More than 40 years ago, an eastern Ohio bluegrass bandleader took a young Wheeling, West Virginia, mandolin player under his wing, and then saw him settle in Colorado where the young man eventually formed one of the hottest and most innovative bluegrass bands of the late 20th century.
No slouch himself, the older man ended up making his home base in Athens, Ohio, where he became nothing less than a regional musical legend, the reluctant role model for successive generations of Athens-based folk, roots and bluegrass musicians (plus, the author of memorable tunes recorded by an assortment of famous country, bluegrass and folk artists).
Move forward to mid-April of this year when the two old friends joined forces to record an album in nearby Meigs County with a crew of longtime Athens music scene players and singers, our community’s own Wrecking Crew.
Tim O’Brien, a solo artist and leader of the award-winning and internationally renowned bluegrass band Hot Rize, returned to Athens to produce and play on a “legacy album” for his old friend and mentor, J.D. Hutchison. The album, recorded April 18-24 at Peachfork Studios in Meigs County, will result in a J.D. Hutchison and Realbilly Jive album (in CD and download).
Hutchison recorded two previous Realbilly Jive albums near the turn of the century, with a group of seasoned local musicians with whom he also played live shows. They all returned for the current project.
O’Brien and local friends of Hutchison have launched an IndieGoGo campaign to raise money for recording, mixing, mastering, packaging, shipping and promoting the CD, along with all of the other tasks involved in issuing a successful music product these days. Go to www.indiegogo.com/projects/jd-hutchison-realbilly-jive#/ to find out more about the album and donate if you’re so inclined.
The local folks helping this effort are many, though the main instigators are Hutchison’s longtime Athens area friends John Edwards, Mimi Hart and Jeff deLaval.
In a wide-ranging interview April 18 at a bed & breakfast in Athens where O’Brien was staying gratis thanks to owners Fred and Christine Tom, O’Brien, 62, and Hutchison, 75, talked about the crowd-funding project, their early friendship, their ideas about recording music, and Hutchison especially, the indignities of “geezer-dom.” Later email correspondence with O’Brien and others filled in gaps in the information, including after-the-fact assessments of how the week of recording went down, from April 18-24.
DURING THE INTERVIEW, O’Brien explained how the recording project got off the ground.
Referring to John Edwards, a longtime friend and supporter of Hutchison in Athens, O’Brien said, “Edwards here told me that we ought to document J.D.’s songs, and I’m always looking for an excuse to come up here and visit J.D. And he came up with a perfect reason. This was something in the back of my mind for several years, that it would be great to record with the man.”
O’Brien said he intended “to get the full 360 degrees of J.D.’s personality on a recording of some sort this week” referring to the week in mid-April. In addition to producing (and mastering and mixing from his studio in Nashville), O’Brien said he intended to play a bit on the record, too, though he acknowledged that J.D.’s local band members, the aforementioned Realbilly Jive, “somewhat have it covered.” (In a draft of the album’s liner notes, O’Brien is given credit for vocals, mandolin, fiddle, banjo and bousouki.)
According to Mimi Hart (of the nationally renowned retro singing trio, The Local Girls), who provided vocals for the project, “almost brothers” Hutchison and O’Brien did some sweet harmonizing during the session, some of which was “as close to blood harmonies as I have ever heard the non-related achieve.”
O’Brien agreed that the sessions went well in an email on April 25. “I contributed some ideas and some parts as player and singer, but mostly J.D. and the Realbillies made their music how they have for so long.
“It's modern folk music in the best sense,” he added. “There were no lyric sheets or charts; everyone's parts were internalized. J.D.'s great lyrics sit in an Americana gel of R&B, country and jazz.”
Funding the Project
Despite the considerable volunteer efforts feeding into this album/CD project, it’s not going anywhere without funding, and that’s where the crowd-funding site IndieGoGo enters the picture.
O’Brien, who has recorded records with another fundraising site, Kickstarter, help in the past, explained the benefits of a crowd-funding campaign for getting the word out about a record.
