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David O'Brien

EXCLUSIVE Interview: David O'Brien
Chuck Norton, DeadJournalist.com

01.23.07

Baseball is often called the thinking-man's game. With a season that stretches from February to October, and games that can go on for hours upon hours, it is the sport of conversation. Baseball lends itself to in-depth analysis and the comparisons of generations past and present. It is the sport of romance and valor. Its legends are American legends. From the revered Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Hank Aaron and Willie Mays to the controversial Pete Rose, Ty Cobb and Barry Bonds - a good baseball conversation can be second to none.

Unless you bring music in to the equation.

Critics and lovers alike find the same romance in music. Whether it is debating the most important punk band from the late 1970s, who was the bigger outlaw between Haggard, Nelson and Jennings or who will have the better 2007 release of Bloc Party, the Shins or the Arcade Fire, enjoyment is often derived as much from conversation as the music itself.

For those who find a passion in both baseball and music, the idea of covering a band for Rolling Stone magazine or going on the road with a major league baseball team is the utmost professional fantasy. Who didn't watch Almost Famous and want, if only for a brief moment, to be on the bus with Stillwater? And who, when watching Field of Dreams, doesn't get chill-bumps upon hearing James Earl Jones' character's moving speech about baseball? For most people, being a professional rock 'n roll critic or baseball scribe is little more than a mid-day fantasy.

But for at least one person, it is reality.

That man is David O'Brien, the Atlanta Braves beat writer for the Atlanta Journal Constitution (AJC) since 2002; blogger for the popular AJC.com Braves blog; and an avid music lover.

Born in Durham, NC - the backdrop of the classic baseball movie Bull Durham - O'Brien spent his youth passing through towns like Greenville, NC, Memphis, TN and Arkansas City, KS. He attended college at the University of Kansas in Lawrence - the town called "the most vital music scene between Chicago and Denver" by the New York Times in 2005.

With baseball spring training slated to begin in mid-Feburary, O'Brien is in the process of preparing for six weeks in Orlando, the spring training home of the Atlanta Braves. The reality of a life spent on the road call be trying and stressful, but for O'Brien music is a reprieve.

When asked his favorite artists, rather than spouting out a handful of well-known, regurgitated bands, O'Brien answered with:

Tom Waits, Neil Young, Steve Earle, Johnny Cash, Lucinda Williams, Joseph Arthur, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Prince, Paul Weller, Muddy Waters, Merle Haggard, George Jones, Otis Redding, John Lee Hooker, R.L. Burnside, John Hiatt, Elvis Presley, Waylon Jennings, Dwight Yoakam, Wilco, Black Keys, Son Volt, Drive-By Truckers, Calexico, My Morning Jacket, Sonic Youth, Pixies, Husker Du, Yo La Tengo, Uncle Tupelo, Flaming Lips, Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, the Clash, Social Distortion, Pogues, Waterboys, X, the Jam, Gang of Four, the Smiths, Allmans, REM, and Led Zeppelin.

With a list like that, it is easy to see why this music-lover's AJC.com blog became known as the Braves/Man In Black blog. (Self-admittedly, he's obsessed with Johnny Cash.)

O'Brien's work can be found in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, or on the paper's Web site: www.ajc.com (registration is required). His AJC.com blog can be found in the Sports section of the Web site or here. You can also hear him provide baseball insight on XM radio's MLB coverage.

David O'Brien recently took time of out his schedule to have a comprehensive discussion about baseball and music with DeadJournalist.com.

How long have you been the writer the AJC Braves blog?

DOB: We really started getting serious with the blog about a year ago during spring training, and it kind of became my baby along the way as I molded it to my interests and we cultivated a rather interesting and passionate group of regulars and others. Along the way, it became the Braves/Man In Black blog, a reflection of my Johnny Cash obsession.

What is the best part of your job? Conversely, what is the most difficult?

DOB: Best part, by far, is being able to write for a living. It’s what always came natural to me, since grade school, so to be able to make a living doing it is pretty cool. Also, I like working for a daily newspaper, chasing news, trying to break stories. I still get a rush out of breaking a story and also writing on deadline, which I do almost constantly. And the blog has really become a great way to stay in touch with the fans in a relaxed setting, and feel like you’re having an impact, however small it might be, on their lives.

