In search of enchantment: Tim O'Brien and Po' Ramblin' Boys

It’s funny how a slip of the tongue can flip a switch and turn the light on. The other night, I was at Calhoun’s with a small group of friends old and new from the Flatwater Storytelling Festival, and D. Ray Smith was being his entertaining self. He was charting his upcoming travels to Iceland, Ireland, and Israel, one purpose of which is to give talks on "nuclear tourism."

Maybe it was the late hour, the bucolic setting by the river under a spectacular persimmon-colored full moon, or the key lime pie, but Ray was playing fast and loose with the names of these nations beginning with the letter “I,” saying Isra-land and Ice-rael in his classic Middle Tennessee accent, realizing there is only a one letter difference between the realms of Dublin and Reykjavik. Then he slipped and said he was giving talks about nuclear terrorism, not tourism.

Fortunately, we could laugh it off. Odd, this Secret City humor. It was the second time that day that the subject of nuke terror and an “I” nation had come up. Sitting around a sidewalk table in front of “201” in Jackson Square with Fran Silver, Art Dworkin, Judy Cohan and Rachael Colby, we had discussed Iran, Israel and the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency).

There is import in coincidence. The morning after Calhoun’s, I read a 1947 quote from the Surrealist painter René Magritte, who said “It is much easier to terrorize than to charm.” Magritte lived the artist’s mission, hand-to-hand combat with “routine ugliness.” His paintings were a “counter offensive” against the banality of evil, which is nothing but a bad habit. The worst kind of bad habit.

Magritte gift-wrapped a perfect direction to all of us, from the shadows of the mushroom clouds that ended World War II: “We must go in search of enchantment.”

Egon Schiele, the Viennese Expressionist who died at age 28 in 1918, a month before WWI ended, said pretty much the same thing. He said with scriptural simplicity that we should “envy those who see beauty in everything in the world.”

The Po' Ramblin' Boys return to Oak Ridge to perform a free concert at Bissell Park in Oak Ridge on Saturday.

So ... I envy Tim O’Brien. The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys too. Through their eyes, their string-playin’, their singing, there is amazing beauty in everything, everywhere. Beauty, and humor. You can experience it for yourself Saturday night at Summer Sessions, thanks (again) to the ORNL Federal Credit Union and our friends at WDVX. Join the counter offensive against the banality of idleness.

After a sort of false start to Summer Sessions 2023, at which the Hackensaw Boys and the Larry Keel Experience played to a very minimal audience in Kingston at the picturesque but inconvenient Fort Southwest Point natural amphitheater, now it’s time to get serious about this concert series, because Tim O’Brien and the bandmates he’s bringing with him are national treasures, and the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys are just about the hottest bluegrass outfit imaginable. Write this down: 6 p.m. Saturday, June 10, at Bissell Park, on the freshly painted outdoor stage. Do not miss the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys and the Tim O’Brien Band!

Any music festival in North America would make this show the featured performance of their run, so I’m begging you, Oak Ridge, please come out in unprecedented numbers to welcome these artists to Bissell Park. Call every friend you have. Email everybody you know. Use your so-called social media to do something positive for a change. But most of all, bring your kids to this concert. Show them what the counter offensive looks like, ‘cause if you can’t pry their noses out of their tablet screens, if you can’t get them out in the fresh air and setting sun of a perfect late spring evening, and if they can’t learn to enjoy participating in the cultural functions of society, we are in serious trouble.

The first time the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys played in Oak Ridge was two summers ago, July 2021, opening for the one and only Sierra Hull. It had been a soggy couple of days prior to the concert, and that afternoon was damp and overcast. The show went just fine, but it was the encore that made news.

The PRB’s were relative unknowns at that point, in Oak Ridge anyway, even though they had been rapidly evolving over the previous five and a half years as the house band at the Old Smoky Moonshine Distillery in Sevierville. They had just found their ideal configuration: founder C.J. Lewandowski on mandolin, Jereme Brown on banjo, Josh Rinkel on guitar, Jasper Lorentzen on bass, and the ever-so-lovely ain’t-no-ramblin’-boy fiddle player Laura Orshaw. And they breezed into town fresh off their 2020 Grammy nomination (Best Bluegrass Album) for their first Rounder Records album, “Toil, Tears and Trouble,” plus a bushel of IBMA and SPBGMA “Song of the Year” awards.

After her set, Sierra Hull coaxed her band and the PRB’s, plus her precocious protégé Wyatt Ellis, to follow her off the stage and right out into the middle of the awkwardly shy Oak Ridge audience to play up close and personal. It turned out to be the jam heard ‘round the world, thanks to a handy smartphone videographer and the ubiquitous YouTube.

