The O’Connor Band featuring Mark O’Connor
By Phil Reser
By Phil Reser
THE WAY MUSICIAN Mark O’Connor sees it, American music has a broader dimension – it speaks about current times, looks toward the future by engaging people, and reflects on the past so we remember where we came from.
“All my creativity is born out in the present day, in my day-to-day life. And then as I explore and dive into it, I find connectors,” says O’Connor, the Country Music Association’s six-time Musician of the Year. “I find connectors to the future and looking back into history. More often than not, all of my music reflects a sort of tugboat of ideas and history and traditions that I pull along with me.”
Growing up in Seattle, O’Connor got bitten by the music bug early.
He remembers the exact moment. He was 8 years old watching the Johnny Cash show on a black-and-white TV. Renowned Louisiana fiddler Doug Kershaw was on that day. He turned to his mom and told her that’s what he wanted to do. A few years later he had his own fiddle.
“A $50 pawn shop fiddle and I started taking lessons. And I took off with it. I was inspired by music. It felt like I was able to pour my emotions into this beautiful musical instrument.”
Soon after, he began taking lessons from legendary Texas fiddler Benny Thomasson.
By age 14, he had won three national fiddling championships. He toured the festival circuit with French jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli and guitarist Chet Atkins, along with making a name for himself as a studio musician, playing the violin, guitar and mandolin.
Many of his fans are probably most familiar with his recordings with Yo-Yo Ma, Wynton Marsalis, Vince Gill, or perhaps O’Connor’s Hot Swing Trio. In the 1970s and ‘80s he played in bands with some of the greatest acoustic string players of all time. But his musical heyday occurred from 1989 to 1996, during the country music renaissance in Nashville. Prior to ‘89, he was a sideman sought after by all the Nashville stars and figures, resulting in him recording on at least 500 albums.
Currently, O’Connor performs in the O’Connor Band, which features himself on strings and vocals, wife Maggie on fiddle, son Forrest on mandolin and vocals and Forrest’s partner Kate Lee contributing fiddle and vocals. Rounding out the band is National Flat Pick Guitar Champion Joe Smart and bassist/banjo player Geoff Saunders. Forrest, a Harvard graduate, is a former Tennessee State mandolin champion. With that lineage, the band displays solid command of its instruments and respectful treatment of traditional and traditional-sounding songs. Its first album, “Coming Home,” reached number one on Billboard’s Top Bluegrass Albums chart in 2016 and won the 2017 Grammy award for Best Bluegrass Album.
“This band is a kind of a culmination. It’s really invigorating to play in it. I feel like I’m coming home: to my country bluegrass family. It’s a band full of musicians that actually grew up in musical families. I’m the veteran, so I’m kind of schooling everybody about being a professional musician. One of the special features of our working together is our dual and triple fiddles; that has to work really well. I decided to have each of us in a separate role supplying a separate texture: long notes, faster solos, rhythm. Maggie and Kate grew up playing in family bands. For them, innovation and texture come from attention to vocals. Forrest’s ability to play the mandolin, with his technical training and his musical sense, he can carve out ideas and play with that gorgeous sound. There are so many layers to Kate’s ability to emote a lyric. With Kate and Forrest, I think it’s more about the lyric. They really sing the lyrics that they write.They have this kind of communication that developed early on. To the sophistication of the fiddles and the mandolin you add that singing talent, and it sounds like we’ve been doing this forever.”
He adds, “I believe our stamp on music will be an amalgamation of all these things that we naturally are, blended into a unique direction and still accessible to bigger audiences. I think for us, it’s like the old country song by Buck Owens – just act naturally!” •
The O’Connor Band featuring Mark O’Connor, April 15
Sierra Nevada Brewery Big Room in Chico