Born and bred in Clinton, Maryland, country singer-songwriter Tim O’ Connell has since called Nashville home for the past half century.
His claim to fame had once been (and still is) penning the Johnny Cash track, “A Singer of Songs,” which appears on the legend’s Unearthed box set compilation, but more notably was played at his funeral in 2003. O’ Connell knew he’d written the perfect song for Cash back in 1979, and he spent 20 years trying to get it to him- and did just that.
But as of September 15th of this year, he’s more likely to be known as the father of Music City’s new mayor, Freddie O’ Connell, who won in a landslide against opponent Alice Rolli.
The proud father is also days away from releasing his latest album, On a Wobbly Bar Stool, which is Part Two of a trilogy of albums entitled Terry and Jasmine: A Country Music Love Story. It follows his Part One and 2022 release, On Broadway. On a Wobbly Bar Stool is slated for release next Wednesday, November 1st.
We got to chat with O’ Connell more about his son’s mayoral victory in Nashville, his experience writing the Cash song, the new album, and much more.
So I know this interview is going to be about your upcoming album, but I have to ask: how does it feel to see your son as the new mayor of Nashville?
It’s kind of unbelievable, really. When he first announced he was running, people told him he didn’t have a chance, and that he couldn’t raise enough money to mount a successful campaign. But there he is. I’m excited, but a little worried at the same time. There are a lot of crazies out there.
Was he raised in a very musical household, and is he also musically inclined like yourself?
Well, I play harmonica, and he heard me practicing through the years, but it’s not like we had a family band or anything. He took piano lessons for a while when he was in elementary school, but he quit because he wanted to play basketball. Then he took guitar lessons for a while when he was in high school from John Pell at Belmont University. He ended up getting two degrees from Brown University, one in Computer Science and one in Music. So he probably knows more music theory than I do.
You mentioned you wrote “A Singer of Songs” for Johnny Cash. Can you briefly talk about how that went down, and what other pinnacle moments might you have as a songwriter/musician?
I wrote “A Singer of Songs” in November, 1979. When I finished it, I thought I had written the perfect Johnny Cash song. So I spent the next 20 years trying to get it to him. I ended up meeting a lot of people over the years who had some connection to Cash, and every time I met somebody like that, I would give them a tape of the song.
But I never knew if Cash had ever actually heard it. Then in the spring of 1999, I met Cash’s son, John Carter, at a club called Douglas Corner in Nashville. When I played him a tape of the song, he told me he would play it for his dad. I called John Carter a week later, and he said he played it for his dad, and Cash said, “I know this song. I love this song. I wanted to record it once before, but I lost the tape and didn’t know where it had come from.” So one of the people that I had given a tape to over the years must have actually got Cash to listen to it, but I don’t know who.
When I called John Carter a week after that, he told me Cash had cut the song. There’s a lot more to the story, but that’s the condensed version. As far as pinnacle moments, one that stands out is a couple of days after Cash’s funeral, John Carter called me and told me that they showed a video at the funeral of scenes from Cash’s life, and my song was the primary backup music for that video. So I really had written the perfect Johnny Cash song.
You’ve got your upcoming album, On A Wobbly Bar Stool, coming out in November 1st. Are there any overarching themes or motifs that connect this collection of songs?
On a Wobbly Bar Stool is Part Two of a trilogy called Terry and Jasmine: A Country Music Love Story. It tells the story, in music, of a young guy who comes to Nashville in the early 1970s to be a star. In Part One, which was called On Broadway, he moves here, falls in love, pays his dues, and finally has a hit record, which changes everything.
Unfortunately, it also changes his relationship with Jasmine. In Part Two, they break up, the hits stop coming, and Terry goes into a tailspin, both personally and professionally. So On Broadway had a lot of love songs on it; On a Wobbly Bar Stool has a lot of lost love songs on it. Part Three will be called On That Hillbilly Highway; that will be released a year from now. I don’t know if anyone has ever done a themed project that continues over the span of three CDs released a year apart.
How long have you been working on it, and what were some of the biggest hurdles in bringing this project to life?
We started recording the album in January, 2023, but there are some songs on it that I wrote 35 years ago.
There weren’t really any hurdles to speak of. I work with a guy named Buck Brown, who used to play in Nils Lofgren’s band, and we have our process down pretty well. I make work tapes of the songs using GarageBand software and send them to Buck. He lays down the tracks, playing or programming everything himself, and when he has the tracks ready, I go over to his place and record the vocals and whatever harmonica parts I want to put on it. Then, with my input, Buck mixes it, and we have a record.
Is there a song on the album that was the most difficult to write/record for one reason or another?
I wrote the song “I Can Read Between the Lies” many years ago. When I first wrote it, it had a melody that I thought was really pretty, and I was thinking, “Wow, I’ve really got something here.” It wasn’t until later that I realized that I’d used the melody from the song, “In a Sentimental Mood.” So that needed to be rewritten, and it’s hard when you’ve got one melody in your head to come up with something that sounds as good. But I ended up with a song that I’m very happy with.
What has been your favorite/the most rewarding part of making this album?
For me, the most rewarding part is always when the finished recording sounds like what I heard in my head when I wrote the song. Like I said, I’ve been carrying some of these songs around in my head for 35 years or more, so it’s nice to hear that they actually sound good when they finally do get recorded.
What messages or feelings do you try to convey in your music?
Whatever the song calls for. I rarely sit down with the goal of trying to write a certain type of song.
What does success as a musician and songwriter mean to you at this stage in your life?
Well, I heard somebody say that it’s so hard to write a great song that if you do it just five times in your lifetime and manage to get those songs recorded by the right artists, you’ll be in the Songwriters Hall of Fame. At this point, I don’t think the Hall of Fame is in the cards for me, but my goal is to write a great song every time I write, and I still enjoy doing it. So maybe that’s success.
What are some of your goals – whether musically or otherwise – for the rest of 2023 and into 2024?
I’d like to get some good reviews on the new CD and maybe get a song on some Spotify playlists that get a lot of listens. Last year, I participated in Tennessee Songwriters Week, which is a contest where songwriters from small towns across the state compete for a slot to play at the Bluebird Cafe. So I did “A Singer of Songs,” which has been recorded by seven different artists from all around the world, including Johnny Cash and a bluegrass band from Estonia. And I didn’t even make it out of the first round of the contest. So this winter, I want to enter again and win the whole thing.
Then, next year, I plan on recording and releasing Part Three of the trilogy. Other than that, I just want to stay alive. James Taylor has a song with the line, “The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.” That’s pretty profound.