Tim O'Brien

Cornbread Nation

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In the early fall of 2005, Tim O'Brien simultaneously released two albums, Cornbread Nation and Fiddler's Green, on Sugar Hill. And while both dig deep into the fabric of American roots music, the albums also revealed O'Brien's split musical personality, a split that dates back to his work with Hot Rize/Red Knuckles & the Trailblazers during the 1980s. Cornbread Nation gives birth to the more expansive side of his neo-traditional core, allowing him to borrow from country and soul, and to meld instruments as varied as electric guitar and congas to a folk base. The opening cut, "Hold On," features an infectious hillbilly-rock beat, driven by Kenny Vaughan's electric guitar and Kenny Malone's rhythmic base, while the traditional "Moses" affects a gospel feel thanks to the presence of a small choir. "The Foggy Foggy Dew," on the other hand, co-opts a very mellow Western swing, while "Walkin' Boss" comes close -- save the presence of a drum kit -- to bluegrass. Eclecticism, then, rules the day on Cornbread Nation, with players and instruments changing from song to song. Far from scattered, though, the album is underpinned by the dominance of traditional songs like "House of the Rising Son" and "Boat Up the River." Further unity is provided by O'Brien's expressive vocals and exuberant performances by everyone involved. A couple of these songs, especially "Moses," are too long, and the O'Brien originals, like the title track, lack the fire that made his work with Darrell Scott so exciting on Real Time in 2000. Overall, though, O'Brien shows himself capable of adding to tradition on Cornbread Nation without stripping the raw authenticity from these old songs. Experienced with Fiddler's Green, the album represents O'Brien's continued exploration and updating of the best of American roots music.

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