After kicking it off with a completely unrehearsed but blazingly precise go at Bill Monroe’s “Roanoke,” the circle of musical magicians were trying to decide what to play next. Off camera, someone posed a riddle in the direction of Jereme Brown. “What’s the difference between a banjo and an onion? (pause) Nobody cries when you cut up a banjo!” You can see in Jereme’s eyes that he’s thinking “oh yeah?” before he launches into “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” with a vengeance, and you can hear Earl Scruggs whispering “... oh hell yeah.”

To date, that video has been viewed one and a half million times. 1.5 million times! It’s probably safe to say there are more people who associate Oak Ridge with that jam session than with nuclear terrorism. I mean tourism. Sorry, Ray.

Saturday at Summer Sessions, I want y’all to get out of your comfort zone, as they say, and set your chairs up close to the stage for the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys and Tim O’Brien’s band. This sitting 30 feet back is for the birds. Bluegrass is visceral music. It’s music you gotta feel with more than your ears, so sit close. When the PRB’s catch a fire, be close enough to roast marshmallows. That’s probably why Sierra Hull brought everybody out to jam off-stage. They were wondering why y’all sit so far away.

Tim O'Brien, second from left, and his band will be performing Saturday in Oak Ridge.

Tim O’Brien. What can you say about Tim O’Brien? A week after this show in Oak Ridge, Tim’s latest album, “Cup of Sugar,” will be released. It is on page seven or eight of the list of every record he has ever been involved in, either as a solo artist, as a band leader, as a member of Hot Rize, Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers, NewGrange, or the incredible Earls of Leicester, as a producer, or as a composer, for artists that include Garth Brooks, Hal Ketchum, Bryan Sutton, Alison Krauss & Union Station, Nickel Creek, Dierks Bentley, Kathy Mattea, and Phish, believe it or not. Some of his records, like “Cornbread Nation,” “Memories & Moments,” “Fiddler’s Green,” “Real Time,” and “Red on Blonde,” have to be on your list of all-time Americana masterpieces.

Tim called me a couple of days ago, because I had asked to interview him, but when we finally connected, it was nearly 3 p.m. on the first day the Municipal Pool was open, and I was there with my kids, so all he heard from my end was kids squealin’ and all I heard from his was laughter. After that call, he probably thinks Oak Ridge looks like Coney Island.

The Tim O’Brien Band includes Tim’s partner Jan Fabricius on mandolin and vocals, Mike Bub on bass, Shad Cobb on fiddle, and Corey Walker on banjo.

Think about these people for a second. Let the richness, and the power, and the depth of what they’ve accomplished in their musical lives steep in your mind for a bit, because that’s what they bring with them to share with us.

Shad Cobb has played on stage or on albums with Steve Earle, Willie Nelson, Billy Strings, Blue Moon Rising, Robbie Fulks, the great Jack Lawrence, Pine Mountain Railroad, and Jim Lauderdale, to name just a few. Mike Bub’s recording credits include Molly Tuttle, Loretta Lynn, Sturgill Simpson, Rhiannon Giddens, Wanda Jackson, John Prine, Vince Gill, Doc Watson ... plus 13 years on stage with Del McCoury. Corey Walker is a Nashville studio youngblood who released his first single six months ago, co-written with his brother Jarrod, who plays mandolin in Billy Strings’ band. The single, “Far Away Again,” is sung by Tim O’Brien, backed by two stars from Dan Tyminski’s band, Gaven Largent and Harry Clark, with Billy Contreras and Dennis Crouch.

So when the Tim O’Brien Band steps out on stage, you will see five musicians you have probably never seen in person before. But it’s a tip-of-the-iceberg illusion, because they represent the creative corporation of hundreds of the greatest musical artists on Earth. They bring all that experience, all that blood, sweat and tears, all that joy and laughter, and lay it right in your lap.

It’s more than that, though, because it is just five individuals who, as amazing as they may be, are just people like you and me. Like the five people in the PRB’s. Real people, not stars. Real down to Earth people, who bring an extraordinary gift to the world.

And it doesn’t cost you a penny. All you gotta do is show up. So please, please show up! “We must go in search of enchantment.” Show these amazing people that what they do means something to you.

John Job is a longtime Oak Ridge resident and frequent columnist for The Oak Ridger.

Tim O'Brien and his band will be performing a free concert at A.K. Bissell Park in Oak Ridge on Saturday, June 10, 2023

This article originally appeared on Oakridger: Tim O'Brien, Po' Ramblin' Boys to play free Oak Ridge concert Saturday