He compared it to a situation where a young band is performing for little or no cover charge, but then as the word gets out that this band is pretty good, the cover goes up and the crowds start growing.
“That’s kind of the idea of this,” he said, referring to Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, etc. “It grows from a very humble beginning.”
O’Brien mentioned a Kickstarter campaign for an album that he and singer-songwriter/player Darrell Scott recorded in 2013, “Memories and Moments.” According to the project’s Kickstarter page, 698 backers raised $31,952 for the album.”
O’Brien said he initially was skeptical about using a crowd-funding campaign to raise money for a record. “Are we going to look like we’re begging for money?” he said. “Are people going to say these are established artists, are they really going to need money to do this? But we’re going to have to get it somewhere, and the truth is we’re giving these CDs to the people that support the project to begin with…. And you’re kind of selling it to them at a slightly higher price, but they get an inside look at it. And it’s finding your audience. That’s part of the reason it works.”
With J.D. Hutchison, O’Brien said, it’s not just a musical project but a historical one, as well.
“We're asking people to buy into J.D.,” he said in an email on April 25. “We're not asking folks to bet on a dark horse; it's more like we're asking them for help documenting and supporting a living treasure. It's like funding a national park, or a library. Athens supports its own, and that community is the vanguard, sewing seeds that grow good art.”
Among the many appealing aspects of this recording project, according to O’Brien, is that it’s “done out of love and respect, and much of the work is donated.”
Hutchison, who’s not high tech or mid-tech, admitted that the Internet crowd-sourcing idea “is all so foreign to me.
“I’m so retro, man, being born right before they invented water. I started thinking people are talking about Kickstarter, and I’m thinking who would want to kick-start an old geezer for anything unless it’s getting him away from the dinner table.”
Back in the Day
“J.D. was born with the body of a hillbilly and the brain of an artist.” – Tim O’Brien, in an April 25 email message
The Hutchison-O’Brien friendship began in the early to mid-’70s in Wheeling, just across the Ohio River from Belmont County, where J.D. grew up and based his band at the time, the Hutchison Brothers (which included his brother Robert, aka “Zeke”). Their father had been a renowned old-time fiddle and guitar player in the Barnesville area.
“We had some fun,” Hutchison recalled of those days playing with the Hutchison Brothers. “Our little band we had, we had a full complement of players. We were rocking around just trying to stay alive without having somebody having to go into some factory or something. You know we weren’t making enough money hardly to get by. In a good week you’d make $125 or $150.”
O’Brien, who grew up in Wheeling, had met J.D. a few times at a music store in that city where the latter worked, though Hutchison says he’s a bit fuzzy about those in-store run-ins (in an account on www.jdhutchison.com, he recalls [or doesn’t], “My frame of mind at that time was such that I would not have remembered had George Washington risen from the dead and come in that store for a capo or a set of guitar strings…”).
O’Brien, however, remembers seeing J.D. playing in Nick’s Music in Wheeling, possibly on one of O’Brien’s visits home from Colorado, around 1974. “I think he played ‘Nine Pound Hammer’ like Merle Travis behind the counter,” O’Brien said.
The crucial meeting, Hutchison said during the April 18 interview, occurred sometime in that period “at a bluegrass party on the banks of Big Wheeling Creek that mutual friends were having.
“We went back to the house and after we had been there for a little while,” Hutchison continued, “we were pissing around with some instruments, and man, he was playing his guitar, and we were all gathering around and getting in tune, and he started picking ‘Peach-Picking Time in Georgia,’ and I said, ‘Son of a bitch, man,’ and it just killed me. We stood there and knocked out a few things, and then when we were done, we got to shooting the goose poop and stuff. I said, ‘Hey, what are you thinking about doing, man,’ and he said, ‘Well, I don’t know,’ and I said, ‘Whatever it was, you’re gone now.’”
O’Brien agreed that it was a good feeling to meet a kindred spirit in Wheeling.
