We’re backstage at the Voice Works festival in the bucolic seaside town of Port Townsend, Washington, and I’m about to start an unexpectedly ambitious project: interviewing five members of O’Brien Party of 7. What seems like a simple interview quickly spins into a rowdy dinner-table conversation, as each member of this extended family band spins off the other, interrupting at will and cracking wise in the background. A few months later I’ll be struggling to transcribe this, trying to parse out who said what and which voice belonged to whom. But that’s what it’s like in a family, nothing’s ever quick and easy, and even the simplest interaction can easily roll into chaos.
Of the musical families I’ve interviewed or visited with, the O’Briens are some of the closest and happiest, at least in this moment. They’re about to go on stage to sing a whole repertoire of songs that they’ve recently rediscovered: the songs of country-pop troubadour Roger Miller (you can hear these songs on their debut album, Reincarnation: The Songs of Roger Miller). O’Brien Party of 7 is not one of those family bands that tour the country out of a modified RV; they’re certainly not some kind of gimmicky family band. They’re just a real family that’s found a great way to get together more often to enjoy each other’s music on stage. Backstage now in the giant converted hanger that constitutes this festival’s mainstage, four members gather around a table to talk about the new album. Husband and wife Mollie O’Brien and Rich Moore start the conversation, joined by their daughters Lucy and Brigid (pronounced with a hard ‘g’) Moore. After a few words, Rich says “Call your uncle over,” and Tim O’Brien (Mollie and Tim O’Brien are siblings) puts down his iPhone to slide into a chair at the table. We’re missing two members of O’Brien Party of 7: Tim’s two sons Jackson and Joel. “They’re out parking the van,” quips Rich, but really they’re back at their homes in Minneapolis and Asheville. All the kids in the O’Brien families are grown and have left the house, and it’s easy to see how glad Mollie, Rich, and Tim are to have their kids back playing music with them.
I want to know what it was like growing up the children of Grammy-award winning roots musicians like Tim and Mollie O’Brien. Were there lots of great artists coming through the house? Did Mollie and Rich let their daughters listen to whatever they wanted? What was their musical education like? I ask them if they grew up with a lot of music in the house, and Brigid replies “Yeah, all kinds of music.” “We got to grow up—“ Lucy begins, before her father interrupts: “Who’s the best bass player, girls?” and both Lucy and Brigid immediately reply, at the same time and in the sweetest chorus, “JAMES JAMERSON!” “That’s my girls,” Rich replies, beaming proudly. “I knew I had done well when Brigid called me from a music appreciation class in college. And she said, ‘Dad, today we covered soul music and this guy didn’t even mention James Jamerson.’ (the bass player in Motown) I thought, aw, what am I spending my money on this for?” Laughing, Lucy continues, “Yeah, we listened to all kinds of music. We listened to everything that our parents listened to. Old stuff, all different kinds of things.” “Then you started bringing stuff,” Rich says, “like when you started listening to your own music. Ace of Bass…” Ace of Bass, I ask? “Remember them?” Mollie asks me.
