Over their separate travels through the years, one question continually found its way to Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott.
The query was simple: when were these learned Americana stylists going to perform together again? To an outsider, that might not seem like such a revolutionary thing to ask. After all, the two have maintained fruitful solo careers that regularly made room for collaborative projects. But there sits the distinction of the inquiry. Given all the music they have created, how could even devout fans recall the joint work of O’Brien and Scott when their only performance document, an album titled Real Time, is over 13 years old?
The answer turns out to be simple. Real Time chronicled the arrival of two performers with remarkable artistic simpatico. Sure, West Virginia native O’Brien has been a favored name among bluegrass followers for over 35 years thanks to a variety of solo, duo and ensemble projects highlighted by his ‘80s tenure with the influential Colorado band Hot Rize. London (Kentucky) born Scott’s roots extended closer to traditional country, an inspiration handed to him in part by his father. But everything converged from there.
O’Brien and Scott are essentially triple threats. Both are inventive multi-instrumentalists, robust vocalists and intensely literate songwriters. Speaking of the latter, two famed female country singers had hits with their songs. Kathy Mattea sent O’Brien’s The Battle Hymn of Love into the Top 10 in 1990 while Kentucky Music Hall of Famer Patty Loveless scored with Scott’s You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive a decade later.
Furthering the bond were the moonlighting adventures both artists spent in the bands of two veteran rock ‘n’ rollers. O’Brien toured with Mark Knopfler in 2010 while Scott recorded and toured at the same time as part of Robert Plant’s Band of Joy.
But near the end of the ‘90s, O’Brien and Scott teamed up, discovered their mutual musical prowess and an explosive love of playing songs together and cut Real Time. In short order, they found others were equally excited about their alliance.
“Real Time just kept growing in reputation, slowly and surely,” O’Brien said. “After awhile, you don’t think about that stuff. Then people would come up and ask me when I was going to do more stuff with Darrell. It didn’t matter if I was in Australia or Kentucky. They would all go, ‘When are you going to do more with Darrell?’ And so it was just kind of waiting there to happen.”
“Logistics largely accounts for the fact that it’s been 13 years since Real Time,” Scott added. “So we just put it on our calendar. Prior to that, it was the same with me. Every night when I talked to people after shows, their No. 1 request was for Tim and I to get back together.”
O’Brien and Scott set the stage for a reunion as far back as 2005 and 2006 with one-off performances at the Arthur Morgan School in North Carolina, where each had children enrolled. Scott recorded both performances, although nothing initially surfaced. But as work dedicated to a new studio album and subsequent tour ensued, a live record from the Morgan School shows surfaced with the low expectations title of We’re Usually a Lot Better Than This. Even more so than on Real Time, the live album illuminated the duo’s skills as songwriters, players, interpreters and highly intuitive performers and harmonizers. All of that carried over beautifully to the recently released studio follow-up, Memories and Moments.
“We have both remarked before that we meet at old country music – Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and that school,” O’Brien said. “Not so much the more modern stuff. I come from more of the bluegrass thing. Darryl comes from more of the singer-songwriter and r&b stuff. We’re both traveled, so I guess the common roots are with the mountain sound. We do touch each other’s mountain and country buttons, I guess. That kind of emerges in a stronger way when we’re together. We’re playing acoustic instruments, which fits, too. That’s where the intersection starts.
“We play off of each other extremely well,” Scott said. “There are reasons for that. Tim is a consummate instrumentalist. He could back up and be part of anybody’s band. That’s what I do, too. We’re also listening like crazy to each other. We kind of push each other, but not in any kind of bullying or competitive, crazed kind of way. When we play together, he pushes the Kentucky in me to where my mountain roots start showing. But Tim’s West Virginia roots are part of the thing, too. He has no trouble bringing more mountain to his music. He has embraced that all along.
“But for now, we push that button together. It happens in our singing and in our harmony. We do that as vocalists. We do that as players. We do that as lovers of songs.”
Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott perform tonight at 7 at the Lyric Theatre, 300 E.Third, for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour with Ron Block with Sierra Hull. Tickets are $20. Call (859) 280-2218 or go to www.woodsongs.com.