He remembered, on another visit home from Colorado, in spring or summer of 1975, going to see a friend, Pete Bachmann, play a gig at Tin Pan Alley in Wheeling “with John (J.D.), his brother Zeke on banjo, and Tim Sparkman on bass. I sat in on fiddle, and from then on J.D. and Zeke and I were fast friends.”
O’Brien recalled discovering that he and Hutchison shared a lot of the same musical tastes.
“Meeting up with J.D. was like, ‘Oh, you like that kind of stuff? You like Django Reinhardt?’ (a reference to the legendary swing jazz guitarist) We just sort of had a mind meld right away. I was just learning about that stuff, George Jones and all this stuff, and I see these guys (the Hutchison Brothers) on stage singing and playing it on stage, and I thought, ‘man, this is a great resource,’ and I just kept going back to the well.”
In the April 25 email, O’Brien said he realized early on that Hutchison had “a great overview of American music, the roots and branches that I was diving into at the time.”
Hutchison was “a contemporary songwriter who found a way to write new bluegrass material that sat right in the tradition, at a time when the norm was to go into a more progressive direction,” O’Brien said. “He came from the roots naturally, having parents who played and sang traditional music, and he honored that but didn't let it limit him.”
Hutchison recalled those times, as well.
“For a long time, Tim would bring one or two of his instruments with him. Man, I loved it whenever he did… You know how Tim is, an innovative, elegant player of stuff, and I’m frantically wondering how we can work this guy into this thing, but we had five guys already. But I’m really thinking, work this guy into this somehow, because he just made me happy every time he showed up. And then next thing I know, he’s hauling ass to Colorado.”
In Colorado, O’Brien began playing with the Ophelia String Band in 1974, which he described as “sort of a cross between the Kweskin Jug Band and the Hot Club of France,” and then in January 1978, helped launch Hot Rize. The rest is history, as the, by turns, traditional and innovative band became a leader in bluegrass at a time when it was attracting lots of cross-over interest from the rock ’n roll side of the tracks.
During the April 18 interview in Athens, Hutchison complimented O’Brien for his ability to pull everything together, and freely admitted that figuring out how to parlay his own talent into fame and fortune has never been his strong suit.
“From the time you split from around home, and moved out to Colorado, you made all the right moves,” he told O’Brien, who was sitting a few feet across the room. “I never had the desire really to dig into the whole aspect. It’s like the business of music and the music business. There’s a difference there. The business of music is interesting to me. But the music business, I’ve never had an appetite for that.”
That conversation moved to a discussion about the two old friends’ recording philosophy.
“When we were first getting to know one another,” O’Brien told Hutchison, “you said you liked to hear somebody’s brain working on these recordings. I don’t really like to hear music that’s so by the book that nobody is really paying attention to what’s happening. That’s kind of what I like about making records, trying to get that thing where everybody’s collaborating; there’s kind of a chemistry happening, and you can capture that, and it’s audible.”
Hutchison, not surprisingly, agreed. “Part of what might contribute to that is just not having things so Goddamned strangled to death before you do anything,” he said. “Maybe it won’t come out right but maybe it will come out better than it might have if you don’t have the tune so completely picked apart that there’s no life in it.”
WHEN THE ALBUM COMES OUT in September, The Athens NEWS will run a follow-up story. A CD release concert is already scheduled for the Peoples Bank Theatre in Marietta on Sept. 24, with Tim O’Brien joining J.D. and Realbilly Jive.
The album’s title is “You and the World Outside,” with cover art by Greg Dearth, fiddle player for the Hutchison Brothers all those years ago.
The Realbilly Jive players on the album are J.D. Hutchison (lead vocals, acoustic guitar and songwriter), John Borchard (guitars and steel guitar), Jim Smailes (guitars and vocals), Dave (Bubba) Borowski (bass and vocals), Geoff Goodhue (drums and vocals) and Mimi Hart (backup vocals).
Many others were involved with other aspects of the project, including graphic design, engineering (by Bernie Nau at Peach Fork Studios), website and connectivity, and the IndieGoGo campaign.