Aug. 15--Mollie O'Brien's not into musical labeling. She fits too many of them anyway.
Besides, one of her youthful influences was jazz master Dave Brubeck.
So, the "bluegrass" tag most often attached to the acoustic music she makes with husband Rich Moore is just a partial description. She did, though, win a 1997 Grammy Award for best bluegrass album.
"I've always been all kinds of stuff," said O'Brien, a Denver-based singer-songwriter who started out performing "more traditional bluegrass" with her brother, Tim. "My first band was R&B. I kind of branched off into other things and met in the middle. R&B. Jazz. Folk. I try to bring in those influences. It's always fun to play some R&B influences with acoustic instruments."
O'Brien and Moore do that Friday as a series of summer concerts ends at Twisted Oak Winery in Vallecito. Eric Thorin, their bass player and producer, joins them.
As she endured a five-hour United Airlines delay Monday at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, O'Brien adopted a seasoned musician's attitude -- "It's just typical" -- as she recalled a seemingly unlikely source of early inspiration.
"Oh, 'Take Five,' " she said of Brubeck's signature tune from 1959. "It was just so hip and so cool. Paul Desmond (the tenor saxophone player who wrote it) was so amazing."
During a tour by Brubeck (1920-2012), a 1942 University of the Pacific graduate, O'Brien saw him perform at Wheeling (W,Va,) College: "A very great experience."
O'Brien's eclecticism -- and devotion to traditional American music's roots -- will be reflected again when she and Moore release "Love Runner," the fourth album on their own label (Remington Road), in late fall.
"We're very excited about it," O'Brien, 60, said of the successor to 2010's "Saints and Sinners," also recorded with Moore, a guitar and bass player. "It's pretty rockin'."
They've mixed "great tunes" by some of their "heroes": Tom Paxton. Chris Smither, Dave Van Ronk -- with "some stuff" they wrote "that's kinda rockin' and pretty folky stuff."
That's a fairly concise summary of O'Brien's musical arc.
She was born in Wheeling, as second-youngest of five children. Her parents -- Frank, an attorney, and Amy, a housewife -- "weren't musical," she said, "but were very open and made sure we got a lot of exposure."
O'Brien, who sang on Lawrence Welk's TV show at age 11, was "lucky," she said. "I had a fantastic music teacher in high school. I learned how to sing properly, though I didn't come up through real traditional singing."
That's partly because Wheeling, in northern West Virginia, is less than 60 miles from Pittsburgh. That also gave mom a chance to take the kids to concerts by Ray Charles, Count Basie and Brubeck: "Amazing people. Huge influences."
After four years in New York and a two-year return home, O'Brien moved to Denver, where older brother Tim played in Hot Rize. Mollie joined him in the R&B/jazz-y Ophelia Swing Band. She met Moore on April Fool's Day 1981; they formed The Late Show, an R&B duo; and got married in 1983.
After two daughters were born, O'Brien took a hiatus before she and Tim made their recording debut ("Take Me Back") in 1984. O'Brien's first solo CD ("Tell It True") was released in 1987 followed by the initial O'Brien-Moore collaboration (the live "900 Baseline" in 2007).
Family always has played a special role in O'Brien's music. That's best exemplified by 2012's "Reincarnation," a tribute to Roger Miller (1936-92) they recorded as O'Brien Party of 7.
"Well, it's not easy," O'Brien said. "It requires seven airfares. We have a bunch of kids who have their own lives to lead, too."
Getting command of Internet options has helped O'Brien and Moore keep their music connected to people, new and old.
"It's intense," she said. "You're expected to take part and respond immediately. It's easy to get pressed. We tweet, do Facebook and have a neighborhood group. It's fun."
Sometimes, young people at clinics and camps even recognize O'Brien's contributions: "It makes me feel old." Definitely not in the way, however.
"People are just into good music," O'Brien said. "It's kind of been that way forever. There's lots of different music and more to learn what the good stuff is. Bluegrass? That's just a label. It's just one of the ones people are more aware of."
Contact reporter Tony Sauro at (209) 546-8267 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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