Tim O'Brien's new album is called Chameleon. It's based, in part, on an incident in O'Brien's childhood in West Virginia, when his pet chameleon got loose in the house. "It was kind of hard to go looking for," he says. "It's like trying to find your camouflage pants."
But the chameleon's a fitting metaphor for O'Brien himself. On 17 albums over the course of more than 20 years, O'Brien has never allowed himself to be pinned down. He's recognized for his instrumental skill, but he doesn't have a primary tool—he plays guitar, fiddle, mandolin, and a handful of other instruments with some degree of mastery. He's respected for his songwriting as well as for his interpretations of other writers' material. He's part traditionalist (O'Brien's recorded Irish folk songs, Appalachian ballads, and Carter Family songs) and part innovator (he's also released bluegrass versions of songs by Bob Dylan and Gillian Welch, sometimes uses drums in his arrangements, and he was part of the second big wave of progressive bluegrass with the band Hot Rize in the 1980s).
"I've won awards for being a bluegrass musician, but I've never claimed to be that exclusively," he says. "I'm sort of disguising the fact that I'm a bluegrasser. I heard a lot of that when I was a kid, and I ended up playing it a lot. When I was in Hot Rize, that was our best side, so we played that. But you kind of get pigeonholed. So maybe this new album sounds like I'm not bluegrass. That's fine."
Even though he's been, officially, a solo artist since Hot Rize broke up in 1990, Chameleon is O'Brien's first truly solo album. His first two records, recorded while he was still a member of Hot Rize, were made with his sister, Mollie O'Brien. He's collaborated with a string of acoustic and roots music all stars since then, including Darrell Scott, Jerry Douglas, Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile, and Dan Tyminski. His biggest chart success was the country single "The Battle Hymn of Love," with Kathy Mattea, in 1990. But O'Brien recorded Chameleon entirely by himself, with no outside accompaniment and no overdubs. He's also the producer, and he wrote or co-wrote all 16 tracks, many of them autobiographical, almost confessional.
The source for that was a long stretch spent away from his home in Nashville and back in West Virginia. "I took a year off from the road and hung out with my family more," he says. "I did some work setting up the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame and spent time with my family. My dad's 94 now, and my mother died a couple of years ago. So there's personal experience in these songs, more so than sometimes. But that's a good thing. I'm looking back at my past."
It's easily the most personal record the 54-year-old O'Brien has ever made, and highlights something beyond strict virtuosity.
"It's something I've wanted to do for years," he says. "It's a way of getting at the music. I've done it on stage a lot—about half the time I perform, it's by myself, which is a good way to pay the bills. It's a much more immediate experience. I was surprised by how big just an instrument and a voice can sound. There's so much more room for those two things when you do it this way."
For the last 12 years, O'Brien's records have been, to some degree, formal exercises. Whether it's Bob Dylan songs (Red on Blonde, from 1996), Irish and Celtic tunes (Two Journeys, from 2001), road songs (Traveler, from 2003), electric roots rock (Cornbread Nation, from 2005), or traditional American songs (Fiddler's Green, also from 2005), there's always been a conceit or organizing principle.
"It helps me to make a framework," he says. "I usually have a batch of songs and as I'm going through them I think in certain directions. I like to find a direction. For this one, I thought it was time to do a songwriter record. It's been a while since I've done that, and I don't want to neglect that part of me."