There’s plenty of other things I like about my job - being around sports, being able to travel to some great cities, not having a 9-to-5 schedule or office hours. I hardly every have to drive in rush hour traffic because I go to the ballpark at 3PM and come home around midnight or later. And I can run errands in the middle of the afternoon when there are rarely lines anywhere (I don’t have much patience at all).

The most difficult parts? The overall stress, mental and physical, of always working under the gun, covering more than 100 night games a year and writing on tight deadlines, catching flights before dawn and getting 2-3 hours sleep a lot of times.

And the stress of any pro sports beat - but particularly the baseball beat - puts on anything resembling a normal life away from work. Being away from home 150 nights a year and working such long and odd hours is brutal on relationships, as evident by the high divorce rates in my profession (count me in that group).

Without exaggerating, I’d guess I average 60-hour work weeks from mid-February until the end of October. And with the internet and 24-hour news cycles, the winter isn’t the down time it used to be for baseball writers. Instead it’s filled with free agency, trades, negotiations and hot-stove rumors that never stop.

Have you been surprised by the success of the Braves blog on AJC.com?

DOB: Yes, frankly I have been. The thing just kind of took off last year during spring training. One day I decided, probably because my brain was numb from exposure to the hideous, soul-less sprawl around Disney World, to start infusing the blog with my own thoughts and passion for music, letting people know what I was listening to while driving around Florida and smoking cigars in my big, four-door rental car.

The more I interacted with the bloggers, the more of their questions I answered candidly and the more personal stuff I threw in, sometimes entirely unrelated to baseball, the more they responded. It’s been great. I quickly went from hating the whole blog concept, from at first being forced to do it kicking and screaming, to really enjoying it and going far beyond what they asked us to do, in terms of time commitment and answering readers’ questions and updating posts throughout the day.

You frequently include music recommendations, thoughts and comments in your blogs. How has this been received by readers?

I’d say the majority, maybe even the vast majority, like it or at least don’t mind it. We’ve got way more music lovers than I ever imagined we’d have, and the tastes are as eclectic as you can possibly imagine. But plenty just don’t understand why I do it on a Braves blog, some hate it and tell me to shut up with the music comments, and many say they’ve never heard of the bands I talk about or that said bands suck.

I’d be lying if I said I honestly don’t care what any of them think, because I do care. But I’m not about to let anyone tell me what to write about in the blog. I love music as much as sports, and I’m not ever jaded on music like I can be sometimes on sports. The only way I’ll spend the hours and hours per week that I put into the blog is by writing about what interests me, and music is huge on that list. We also talk about movies, books - everything but politics. I knew right away that if we steered clear of politics, for the most part, we’d be able to cultivate a far greater audience.

You write frequently about your enjoyment of music that ranges from George Jones to the Black Keys. Do many of the athletes and personnel that you cover share your musical taste?

DOB: In a word, no. Well, wait, that’s not exactly true. Bobby Cox likes Haggard and Buck Owens, and grew up near them out in Central California. Bobby and I have discussions about the “Bakersfield Sound,” I kid you not. And Terry Pendleton and I, when we’re at the batting cage and the music’s playing on the stadium speakers, talk a lot about the great '70's and '80's soul and funk- Earth, Wind & Fire, Marvin Gaye, the Bar-Kays, Isley Brothers, Rick James, I loved all that stuff, and Parliament.

I might have been the only white 7th-grader in a redneck Kansas town listening to P-Funk’s Mothership Connection in the late '70's. I still have a ton of that stuff on vinyl and CD. But as I get older, I’m definitely more into rootsy music, Americana, singer-songwriters, old-school and outlaw country, everything from Cash, Waylon and David Allan Coe to Willie and Kris Kristofferson. Most of the Braves players seem to more into some form of metal or pop-country crap, although Tim Hudson is a huge Dave Matthews fan (me, not so much). For the most part, our tastes are way different.

While on the road during the season are you able to watch any live shows? Do any stand out from the past few years?

