Muscians on Mic with Mark O’Connor recorded on August 9, 2016
(I’m Carol Handley, and today on Musicians on Mic, I’m sharing a conversation with American multi-instrumentalist Mark O’Connor about the latest in a long line of string projects in his career that includes his family, wife Maggie, who’s a wonderful violinist, whom he’s performed with more notably in his classical endeavors, his son Forrest, who’s a talented mandolin player and vocalist, and Forrest’s fiancée, Kate Lee, who’s a violinist and highly-regarded vocalist in the contemporary country world.
We spoke this week four days after Mark’s August 5th birthday and at the end of his week-long music camp in New York. Mark is a bluegrass, jazz and classical violinist, a country fiddler, guitarist and mandolin player, composer and music teacher, who at age 13 won the Grand Masters Fiddle Championships in Nashville, the same year he won the National Flat Pick Guitar Championship in Winfield, Kansas. At 19, Mark won the Buck White International Mandolin Championship in Kerrville, Texas, and he is a four-time Grand Champion at the National Oldtime Fiddler’s Contest in Weiser, Idaho for 1979, ’80, ’81 and 1984.
Mark O’Connor is one of the world’s best-known and finest string players. His career of late has been focused on his classical career and the development of the O’Connor Method of string playing, but when we spoke, he was in Nashville for the CD release concert for the O’Connor Band’s first album, Coming Home. He was having his own coming-home being in Nashville with his family.)
Mark: I know. I used to be here all the time performing and recording. It’s been a while to be able to return to Nashville with this band made out of my family members and doing bluegrass and country again. It’s just been a really wonderful treat.
Carol: By the way, because I was trying to figure, are you in New York now or are you-
Mark: My wife Maggie and I just moved to Charlotte just a couple months ago. We’re back in the South and close to family members again. I had to spend a glorious 10 years in New York and then also 10 years out West again, so kind of like we traveled around the country.
Carol: That’s what you guys all do, anyway.
Mark: Gypsies at heart.
Carol: You’ve always got a backpack or something.
Mark: Kind of. It’s been like that for a long time.
Carol: Then life is good.
Mark: It is, it is. As long as we get to play music and play for folks, that seems the most rewarding.
Carol: First of all, you are kicking off August with a bang, so happy belated birthday.
Mark: Oh, thank you very much.
Carol: It sounded like that came also with the end of the week where you and Maggie were directing your school.
Mark: Yeah. Our big string camp, officially called the O’Connor Method Camp New York City, we started that. This is our second year. It lasts for a week and right in midtown. It just went off so long. We use our book series as the core curriculum, but people are coming from all over the world as students and also to teacher-train. I hold teacher-training courses there during the week and we can certify teachers to teach the O’Connor Method and American strings.
There’s a large creative component to it. We encourage creativity and improvisation and various types of ensemble playing in addition to string orchestra. It’s a really holistic and almost universal approach to string teaching that has really never been fully realized formally.
Carol: Your career is certainly giving you a unique perspective on all of those meldings, I would think. I’m assuming, not being a string player, that students would go and learn bluegrass or they might go learn classical music and it’s all very separate, and in this way you’re bringing in all together.
Mark: Yes, because the same kinds of techniques, especially early on, are the same. The western classical technical acquisition is necessary to play the violin well. Without it, I wouldn’t be able to play the bluegrass and the jazz that I can. What’s been missing really is a lesson plan that’s inclusive of some of our best music, especially cultural diversity, including African-American music and Hispanic music.
A real big Americana footprint in the violin has been really disregarded for hundreds of years in the classroom and at the conservatory. I hope that this series goes to heal some of that and bring it fully into realization that it deserves to have a place at the table right next to Vivaldi and Mozart.
Carol: That must feel really rewarding.
Mark: It has been rewarding. I feel like when music comes to the forefront of the conversation, I’ve always been a progressive. I’ve always been pushing forward while completely honoring our traditions. There’s nobody that loves traditional music more than me. I learned from some of the masters and I think about them everyday. I employ what they’ve given me, and the music they’ve given me, into what I do professionally, pedagogically.
Matter of fact, it’s been one of my greatest realizations to be able to actually offer things that I receive firsthand from major musicians from the early 20th century, like Bill Monroe and Stephane Grappelli and Ben Thomasson, Joe Venuti and on and on. The amount of people that I was able to be around as a student and a young performer growing up is, I think a lot of people would find it very, very lucky. I wanted to put some of that luck and personal fate into actual content and get it out there for others to really benefit from. I didn’t want to horde it myself.
