Watching other people’s vacation videos is an ordeal most of us prefer to avoid, opting instead for some less painful pastime, say, open heart surgery with only a Tylenol for anesthesia. There’s some sort of rule, apparently, that requires all amateur videographers to disregard ambient light levels, shake uncontrollably and juxtapose random images without sense or pattern. Only the folks in the video get the jokes.
When a musician sets out to write about travel, a familiar subject, the result is most often tunage resembling bad vacation footage: it only means something if you were there. Tim O’Brien has spent most of his life on the road. Thankfully, when he sets his hand to writing about travel, the result is a wonderful montage that captures both giddy fun and personal costs the road extracts.
A proven composer, vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, producer, arranger, and road warrior, O’Brien has fronted some of the finest bands in American string music, including his own Tim O’Brien Band (amply and ably represented on this disc by Dirk Powell, John Doyle, and Casey Driessen). Over a trio of decades, he’s carved out a secure niche in the Americana scene; his legacy is secure.
With Traveler, O’Brien pauses in the middle of the empty highway, looks both ways, and describes what he sees with a clever humor and melodic insight that effortlessly spans the sometimes daunting distance between two wandering hearts. The road veteran knows the view from the bus window is interrupted only by gigs and home, but not every homecoming is joyful, not every gig a success. The costs exacted by a life on the road have inspired numerous formula country tunes, but in O’Brien’s hands each song deftly achieves a fresh energy.
O’Brien has always incorporated a buoyant optimism in his music, and the quirky “Kelly Joe’s Shoes” kicks this album off with the unmistakable Dirk Powell on accordion. (I’m not sure, but it’s possible that O’Brien has written the best-ever tune about Converse All Stars.) You’ll need that smile as the CD takes a sober look at the peaks and valleys of relationships warped and bent by the strains of travel.
And there are some dark moments here. “On the Outside Looking In” captures the narrator in that moment before decision, suspended between two conflicting alternatives. “Let Love Take You Back Again” implies a familiarity with grief and near-despair that demands the balance provided by the sweet lightness of “Fell Into Her Deep Blue Eyes” and the return of the traveler’s optimism in “49 Keep on Talkin’.” In between, O’Brien muses about the state of the Civil War ghost reported to inhabit his studio/garage (“Restless Spirit Wandering”) and the mysteries held close by his parents (“Family History”).
It’s a tough way to make a living, but on Traveler, Tim O’Brien manages to highlight the value of returns, both the delight of a warm homecoming and the lessons gleaned from time invested on the road. Unlike those dreadful vacation videos, this CD delivers a series of poignant vignettes, the little episodic mile markers of everybody’s life, the places along the side of the highway where we, too, can stop, and look both ways.