Tim O'Brien

Key to the Highway: Tim O’Brien

Interviews Key to the Highway Series

photo by Tim O’Brien

Americana Highways’ Key to the Highway series — Tim O’Brien

Fans always clamor to learn more about their favorite, most beloved musicians and those who travel with them. There’s such an allure to the road, with its serendipity, inevitable surprises, and sometimes unexpected discomforts. This interview series is a set of questions we are asking some of our favorite roots rock Americana artists to get to know more about them and what they’ve learned and experienced on the road for music. We are sure they have key insights to share and stories to tell. Here’s one from Tim O’Brien.

Americana Highways: How do you like your coffee or other morning wake-up beverage?

Tim O’Brien: I take the motel coffee with half and half. Sometimes they only provide fake creamer, in which case I go to the breakfast room for a carton of milk. If the coffee tastes like black water, I might get in the car, find an espresso place and get a latte or flat white

AH: What’s the most interesting or strangest motel/hotel or place you have stayed in (while on the road for music?)

TO: There have been some sketchy places, and some on the other end of the spectrum that are way too fancy. I liked a B&B where Darrell Scott and I stayed once in Belgium. We’d been staying a B&B’s in England and they have strict breakfast hours, whereas this place was happy that we didn’t want breakfast until after 10am.

A guy gave Jan and I his place on Egg and Bacon Bay in Tasmania one weekend and it was a kinda fish camp, pretty rustic. After Jan and I got tucked in and were just going to sleep, we heard a big thump on the roof, followed by the sound of some critter finding its place between the ceiling and the tin roof. The next day we met our host, who asked if the possum kept us awake.

Someday I’ll go back to the Movie Manor Motor Lodge in Monte Vista CO – each room has a picture window facing the drive-in movie screen, and there’s a speaker on the wall for the film sound. Short walk to the popcorn stand.

AH: If one CD is stuck in the player in the van for the entire tour, what do you hope it is? And why?

TO: A Treasury of Library of Congress Field Recordings, compiled by Stephen Wade. He wrote a book of essays about the various tracks called “The Beautiful Music All Around Us,” and I can remember a lot of the details as I listen. There are cowboy songs, Kentucky fiddle tunes, ballads, and a Native American lullaby. The Shipp sisters sing “Sea Lion Woman” and Bozie Strudivant sings a perfect version of “Ain’t No Grave Can Hold My Body Down.” Good clear sounding tracks recorded on aluminum discs between 1933 and 1946, they’re the building blocks of modern music, and this cd never wears out.

AH: What’s one personal item you must have with you on your road trip?

My little Swiss army knife. Most used feature is the toothpick, but the screwdriver, the knife and the scissors really come in handy. Another thing I carry everywhere is a little turtle. It’s a gift from Jan and a kinda good luck charm. It’s goes in the watch pocket of my jeans – along with a couple flat picks.

AH: What is your relationship with food? How do you handle this on the road, and what’s your favorite dish on the road, (or restaurant, and what do you order there)?

TO: When driving between one-nighters, I usually try to make time for one good meal in the middle of the day. The day often starts about 8 or 9am with the hotel room coffee and a banana or berries from last night’s backstage rider. At check-out time, Jan and I look for a local non chain diner for some bacon and eggs, or we might skip that, drive an hour or so and then have lunch.

When we find a good place, we file it away in our memory bank so we can come back again.

One new find is the Cap City Diner in Columbus OH. It’s right beside an Aloft hotel, and we enjoyed a late lunch before soundcheck, and then went back when they opened the next day at 11:30am. Musician hours means you’re often looking for food at odd hours – between breakfast and lunch and between lunch and dinner. At a popular place like Cap City, that was an advantage because they had free tables at those hours. The daily special is always worth considering, and at Cap City I did well with them both times.

On my birthday in March, we were on our way from Durango to Santa Fe, and Cuba NM is about halfway in between. I looked up northern New Mexico food there and then we went straight to Prescilliano’s on a hunch. It turned out to be the right place. Chili Rellenos smothered Christmas (both red and green chili). Their homemade salsa was light but spicy and they gave us a basket of sopapillas for the table. The sheriff came in with his family and ate at the next table, which kinda made it even better.

AH: If you could pause your life for a few weeks and spend some time living in a place you only have passed through, which would you choose, and why?

TO: I kinda liked Clonmel Ireland when we stopped there last January. We’d just spent 2 days in Dublin, and Clonmel seemed like it had the right pace and scale. It’s scrappy, not on the tourist trail, but they have some good pubs and you can fish for salmon in the River Suir. Liam Clancy and his brothers are from there. There’s a kinda soulful feel.

Marietta OH is another place. There’s a bunch of history, a steamboat museum, a big Indian burial mound, and Blennerhassett Island where Aaron Burr launched a plot to start his own country. You can eat a decent meal, see a show at the People’s Bank Theater, or just watch the river roll by. Just adjacent, Harmer Village sits on the south bank of the Muskingum river where it meets the Ohio. There’s a local sourced restaurant, and the same entrepreneur has a meat market, a bakery and is opening a distillery.