I sure do, and I’m a bit surprised our conversation has led down this path. But we’re here to talk about O’Brien Party of 7’s first album, a tribute to country-pop songwriter Roger Miller, so I should be expecting a light dose of irreverence. And how did they get into Roger Miller anyways? Aside from a few major hits, mainly “King of the Road,” he’s not exactly at the forefront of people’s minds these days. I ask Mollie if she grew up listening to Roger Miller, and while she’d heard his music back in the day, she admits to being more of a Streisand fan in her youth. Rich listened to Miller years ago as well, but he doesn’t describe himself as an old-school fan. So how did the idea for the album come about? “We were at a dinner somewhere,” Rich remembers, “and there was a Roger Miller song on and someone, I think Mollie or Tim, said ‘oh maybe we should do some of these tunes, maybe do a whole album of them.’ It kind of morphed from there.” “It was a good place to meet,” Tim adds. “It seemed like everyone was interested in it. It was sort of like ‘how are you going to make a frame with all these divergent tastes?’ It seemed like if we did this we’d have a frame.” “There’s something for everybody in Roger Miller,” says Lucy. “Funny songs, sad songs,” says Brigid. “Really sad songs,” adds Mollie. “Super goofy songs,” says Lucy. “They’re modern too,” adds Tim, “what’s cool about him is that they’re still modern. They’re still quirky and unusual… and they’re unknown, a lot of them.” I wonder out loud if recording and performing so many Roger Miller songs has brought any Roger Miller “super-fans” out of the woodwork. They all laugh, but this doesn’t seem to be the case. “I met his widow,” Tim says. “She came out to a gig. She thought the family band was gonna play. It was the day the record came out and I was playing a show in Nashville, and it was in the paper that this record had just come out, so she came out [to the show]. I got to meet her, she was real nice. She was very excited! She had been out of town, but she got the CD and she listened to it that day.” “Did she like it?” asks Mollie. “ “She really liked it. She really liked the harmonies,” says Tim. “Oh, good” Mollie says, relieved. “It’s funny,” Tim says, “no one’s done a tribute record or a compilation of his. No one’s done a set of his songs other than him.” “Why do you think that is?” Mollie asks. “I don’t know,” Tim replies, “it’s weird.” “He’s kind of an underdog, maybe,” says Lucy. “I mean maybe he wasn’t pigeonholed enough in one category because he did so many different things.” “He was a country singer,” says Tim. “When he hit, country music endorsed him again, but he wasn’t making it in country music, and he was giving it up and going to Hollywood to be an actor… he went to Hollywood and he was on Johnny Carson a lot. He’d just sit on the couch and sing his songs. Johnny Carson really loved him.”
Listening to the album, it’s true that the songs are all over the map. From funny protest song “Guv’ment” to the strange ditty “Hand for the Hog,” Miller’s humorous songs are so well written that they rise above novelty. And the more poignant songs, like “Tall Tall Trees” (sung beautifully by Lucy), or “In the Summertime” are heartfelt pop songs crafted from simple materials and lyrics, but clearly made by the hand of a master songwriter. Honestly, O’Brien Party of 7 is one of the few bands that can pull off the musical diversity that Miller’s songs require. Tim brings an acoustic roots music pedigree to the songs, but Mollie and Rich fill out the showy, Streisand-like swing blues of the more dramatic songs, like “Reincarnation” and “Train of Life.” The stand-out track, no surprise, is Miller’s biggest hit, “King of the Road.” Mollie and Tim trade lead vocals and the whole group joins in to transform his signature song. It’s a triumph, and hopefully a version that would do Miller proud.
As we talk, I start to realize how far apart each family member lives from the other. Tim lives in Nashville, Lucy and Brigid in Brooklyn and Los Angeles, Mollie & Rich in Denver, and Tim’s two sons in Minneapolis and Asheville. How on earth do they manage rehearsals before shows? According to Molly, they’re lucky to get in a rehearsal the day of the gig. “It’s rolling the dice, I tell you,” Rich chuckles. Still, I say that it must be great getting so much family time. At the least, the band’s a great excuse to get together more often, right? “It’s the most time we’ve gotten to spend straight through together,” Lucy says. “Last summer we spent a couple weeks doing the shows and festivals, and we spent time in Nashville to record. It was so much fun, we got to eat dinner together every night. There were a lot of challenges, but we all ended up putting it together.” “The glue is the younger generation,” Rich says. “It really is. The three of us [Tim, Mollie, Rich], well, y’know… The four of you kids, when you get together you’re all so excited to see each other, it just pulls the rest of us together. “Well we all just get along,” says Lucy, “and if we weren’t family, I think we’d still hang out together.” “We all like each other,” says Rich. “Some families can’t get through dinner, y’know, but we got through an album.” “We have a lot of fun,” says Mollie. “That’s the main thing.” I’m sure Roger Miller would have agreed.