Tim O'Brien,
Cornbread Nation
(Howdy Skies/Sugar Hill, 2005)

One can imagine far worse places to be than in a nation united around a common love of cornbread and all that it implies, including homegrown Southern music. The title song, a Tim O'Brien original that manages to be equal parts blues and bluegrass, provides a recipe for both the food and the good life -- cornbread for the soul, one might say.

A good-natured and superbly executed album, Cornbread Nation will not soon wear out its welcome. O'Brien, whose major paychecks come from his day job as a successful Nashville songwriter, has deep roots -- unlike all but a tiny handful of his colleagues -- in traditional folk, bluegrass and early country music. These genres inform his various recording projects, some more interesting than others, though to his credit O'Brien is always unafraid to take chances. Here he takes mostly old folk songs and reworks them, changing or switching lyrics and applying rhythm sections or whatever happens to strike his fancy, and serves up uniformly tasty fare. He records so prolifically that I can't claim to have heard or absorbed everything he's done, but to my taste this is his most consistently realized solo album.

One couldn't pull this off without affection, knowledge and confidence, all of which O'Brien possesses in generous supply. He breathes life even into "House of the Rising Sun," the warhorse whorehouse ballad whose New Orleans setting affords it a sudden poignancy that O'Brien had no way of suspecting when he recorded it. Though a product of the British Isles (later revised as an Irish rebel song), the erotic "Foggy Foggy Dew" here gets a kind of jazz-blues reading, framed by Kenny Vaughan's electric guitar and Sam Levine's baritone and tenor saxophones. The inspiration is clearly Josh White's rendition, done in the gone-the-way-of-the-dodo nightclub-folk style, and of course nobody did, or will ever do, Josh White better than Josh White. Nonetheless, O'Brien's version pleases and satisfies on all counts.

A particular stunner is the (exactly) six-minute "Moses," cobbled together in an eerily resonant arrangement -- soon all one hears is the recurring chant "in some lonesome graveyard" -- from that family of spirituals drawing their inspiration from that Old Testament patriarch's storied career. O'Brien and band transform "Walkin' Boss," memorably recorded by Clarence Ashley for Folkways in 1961 soon after Ralph Rinzler rediscovered him, into an impressive bluegrass exercise. "Boat up the River," best known from the Roscoe Holcomb and John Jackson readings, sounds nigh unto perfect, and only passingly like what Holcomb and Jackson gave voice to.

O'Brien integrates floating blues lyrics into Jimmie Rodgers's "California Blues," in its original incarnation mostly stolen words anyway; one is certain that Rodgers would approve. He revives the late, revered Nashville songsmith Harlan Howard's "Busted," a folkish song that in 1963 dominated the charts as both Johnny Cash country hit and Ray Charles pop landmark. (Its stark depiction of rural poverty led Howard's friend Chet Atkins to wonder half-seriously if he'd become a Communist.) The album closes -- appropriately in this unsettling era of apocalyptic storms and eschatological devastation -- with the heart-rending spiritual "When This World Comes to an End."

by Jerome Clark
5 November 2005

Buy it from Amazon.com.