A traditional alchemy
Bluegrass veteran Tim O’Brien and Irish folk luminaries Lúnasa join forces
“Venerable” is a word that Tim O’Brien enjoys using when speaking about artists he’s worked with over his long career. It’s an interesting descriptor given that the musical realms in which O’Brien operates are primarily homages to traditional music—bluegrass, country, folk, etc. To be considered venerable while playing musical pieces that have existed in hundreds of incarnations is a sign of special respect.
One such group of artists to which O’Brien extends this respect is longtime traditional Irish folk quintet Lúnasa, with which O’Brien has forged an on-again, off-again collaboration for several years and is currently on tour performing on the same stage. For traditional music aficionados, this is a dizzying convergence of talents, and one that has its roots in the history of Western music as a whole.
For O’Brien, the meeting of his storied technical wizardry, songwriting and vocals—as typified by his run with pioneering progressive bluegrass crew Hot Rize, in which he manned guitar, fiddle, mandolin and banjo—and the ever-evolving influence of Lúnasa was a no-brainer.
“This is a great natural collaboration for me and for them,” O’Brien said during a recent interview. “It was really amazing how fast the music came together when we went to rehearsal.”
That could be because there are precedents with this particular collaboration. Lúnasa bassist Trevor Hutchinson appeared on O’Brien’s most recent solo album, the irreverent and sprawling Pompadour (2015), and Lúnasa piper Cillian Vallely previously toured with O’Brien. Through these partnerships, the two entities determined that the symbiosis of their melodic and rhythmic heritages could expand into something new.
The Irish band released its self-titled debut in 1999 to much international fanfare for both its allegiances to and its development from traditional Irish and Celtic music, ordinarily more melody-based in its arrangements and improvisations than rhythm-driven American bluegrass.
“Lúnasa have kind of a jazz-bass sound, and then you’ve got this driving rhythm guitar that provides the thrust underneath the melodies,” O’Brien said. “That definitely makes them different than other Irish groups. It’s a great little gig, because I’m learning and I think there’s something new happening.”
O’Brien’s work excavates and reinvents traditional music in many forms, reveling in turning a standard on its ear for the benefit of keeping it alive for another generation. There’s deep study involved here for O’Brien that comes with the territory as a songwriter, specifically when related to Irish music.
“So many people came from Ireland to the United States in the late 1840s,” O’Brien explained. “You have the old ballads and songs that people brought and they sort of stayed frozen in the Appalachian Mountains, where more archaic stuff survived longer because it was so isolated. That’s what bluegrass comes from, these old fiddle tunes and ballads combined with American influences and the African culture. They make bluegrass, they make rock ’n’ roll, they make jazz, they make country music. Whatever you call American music, it’s those things.”
O’Brien and Lúnasa are currently on the road together for the first time, and O’Brien remains optimistic that future recording collaborations could result from their suddenly much closer quarters.
“Things are starting to get more nailed down; there’s more improvising as we go,” O’Brien said. “It’s an easy-going kind of alchemy happening.”