Mollie O'Brien
Feeling confident and it shows

December 29, 2001
By Russ Ringsak
A new admirer, a mature fellow, came up to her after a performance once and said by way of a compliment, "Y'know, if you could record a hit record, you could make a lot of money." Here was a man with a much better grasp of the music business than he could have imagined.

Making a lot of money is not a concept Mollie opposes, but she's not expecting it to happen any time soon. But it should. Her 1998 album, Big Red Sun, is playing in our truck these days and it's a marvel. There's so much stuff out there that folks buy up like bananas and it's nowhere close to this, that you just have to shake your head and wonder. Folks, there are no electronic drums on that album, no whining youth, no angry criminals, no oddly dressed neophytes banging away on the guitar, and especially no producers' commercial trickery; and maybe that's why she's not instantly rich.

This is an album on which the players can play and the singers can sing - like angels - and the songwriters are folks like John Hiatt, Lucinda Williams, Willie Dixon, Chuck Berry, Randy Newman, Steve Goodman and Memphis Minnie. It's direct. And it will move you. It will make your feet tap, and her voice will wrap around and lift you'll feel better right away. And when the tunes run out you are suddenly 60 miles down the road and you hit the Play button again.

It all started when she caught a ride to New York City from home in Wheeling, West Virginia, and she went to Broadway to audition for musicals. She was 19. It wasn't quite the piece of cake she expected; lots of intimidation going on there, and she ended up in a department store, met a wizened lady clerk named Hilda who'd been there 20 years and who taught her the trade, and in a couple of years she was the buyer for young men's clothing for 10 stores. "Had nightmares about that job for years," she said. Her brother had a trio out in Colorado, the Ophelia Swing Band, and two of the musicians were in New York for a couple of months. She formed a street band with them and realized she could cut it as a musician.

"They were doing all this Boswell Sisters and Cab Calloway I had never heard before," she said, "and I just went nuts. That music gave me a mission. It took me a couple years, but I moved to Boulder in 1980 on a quest to sing those songs. I met some people right away, and we started a jazz band called the Prosperity Jazz Band, doing '30s and '40s swing stuff with three-part harmonies. It was a really wild time to be in Boulder."

She also met local guitarist and bassist Rich Moore, whom she eventually married. They have two daughters, 12 and 14. "We've been married for 17 years and together for almost 20. I'm as proud of that as anything I've done. It's hard being a mother and trying to make a living as a traveling musician. There's a lot of maneuvering and guilt. It's hard, but I love it; I can't imagine doing anything else. On the plus side, my kids have heard lots of music their peers haven't heard. Their friends think they're weird because they don't like Britney Spears."

Her older brother Trip brought home a Ray Charles album from college. She says, "I flipped and haven't been the same since. My parents really believed in letting us hear all kinds of music. In those pre-FM radio days, I heard top 40 and then would let my mom and dad take me to the Wheeling Symphony, an occasional rock or jazz concert at one of the local colleges."

She told a reviewer: "...R&B is probably the biggest influence on my singing. The Motown sound was the first thing I remember hearing that really grabbed me. It was all over the radio when I was growing up.... I never sang a lick of bluegrass until I made the first Tim and Mollie record. I had to learn all those songs and more for that recording. I loved learning all about that style of singing and the harmonizing but I think the R&B thing still came out even when I was singing a Carter family song. I first heard jazz when I was a young teenager but never heard lots until I moved to NYC where there were scores of little jazz clubs with live music every night as well as a really good jazz radio station. I would like to think that some of listening to all of that rubbed off and is heard in my style. I think my tastes are finally coming to an amalgam that I'm happy with now. I love singing a Gillian Welch tune but will definitely throw in a few blue notes to let everyone know I'm not a bluegrass or country singer. I love singing a gospel tune and alternately sing it straight and then as blues shouter. It's fun to let all the things in my head come out at different times through different tunes. I like to pride myself on never singing the same song the same way twice."

The success of Big Red Sun set up the triumph of this year's even bolder Things I Gave Away. "Everyone said, 'Are you going to make another Big Red Sun?' I said, 'No, I've already done that.' I wanted to do something with a greater range of textures. Some songs, like 'The House, The Boat, The Lovers,' are really beautiful and refined, while others, like 'Love, Life and Money,' are really out there and funky.

"I'm almost 48 and I'm finally feeling confident in my singing ability. I'm confident that I can do all these different styles. They fit together because I'm doing them. I don't worry about how many blues tunes or how many bluegrass tunes I do; I just go with the flow. I'm really sure of myself, and I hope that comes across."

As far as I know she's never recorded a song about the act of driving truck; and on the other hand, everything I've heard from her sounds good in a truck, so from where I sit I'd say she comes across as a singer of truck driving songs. Like Ray Charles.

A writer and truck driver, Russ Ringsak has been with A Prairie Home Companion since 1974.

Interview Archive

Old Sweet Songs: A Prairie Home Companion 1974-1976

Old Sweet Songs

Lovingly selected from the earliest archives of A Prairie Home Companion, this heirloom collection represents the music from earliest years of the now legendary show: 1974–1976. With songs and tunes from jazz pianist Butch Thompson, mandolin maestro Peter Ostroushko, Dakota Dave Hull and the first house band, The Powdermilk Biscuit Band (Adam Granger, Bob Douglas and Mary DuShane).

Available now»

American Public Media © |   Terms and Conditions   |   Privacy Policy