Colin O’Brien: Banjo on My Mind

Tom McDPOSTED ON MAY 18, 2014



Colin O’Brien is an anomaly. Colin O’Brien is a folk singing, guitar playing, fiddling banjo picker who is making a living doing what he loves, in Nashville. Remember the old joke;

Son:”Mom I want to be a banjo picker when I grow up”

Mom: “Now, son, you can’t do both.”

Colin has figured out how to do both, plus the others. The key term mentioned above is “making a living”. Colin O’Brien has been making his living performing his original music and favorite covers around the country for over 20 years. He resides in Nashville on the Cumberland River, just 200 yards downstream from Hartford’s Bend, where the late John Hartford used to live and call out to the riverboats as they chugged by. Nashville, mind you,where Colin has found new life as a musician, picking banjo and playing fiddle, performing his own songs and also playing with a group of well known Nashville bluegrass pickers, former band mates of John Hartford, The Colin O’Brien Nashville Stringy Band. He’s turning some heads.

With twenty some odd years of performing and a background in classical guitar, Colin O’Brien is the real “overnight sensation.” So, where did this guy come from? Where’s he headed? Colin has spent most of his life as a full time musician, playing in various bands around his home state in Michigan and around the country. “At 18 or 19 I was pretty blindsided by a guitar player named Michael Hedges. He also had a background in classical guitar, completely wildly innovative and a great composer and I thought, well that’s what I’m going to do.” Colin says. He headed to Seattle, WA, to study classical guitar at Cornish College of the Arts Music Conservatory and along the way on this guitar odyssey, he got side tracked. “I started listening to Leo Kotke, John Fahey and Mississippi John Hurt; those guys were coming out of a different canon all together, really, and those guys led me into delving into American vernacular music.” Colin told me awhile back. From those influences you can see how Colin wound up with his sound, doing what he’s doing.

Colin’s last album, After A Song is a great example of what you will hear when you catch a Colin O’Brien show. Mostly original songs steeped in Americana/Roots tea, melodies that may seem familiar, but are the result of notes from a lifetime of tunes that are floating around in Colin’s noggin, re-assembling themselves and coming out when they’re ready, the “folk process” at work. Colin’s lyrics and tunes are varied; whimsical, contemplative and deep. Track 5, is a cover of John Hartford’s “The Six O’clock Train And A Girl With Green Eyes”.    

My favorite though is something I never would’ve thought about putting in a song, and, hey, I’m a songwriter, too. Track 2, “Hey You”. This song will one day be blasted from my front porch in rural Arkansaw, up the hill to my neighbor, a city transplant who obviously is not a star gazer: “Hey you, up on the hill, Why you leavin’ your lights on?” This clever song is about an annoying neighbor who insists upon lighting up the neighborhood, all night long! Colin offers up a rant with a solution. Here it is:  

So, maybe you haven’t heard of him? Colin, like so many great talents in this country who never appear on the big airwaves, has listened to his Muse, followed his dream, and is now living it. Sounds like a cakewalk? It’s pretty tough and uncertain, but Colin is determined and talented. Like a lot of full time musicians we never hear about, Colin has chosen to paddle his canoe out of the mainstream. Colin never had stars in his eyes. He knows himself and at this point, Colin is settling in to a realization that he will survive as a musician in Nashville. Sort of. You see, we the public see Nashville as “Home of the Grand Ole Opry”, home of the popular prime-time TV hit soap opera series “Nashville”. (okay, I confess here, I’ve never watched an episode of Duck Dynasty and I’ve never missed an episode of Nashville. Yes, I’m a country boy!) Music city, a place for anyone who can write a song or sing a tune to come and strike it rich overnight. Yeh. Veteran musicians know better. Nashville is a very cool tourist spot, especially if you’re into music history, but if you’re a songwriter or up and coming legend in your own mind, well, do your homework. Nashville can be a vicious place, home of notorious gatekeepers who can stagnate your career with the swipe of an ink pen. Home of supportive pros who flock to the Bluebird Cafe to appreciate the unknowing on songwriter’s night, and take their hook lines home to study, pick apart and make their own. (a strangely popular, un-ethical product of songwriting workshops, you know, ‘sign ‘em up, give them their money’s worth and presto! You can write a song!). You’d better pack a silver bullet and a cross if you’re a musician/songwriter going to Nashville! Unless you’re Colin O’Brien.

