TIM O'BRIEN talks about "Cup Of Sugar"

Article Contributed by Propeller Publicity | Published on Wednesday, May 24, 2023

"The songs started with 'Bear.' It was December of 2021, and the news was all about Russia and would Putin invade Ukraine. I had just read a book on the history of dancing bears. White Nationalism was a prominent topic, the flip side being Black Lives Matter. Trump had lost the election but was ramping up his spoiled brat act. I could imagine the gripes Putin, Trump and the White Nationalists had, even if I didn’t agree. I’d also reread some of a favorite book by Rafi Zabor: The Bear Goes Home. In the plot, this guy in NYC wins a dancing bear in a card game, and after he gets busted trying to busk with it, he leaves the bear in his flat during work. One day he comes home and the bear’s talking and playing clarinet. The bear becomes a jazz sensation but he’s also the ultimate outsider. So I was thinking about all that. I think the bear represents anyone or any social group that feels their world has changed too much while they weren’t looking. The bear comes out of his cave in spring and all the trees are cut down. He’s just pissed off. 'I’m a bear' he cries, 'but damn it, I’m more than that.' I can identify with the bear because I’m old. I don’t relate to a lot of new stuff and while I do fairly well in spite of all the changes, sometimes I’ll swear at them.

"The saddest song is one I wrote with Jan. We were driving along talking about some folks we know who are locked into a dysfunctional relationship, how we wished they could figure it out, change things. Jan said, 'She can’t.' I said, 'He won’t.' and then we both said, 'They’ll never' in unison.

More songs started coming in the spring of 2022. I got with Ronnie Bowman and these brothers from West Virginia, Chris and Donnie Davisson, to co-write. I try to bring something to a session so we can start right in, and I thought how about 'thinkin’ like a fish.' I played a funk lick on the banjo and we spit out some words to it. After we were done that day, I played it for Jan’s son Lane, who’s crazy about fishing, and he gave me an idea for the last verse. Another song that fell out one morning is 'Let the Horses Run.' I happened on the funny story of Lulu the Nashville border collie who inherited a fortune when her owner died with no heir. The dog’s master was a guy who helped put up a notorious statue of the first Grand Wizard of the KKK here in Nashville, and his death resulted in the statue finally coming down. Ronnie and I got together again and came up with ‘Diddleye Day,' which rhymes dogs with hogs, and so I’m thinking maybe there’s a whole theme here.

"But I also had written 'The Anchor' which was just something I was just ready to write. It’s in line with the social justice songs on 'He Walked On," but again it’s from the point of view of someone old who realizes they’re a throwback, in this case 'Walter Cronkite' who’s commenting from the great beyond. I’m in my late 60’s and doing fine but I’m looking at things from that older perspective. One of my closest friends, J.D. Hutchison was in hospice care when Ronnie and I wrote 'Goodbye Old Friend.”  (J.D. passed away soon after.) With 'Cup of Sugar,' "The Pay’s a Lot Better Too' and maybe even 'Gila Headwaters,' I’ve got that elder perspective again: life is short but it’s wonderful so don’t sweat the small stuff. The guy in 'Stuck in the Middle' is taken by surprise but he takes it lightly.

I let the songs dictate the arrangements. I asked myself is it all acoustic, is it an electric country record? Is it time to go electric?. But I ended up making another pretty eclectic set of acoustic tracks. Jan and I work on the form, tempo, and key for each of them at home, and she sings and plays her parts live when we get to the studio. That builds a strong frame before we get to the studio. With session guys like Mike Rojas, Russ Pahl, and Jaimee Dick, as well as with my bandmates Mike Bub and Shad Cobb, you just get them in the room and play the song. They find the way. Dennis Crouch came one day when Bub couldn’t make it, and Paul Burch joined in too on a couple. I had a lot of fun writing the songs and had just as much fun recording them. It was a blast having Del McCoury come in to play some real first-generation bluegrass. I think Cory Walker crushed the banjo part."