The first “Albums That Changed the World” feature for 2022 stars Full Cord bluegrass mandolinist Brian Oberlin, who reveals influences with an acoustic, bluegrass and classical bent. Listen to his picks.
EDITOR’S NOTE: All musicians can trace their inspiration to key recordings that captivated them and influenced their own music. Writer Ross Boissoneau today showcases recordings that changed the world for Grand Rapids mandolinist Brian Oberlin, a member of Full Cord and founder of multiple mandolin orchestras. Scroll down for a Spotify playlist of his picks, including a couple of tracks from Full Cord’s latest release.
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Internationally acclaimed mandolin player and educator Brian Oberlin has been playing mandolin in a variety of contexts for decades. Not bad for a guy who started on alto saxophone.
It was as a high school student in Rockford that he first heard mandolin. Oberlin had already picked up drums, guitar, banjo, fiddle, piano, concertina, and of course, that saxophone, but wasn’t even aware of the instrument that would become his life’s work.
“In high school we had a band, I was playing drums and learned guitar. We thought we were Crosby, Stills and Nash, then thought we were Primus,” he says. Then he heard the mandolin on an album by Diamond Rio, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Since discovering and wholeheartedly embracing mandolin, he’s helped found bands (including West Michigan’s Grasshoppah), performed solo and even started not one but two mandolin orchestras, all while exploring swing, bluegrass, country, pop and classical idioms. He has performed at festivals and in concert halls around the United States, Canada, Italy, Germany, Holland, and Poland He eventually moved from West Michigan to Oregon, where he founded the River of the West Mandolin Camp, the Great Lakes Mandolin Camp and the Oregon Mandolin Orchestra.
After returning to his home state several years ago, he founded the Great Lakes Mandolin Camp and the Michigan Mandolin Orchestra, while performing in a variety of settings himself on mandolin and vocals. He’s currently a member of the Full Cord bluegrass band. “I play a huge mix of Western swing, country, bluegrass, some classical mandolin, especially the Romantic era and some modern mandolin compositions,” Oberlin says. In 2016, Oberlin was inducted into the Rockford High School Hall of Fame in his hometown of Rockford.
1. Various Artists, “The Bluegrass Class of 1990” (1990) – It’s a Rounder compilation (the Rounder label has long been one of the biggest roots labels). One of the big draws was Doc Watson and David Grisman. Little did I know they were like laureates on their instruments. Ricky Skaggs’ (mandolin) was so playful and dancing. I’d never heard anything like that.
Listen: “Lost and I’ll Never Find the Way” (Ricky Skaggs)
2. The Dillards, “There Is A Time” (1991) – It’s a greatest hits album. It’s sort of the same thing, but they have their own sound. They didn’t have that mountain sound, not like Bill Monroe or Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs because they’re from Missouri. Did I like that because it was different than the first (bluegrass) I had heard? Yes. I also liked that the music was so original and I thought it was cool. People were writing their own songs.
Listen: “There Is a Time”
3. Bela Fleck, “Drive” (1988) – It’s a ‘desert island’ disc for many people who play bluegrass. Great tunes, all instrumental. They (the players) are at the top of their games. It’s from a couple years after he got into swing.
Currently Loving: A variety of music, classical to bluegrass – It changes weekly if not daily. I was listening to Dvorak, also Shostakovich. I love Baroque, classical and Romantic. I discovered my favorite mandolin player of all time, the great Tiny Moore. He played with Bob Wills. In the ’40s he wrote a lot of arrangements that Bob Wills used.
Listen: “Part 1 – Greatest Works”
ALBUMS THAT CHANGED THE WORLD: Brian Oberlin’s Playlist on Spotify
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