In one brief, excruciating instant, Tim Bluhm’s life changed forever. The acclaimed songwriter and avid outdoorsman was speed flying (a more intense version of paragliding) down a California mountainside when he lost control and crashed, slamming feet-first into a pile of felled trees at roughly 35 miles-per-hour. The force of the impact snapped his ankle in half and nearly tore his foot from his leg. By the time his body finally came to rest, his pelvis was completely shattered. While Bluhm was lucky to be alive, he faced a daunting road to recovery, one that required him to be bedridden for the better part of a year as he underwent more than a dozen surgeries. It was the kind of traumatic injury that could easily end a career, but for Tim Bluhm, it was more like a second chance.
“It changed my outlook on life and it changed my whole self-image,” says Bluhm, a California native best known as a frontman for the legendary Mother Hips. “It was a humbling thing to be physically incapacitated like that, and it was a reminder of just how fragile we all are. I’m more grateful than ever to be alive right now.”
That notion is at the core of Bluhm’s new album, ‘TITLE,’ his first solo release in a decade and his debut for Blue Rose Music. Blending sunny west coast soul with gritty guitars and breezy harmonies, the record showcases both Bluhm’s seemingly effortless way with melody and his sophisticated ear for intricate, unpredictable arrangements. The songs twist and turn, duck and dive, leap and soar. Bluhm is a classic songwriter, the kind who writes tunes that sound instantly familiar, and ‘TITLE’ finds him crafting his strongest work to date. Considering his staggering resume, that’s no small feat.
Bluhm began his musical journey while studying at Chico State, where he co-founded the now-iconic Mother Hips, a group the San Francisco Chronicle has hailed as “one of the Bay Area’s most beloved live outfits.” Performing at frat parties quickly gave way to club shows, regional touring, and national buzz, and before they’d graduated from school, Bluhm and his bandmates were signed to Rick Rubin’s American Recordings on the strength of their debut album, ‘Back To The Grotto.’ Over the ensuing two-and-a-half decades, Bluhm would release eight more studio albums with the band as they cemented their status as architects of a new breed of California soul and earned a reputation as festival and critical favorites, sharing bills with everyone from Johnny Cash and Wilco to Lucinda Williams and The Black Crowes along the way. Rolling Stone called them “divinely inspired,” while Pitchfork praised their “rootsy mix of 70s rock and power pop," and The New Yorker lauded their ability to “sing it sweet and play it dirty.”
Ever-curious and wildly prolific, Bluhm simultaneously released a slew of his own solo and collaborative projects on the side. He toured for years as music director with Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers, teamed up with The Grateful Dead’s Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann among others, and opened up Mission Bells Studio with fellow California favorite Jackie Greene and engineer Dave Simon-Baker. There, Bluhm produced albums for everyone from the Hips and Greene to Hot Buttered Rum and Little Wings in addition to hosting Phil Lesh, Josh Ritter, Rogue Wave, Los Lobos, Jonathan Richman, and more. As if that wasn’t enough to keep him busy, in 2007, Bluhm and the Hips launched the Hipnic, an intimate and immaculately-curated music festival that’s still held annually amongst the towering redwoods of Big Sur.
It’s no coincidence that Bluhm chose a spot like Big Sur for the festival. He’s always drawn strength and inspiration from nature (rock climbing, surfing, and backcountry skiing have long numbered among his favorite activities), but the accident left him a prisoner in his own body for extended periods of time, physically unable to perform even the simplest tasks. Rather than mourn the loss of his old life, though, Bluhm learned to develop a new appreciation for the rich world inside his own mind.
“For the first three or four months, I couldn’t move,” he remembers. “I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t read a book, I couldn’t even roll over in bed because of my injuries. But as I got used to my new condition, my brain got back to its normal self and I realized I was able to start putting songs together again. In a way, I look at it as almost a nudge from some higher power telling me to look inwards and pay more attention to my musical gifts.”
Bluhm signed with Blue Rose Music’s Joe Poletto from the hospital, and upon his release, headed into the studio with producer/engineer Karl Derfler (Tom Waits, Dave Matthews) and an all-star band that included drummer Taylor Goldsmith and bassist Wylie Gelber of Dawes, keyboardist Jason Crosby, and guitarists Scott Law, Johnny Irion, and James Finch. With Blue Rose behind him, Bluhm was able to record ‘TITLE’ the way he’d always wanted, free from the constraints of deadlines and budgets that had inhibited previous attempts at capturing the album.
“It’s liberating to be on a label where you have whatever resources you need to make the best possible art that you can,” he reflects. “A lot of artists never experience that luxury. Even when I was on a major label, I didn’t feel the way I do now.”
The result is Bluhm at his most creative and confident, singing and playing with a genuine ease as he marries roots, country, blues, and rock in compact, explosive arrangements. The slow-burning “Blood Orange Moon” flirts with the distorted Americana of Neil Young & Crazy Horse, while “Ladyblood” hints at Dylan’s eccentric stream of consciousness, and the playful “To Be Free Is To Be Lonesome” offers echoes of the Dead. While Bluhm often writes from the perspective of characters he’s created and frequently draws song ideas from his vivid dreams, it’s not difficult to hear whispers of his brush with death and his arduous comeback on the album, too. “We all get humbled by this life” he sings on the dazzling “A Second Chance (Gone With The Windshield),” while the Petty-esque “Maybe Next Times” yearns to make the most of the days we’re given, with Bluhm confessing, “I know there’s always next summer / but I’m running out of maybe next times.”
“I have a really active dream life when I sleep, and I think there’s a lot of profound stuff that happens in dreams that we could never get to with our conscious brains,” he explains. “You could say it’s escapism to write about these characters and stories you dream up, but I think it can also be just the opposite. Sometimes you can better explore your own challenges by having them come out of a character’s mouth.”
In the end, ‘TITLE’ isn’t an album about dreams or broken bones or near-death experiences, though. At its core, it’s a series of character studies all filtered through Bluhm’s singular voice and charismatic personality. He’s grown and evolved immeasurably in the decade since his last solo release, both as an artist and a man, and through all the pain and loss he’s gained perspective and maturity without sacrificing even an ounce of passion. While his injuries may mean he’ll never walk or hike or climb the way he once did, ‘TITLE’ makes it clear that, through it all, Tim Bluhm hasn’t missed a step.