Nashville is an ideal base of operations for musicians, but I’ll often visit some place and think, I could live here. I look for cool places to spend off days, like those mentioned above. I like Port Townsend WA and Thomas WV, but they’re not exactly on the way from place to place. But maybe you see on the map that you’re going to pass through Onancock VA, so you book a room there just to see what it’s like.

AH: What quote or piece of advice have you gotten from someone on the road that has really stuck with you?

Delbert McClinton had some really practical advice when he said, “Never leave your wallet in the dressing room.” But I liked Phil Cousineau’s book “The Art of Pilgrimage.” He talks about getting to know a place, its history, what it’s about kinda, because you appreciate it more when you visit. And because I retrace a lot of the same steps, that attitude makes repeat visits more interesting.

During my years living in Colorado, I passed a kitchy road-side attraction in Genoa, Colorado countless times. Each time I would think, someday I’ll stop and climb the World’s Wonder View Tower where you could supposedly see six states, check out the fossils, and see the “World’s Largest Prairie Dog.” Somehow though, in the 22 years I lived on Colorado’s front range, I never did make the time to stop. I guess the problem was it was a little too close to home. If you were 90 minutes into a 12 hour trip from Boulder CO to the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield KS, it was too soon to stop. Conversely if you were going from Winfield to Boulder, you just kept pressing the gas pedal when you got to Genoa because you just wanted to get back home. The years zipped by and I graduated from ground to air travel, so I didn’t even see the place anymore and pretty much forgot about it. But in July of 2021, Jan and I passed by and had time to stop, and we did. By now, it had been closed for a seven years, and the new owners of the Wonder Tower were in the process of cleaning it out with hopes of someday reopening. I’m acquainted with one of them, Reed Weimer, and as we approached from the east on I-70, I called him. Luckily he was there and showed us around.

It’s on a high piece of ground, actually a little higher in elevation than Denver, but Reed said you can’t see different states because of the curvature of the earth. A large concrete prairie dog still stands. The place has quite a history, originally known to Native Americans for its freshwater springs which have since dried up. It was a stopping place on early cattle drives, and then soon enough it became first a stagecoach stop, then a train depot, and later a campground, motel, and night club. Charles W. Gregory, known as the P.T. Barnum of Colorado, opened a motor court, café and road house there in the 1920’s, and eventually built the tower where motorists heading west could see the mountains they were heading toward. Jerry Chubbuck bought it in 1967 and he built more rooms onto it, connecting them with homemade decorative concrete work. He opened a museum featuring his collections of arrowheads and blue glass bottles, and an “Animal Monstrosities Room” that housed a two headed calf. Weimer and fellow Denver friends bought the place in the summer of 2015, and now 6 years later, he said he spends a lot of days out there, cleaning it out. There were no other tourists, just a lot of grasshoppers. The consortium bought another building to house the stuff they want to keep as they go through it all. Maybe in another year or so, if you’re driving on I-70 east of Denver you’ll see a sign for “World’s Wonder View Tower”, which would mean they’ve reopened the place.

To find more information on Tim O’Brien — tour dates and more — click here or scroll a bit further below: https://timobrien.net

See other Key to the Highway interviews here: https://americanahighways.org/category/interviews/key-to-the-highway-series/ (click here for: Vince Herman Jimmy Smith  Ben Nichols Bruce Cockburn Charlie Musselwhite Nicki Bluhm Jim White Danny Barnes  Patterson Hood Jerry Joseph BJ Barham Rodney Crowell Todd Snider Elizabeth Cook Tommy Womack Eric Ambel, Dan Baird, Robbie Fulks, Malcolm Holcombe Jon Langford Steve Poltz, Lilly Hiatt  Sarah Shook & the Disarmers Sadler Vaden )

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Cup of Sugar – out June 16 on Howdy Skies Records
Pre-order link: https://howdyskies.lnk.to/cupofsugar
Press photo of Tim: https://www.dropbox.com/s/99q5sw6dqhjhk9g/tim%20obrien.jpg?dl=0 Credit: Scott Simontacchi

Saturday, May 6, 2023 Hot Springs, Virginia
Friday, May 26, 2023 Cleveland, West Virginia
Saturday, May 27, 2023 Cumberland, Maryland
Saturday, June 17, 2023 Telluride, Colorado
Saturday, July 8, 2023 Frankfort, Illinois
Sunday, July 9, 2023 Frankfort, Illinois
Wednesday, July 26, 2023 Berwyn, Illinois
Friday, July 28, 2023 Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin
Saturday, July 29, 2023 Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin
Thursday, August 3, 2023 Prague/Czech Republic
Saturday, August 5, 2023 La Roche, France
Sunday, August 6, 2023 La Roche, France
Friday, August 18, 2023 Manchester Center, Vermont
Saturday, August 19, 2023 Manchester Center, Vermont
Sunday, August 20, 2023 Red Hook, New York
Friday, September 29, 2023 White Hall, Maryland
Saturday, September 30, 2023 Mamaroneck, New York
Saturday, October 14, 2023 Big Stone Gap, Virginia
Friday, November 3, 2023 Moab, Utah
Saturday, November 4, 2023 Moab, Utah

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