Carol: Other people would be able to obviously pick up the ball and run with it in years to come, which is great, so congratulations on that. It sounds really wonderful.
Mark: I feel like I’m at the right place at the right time.
(Carol: The right place at the right time. Some call it luck or personal fate. It’s true in all of our lives, but we must also make it real, so where some have fate handed to them and run with it, others let fear or insecurities hold them back, but not Mark O’Connor.
We’ll talk about his early influences and teachers, Texas fiddler Benny Thomasson, bluegrass mandolin player David Grisman, and French violinist Stephane Grappelli, but the first chapter of this conversation, we focused on the new family project, the O’Connor Band featuring Mark O’Connor.)
Carol: You have your CD release party tonight in Nashville.
Mark: Yes. We are so excited about this. Now my son, he’s writing songs and singing and people remember him growing up, now he’s living here again and just his collaboration with me alone has gotten a lot of attention.
Carol: Is it like looking in a mirror? Because when I look at his photographs, I’m like, “Oh, my goodness, he looks like his dad.”
Mark: Yeah, I guess so. Some people say that, especially when he has his mustache.
That makes a big connection, because I was always known for having a mustache. He’s having a great time. Kate, she’s singing up a storm. They love writing. Maggie is just an amazing fiddler/violinist and she’s singing in the group. Everybody ends up singing. There’s even a few songs where all six of us are singing, our two sidemen, together.
It’s such a blessing for me because I’ve never really had this kind of a group, let alone family put aside. I’ve never really had a group that I was a leader of where there was all kinds of songs being sung and with a real emphasis on bluegrass and country and Americana and stuff like that, and also three fiddles, too.
Carol: You only wrote one song.
Mark: Yeah. I wrote “Fiddler Going Home.” I did do a lot of arranging. I did arrange the other classics that we recorded, and then I’m doing a lot of arranging on the string component of the songs. We’re all diving in on the creative stuff, but yeah, the album really does showcase Forrest’s and Kate’s songwriting, which is just a wonderful thing. Maggie and I love being a part of that and bringing those songs out in the way we can with our instruments.
Carol: It is a full family effort, obviously. Forrest wrote four songs, Kate wrote three. You wrote the final and arranged, and between the three violins and mandolin and the guitar and bass, it’s an extremely clean recording. I love that about hearing all acoustic music as really being able to hear absolutely everything, so the engineer and producer, lovely job.
Mark: I’m really excited about the production and the sound of the record. The fact that acoustic instruments can feel so contemporary and even commercial and accessible, it feels like that you don’t necessarily need the electric guitar to come in.
Carol: They’re really beautifully crafted songs. Kate has such a clean, clear lovely voice. It sounds like, does this formulate around the Christmas shows?
Mark: It did. We all ended up being on my Christmas tour. About a year and a half ago at Christmastime, we all found ourselves on the tour. I had hired Kate as an extra singer and the family were just hanging out on the bus and going, “Wow, this is really cool. What if we kept going past Christmastime?”
I don’t think any of us had thought about a family band ever being in the picture. I knew that Maggie and I loved playing together, so that was a no-brainer, but I felt like if Forrest wanted to play with his dad more, I think that the decision rested right there.
Carol: Because now, Forrest and Kate were already at that time in their Americana duo Wisewater, right?
Mark: Yeah. They were already writing and singing and playing on the café circuit and then hanging out in Nashville pitching their songs to producers and things. They were already on track. It really just became about putting together the two duos, just the two duos of couples becoming one big family band.
The first thing I wanted to do was to see how it felt onstage with just us and without the aid of Christmas songs connecting to the audience and basically put our material out there and see what people think and how they reacted. We debuted at the big Walnut Creek festival in front of about 4,000 people.
That was our first time onstage. It got everybody’s attention. People started to really practice and prepare. We knew right away what the potential was. We debuted in September and we were in the studio with a record contract by February.
Carol: The whole history behind you helps you on that one.
Mark: Yes. I knew how to get on the phone and contact my old friends (laughs).
Carol: A lot of your old friends are old friends. A lot of people that you started playing with very early on, the Mike Marshalls and Darol Angers and Edgar Meyers and people like that that are still around you’re still playing with those people.
Mark: Yeah. I haven’t been playing with them a lot lately, but that’s what’s also really fun about having this group is that we actually get to appear on festivals where they’re playing, too, so we end up not only hanging out backstage but getting onstage for a jam finale and stuff like that.