Colin did not make the move with mainstream stardom on his mind, yet here he is. How? How does a folk singer get from Michigan to Nashville? There is a saying, “Success is P hard work and P luck.” Colin O’Brien looks a little like John Hartford. Similar demeanor. Black Derby hat. Colin O’Brien was wearing a derby before he even knew who John Hartford was. Colin was performing at a folk festival in Peoria, IL. The man behind the John Hartford Memorial Festival, John Hotze, happened to be there. He was planning the John Hartford Memorial Festival in his mind. He saw Colin perform and liked him. John had this to say about this young man who could dance a little flatfoot while he played Hartford inspired fiddle tunes. “Colin just seems to be becoming more like John every year I see him. He has a very similar stature to John. He certainly fits in well with the Hartford festival.” John says. (for more about John Hotze-…)     … John Hotze booked Colin O’Brien for the second festival where Colin shared billing with the likes of Jamie Hartford, Great American Taxi, Larry Keel and also Mike Compton and Larry Perkins, former members of John Hartford’s legendary Aeroplane Band. Larry Perkins, who was producing records here and there was taken by Colin’s music. Larry Perkins says this about Colin O’Brien, “Colin’s music is genuine, whimsical, full of wisdom, carefully crafted, energetic, and highly entertaining, and for me, a very pleasant, refreshing surprise…” Larry talked Colin into coming on down to make a record. The result was 14 songs, titled After A Song, starring Colin playing John Hartford’s Stelling Timbertone Banjo, along with guitar and fiddle, also starring Larry Perkins on banjo and guitar, Matt Combs on fiddle, Mark Howard on mandolin and Dennis Crouch on bass. Pretty impressive company! Larry then told Colin, “Colin, you oughta move on down here. You can stay with me.” Colin did just that. From there? Well, Larry moved to Florida and Colin moved his wife down to Music City and stayed. About his connection to John Hartford? Colin discovered John Hartford’s music in the mid-nineties. “I was living in Wisconsin, playing in a band and doing some solo stuff, really trying hard investing, trying to get that band on the road which was logistically impossible. So I thought, I’m trying to make a living at this and it’s really not working with this band and I need to liberate, and I heard John(Hartford) and heard his dancing and I thought ‘Wow’, if I could do that I could play a wider variety of gigs. So at the tender age of 31 or 32 I was reduced to jumping around on plywood in my basement.” Colin began to learn John Hartford songs. Although he never got to see John perform live, Colin has sort of stepped into that path of keeping the legacy alive. Colin wasn’t in Nashville long at all before he formed Colin O’Brien and the Nashville Stringy Band with Mike Compton, Matt Combs and Todd Phillips, an acoustic super-group as entertaining as they are virtuosic, all former bandmates and recording pals of John Hartford. Do they think Colin is trying to be another John Hartford? Of course not. The band loves what Colin is doing and they miss playing John’s music. So it all congeals for them. Colin divides his time between his solo gigs, the Stringy Band and his John Hartford Tribute show. Sometimes the band joins him in the tribute. I asked Colin if he assumes character when he performs John Hartford. “Oh no. Ironically, I just have to be myself. I’ve studied the material a lot, and I love the material. I’ve studied his technique, his songwriting, I’ve absorbed it, and I’ll continue to. I really enjoy it, that’s my favorite part of it, frankly.” When Colin O’Brien does John Hartford, he is doing just that so don’t expect to see a John Hartford impersonator when you see Colin’s Tribute show. Expect to see instead, someone who’s appearance might fool you from a distance, and someone who is interpreting the music of John Hartford in is very own style. He is carrying on the legacy of the Father of NewGrass. (see…)



Colin was paddling his canoe down the Cumberland River (legally this time-you’ll have to ask him!)trying to find John Hartford’s old home. He met a neighbor, got to tour the house and later, through the current owner, was able to learn about and purchase a place just down stream from John Hartford’s old home. Colin, through hard work, integrity and luck (serendipity?) has landed home. He’s getting known around town. He’s booking now through an agency, Artists of Note, and will continue making a living as a folk singer/songwriter in Music City, USA. Sample more of Colin O’Brien’s music and see some video at Colin will be performing his own music, performing his “John Hartford Tribute”, and jamming with the stars on the late night Main Stage closer at this year’s 4th Annual John Hartford Memorial Festival, coming up May 29th-31st at the Bill Monroe Music Park, Bean Blossom, Indiana. Other headliners include Great American Taxi, Jamie Hartford and Friends, Mike Compton, LeRoy Troy, The Keels, Bawn in the Mash, Pert Near Sandstone and many many more.                                            

Ernie Hill