DOB: Oh, yeah. I’ve seen a bunch of great shows on the road through the years. Some of the great ones included the Drive-By Truckers at smoke-filled joint in Detroit during the World Series a few months ago, Bobby Bare Sr. with his son and his son’s band in a rare show at a Chicago music school last summer, a Kings of Leon/Secret Machines twinbill at the Fillmore in San Francisco, Matthew Sweet a few years ago at the Fillmore, Elvis Costello at the Beacon in NYC, Freddie Fender at the House of Blues in LA about 12 years ago, the Verve (when they were at their absolute peak) at the Bill Graham Theater in San Francisco, Oasis and Black Crowes at an outdoor theatre outside Boston, Elvis Costello with Tift Merritt opening for him at a House of Blues in Orlando ... I know I’m forgetting others.

Which artists have you listened to the most this winter? What is the best live performance you’ve seen?

DOB: It’s been a music-buying and listening spree. I went crazy when Tower was going out of business, buying so much stuff that I still have unopened CDs stacked next to the player. My most-played CDs this winter have included some new, some old, some in-between. Tom Waits’ three-CD set Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards and M. Ward’s Post War album might be my favorites in the past year or so.

I also love the recent releases by Josh Ritter, Cold War Kids, Black Keys, My Brightest Diamond, Ron Sexsmith, Yo La Tengo, Sonic Youth, Roman Candle (great new band from NC) and Kelly Joe Phelps. And that second album by Yeah Yeah Yeahs that came out about a year or so ago. Great album.

I’ve been playing live albums by the Sadies (incredible), My Morning Jacket and Wilco - suddenly so many great live albums. Several of the remastered Pogues albums that came out recently, especially Rum, Sodomy and the Lash. Also went a couple weeks playing nothing but the expanded, remastered London Calling, which came out some time ago, but just creeped back into heavy rotation on my car stereo for some reason this winter. Perhaps because I was watching a bunch of DVDs like the documentary Punk and the Punk/New Wave shows on the Tomorrow Show with Tom Snyder (great late-'70's appearances by Ramones, Patti Smith, the Jam, etc). London Calling is probably my favorite rock album, ever.

Best live show I’ve seen lately was Tom Waits at the Tabernacle, followed closely by the Truckers’ 2-1/2 hour sweaty show in Detroit. Saw X and Rollins Band at Tabernacle, and REM at the Georgia Music Hall of Fame thing in the fall, a terrific three-song set with Bill Berry that I’ll never forget. Saw the Hold Steady at The Earl, a great show by a rowdy band with the same great rock-and-roll spirit and energy as the Truckers, just without the twang.

I’d put the Variety Playhouse show by Neko Case (and Kelly Hogan) near the top, but I think it was actually in August. Oh, and two great shows at Smith’s - Van Hunt and, just last week, Ron Sexsmith.

The Shins, Bloc Party, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Apples in Stereo and Of Montreal – among others – have eagerly anticipated new albums coming out in the next couple of months. Are you anxious to hear any of these new releases?

DOB: Definitely looking forward to the new Bloc Party, since that first album of theirs was one of the best of the past few years. Saw them at Midtown Music, and they put on a great show live. Lead singer has a lot of Robert Smith in him. Also want to get the new Shins, though I’ve seen mixed reviews already. Of Montreal is a cool band, but I like The Dears even more.

Who are some of your favorite singer/songwriters? Who do you think are most underappreciated?

DOB: Favorites include a lot from my favorite musicians list, including Lucinda Willliams and Steve Earle. I really love James McMurty’s entire catalog, and Alejandro Escovedo. Of course, there’s just none as great as Mr. Zimmerman and late greats, Townes Van Zandt and Hank Williams. I mean, that’s godhead stuff, those three dudes.

I think Todd Snider is underrated, maybe because he writes so many hilarious songs that people maybe don’t take him as seriously. He’s great, though. I like the young guy, Jackie Greene, who I saw open for Yoakam in Chicago - and there’s another great show I saw during a baseball road trip.

To whom were you listening in 1997?

DOB: In 1997? That’s a blur, but I know it had to be a lot of stuff like Whiskeytown, Lucinda Williams, Sonic Youth, Wilco, Afghan Whigs, Smashing Pumpkins, Radiohead, Neil Young.

 

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