, I went back to Boulder and took him up on his offer. The band was the Town and Country Review, and the music store was called Folk Arts Music. About three months after arriving there, I joined another band, The Ophelia Swing Band, and quit both the other situations. Ophelia was really fun and challenging. I was learning lots of new (old) music, and woodshedding on the fiddle, guitar, and soon, the mandolin. We made two records for a now defunct Denver label, Biscuit City Records. I also made a solo for the same label. All three are long out of print, but I was surprised to find they all came out on a little label in Japan. I was having a print interview with a journalist there and he brought the CDs for me to see.
I had met my future wife, Kit, in Boulder, but she’d gone back to her home state of Minnesota for art school, so I joined her there in March of 1977. By October, we'd gotten married, and made a plan to move back to Colorado. Pete Wernick had called to ask if I’d like to form a band, and that was the beginning of Hot Rize. We played our first shows in late January of 1978.
In Minnesota, I played in various bands, and guested some on the early edition of “A Prairie Home Companion.” The association with that show continued when Hot Rize started touring. At that time, I was learning as fast as I could about music, my instruments, and how to get jobs. Toward the end of that time, I was mostly playing bass in a bluegrass band. That’s a hard job, and I really wanted to play the fiddle and guitar. Pete called as the winter weather was about to kick in. Kit and I said let’s get back to sunny Colorado, and I’ll be a partner in this new band with Pete, who had lots of contacts in the music world that would ultimately help us get record contracts and an international touring situation. Neither Pete nor I could have predicted that our little group would make a mark like we did in the 1980s.
Things were so up in the air in those days. It seemed like I was waiting for things to happen. Luckily they did. Once I got the girl, I got a good band too. Music trumps most everything for me, but staying with Kit was even more important. She’s been my best friend and a good common sense meter in a career where that kind of thing can be kinda scarce.
So I guess the combination of cold weather, my marriage to Kit, and Pete Wernick’s phone call turned things around eventually for me.