Actually, one of those just took place at RockyGrass a week and a half ago in Colorado, where all of a sudden we’re up onstage, Bela Fleck and Sam Bush jamming, and the only difference is that Forrest is up there and Maggie’s up there with me, so I get to share these things that were sort of commonplace for me coming up, because I’d been doing stuff like that since I was really a teenager, but to be able to share it with my family members really brings a whole ‘nother layer of enjoyment to this.
(Carol: The theme for Coming Home continues to reach beyond the title of the new album with family. Being in Nashville where he moved after growing up in the Pacific Northwest, and at the time of this conversation, the O’Connor Band was coming home to play Jazz Alley in Seattle.
Mark grew up just north of Seattle, and I wanted to talk about his early years, which for any artist can be formative, but we’re talking about an artist who won guitar, fiddle and mandolin championships as a pre-teen and teenager. They brought him national attention and opportunities to play with the best artists in bluegrass, country and jazz at the time. I wanted to know if playing in Seattle still felt like coming home.)
Mark: Yeah, it still feels like going home because I feel like … I cut my teeth in Seattle and my first impressions of coming of age are there. Matter of fact, we have a song that Forrest wrote and he sings on the album Coming Home our title track, “Coming Home,” and we are planning to do a video of that song when we’re up there, and maybe even going to my old school.
The schoolyard, parts of it is largely the same. It’s almost like going through a time warp and you end up in the 1960s. You can still see the places on the sidewalk where I used to play marbles when I was a little kid and stuff. That might be a wonderful thing to be able to do our second video. It’ll be great to film it in Seattle while we’re there, “Coming Home.”
Carol: For the area, the Northwest is known for rock and jazz artists and Hendricks and Pearl Jam and Ray Charles and Quincy Jones, not so well-known for fiddle players and flat pickers. How did you end up connecting with Texas fiddler Benny Thomasson?
Mark: That’s just a sensational stroke of fate. It was at a very small regional contest, a fiddle contest in Oregon where he actually spoke to my mother about me and offered to teach me. He had just moved just a couple years earlier from his native Texas up to a place on the Kalama River a couple hours south of Seattle, near the Oregon border. He eventually convinced my mother to drive the two hours for my lessons every other weekend and he made it worthwhile. He taught me all day long. I became the inspired player I am I think mostly because of Benny.
Carol: Yeah, but Texas from Seattle in the ’60s, that was a long ways away.
Mark: It was. He had a son who was doing logging up in the Northwest, and that’s what brought him up there, just simply a small visit, and he liked it. He liked it. He stayed for a while. He was at that retirement age and he was definitely not returning to his vocation, which was auto body repair, working on cars.
He had a bad back and I think the weather suited him. He liked the fishing. I think he pretty much thought his fiddling days were over because Northwest was not known for its fiddlers, as you clearly illustrated. Where all the great ones were from Texas and east of Texas.
There we have it. You’ve got one of the great legends finding himself in what he thought was a desolate place for his craft and all of the local fiddlers, and there were many, mostly amateurish in quality, but there was a lot that sought him out and said, “We are so glad you’re here, Mr. Thomasson.” People started taking lessons from him and then I became his most prized pupil, I suppose.
He would teach me all weekend. He would teach me all Saturday, and then sometimes we would just spend the night and he would teach me part of the day Sunday. Sometimes I would learn up to five tunes per weekend …
… from him, starting at age 11 through age 14.
Carol: Then, how did you get connected with Stephane Grappelli?
Mark: Stephane was a hero of mine. I had his records with Django Reinhardt and I loved his recordings with other jazz luminaries like Oscar Peterson and Joe Pass and others. I had met and played with David Grisman and he graciously recorded on my album Markology, which was incidentally re-released yesterday on Rounder.
Carol: Really? Again, happy birthday.
Mark: I know! Part of my Rounder roll-out with the new album is that they’re releasing my old titles again, and they just did a tweet about it yesterday and we shared it. There it is, my 16-year-old guitar album ..
… with guest appearances by Tony Rice and Sam Bush, David Grisman. He was impressed with my playing, to the point where he said, “I want you to join my group when you’re out of high school.” As soon as I graduated, I auditioned for his group and it happened to be an audition for Stephane Grappelli’s tour.
That was my new life. I was getting to accompany Stephane on guitar, and then when he found out that I played the violin, too, oh, my goodness, it was like he really embraced me and took me under his wing and showed me all kinds of stuff and became my finishing mentor. We played at Carnegie Hall together that year and recorded. He becomes a real prominent figure in my life in music. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about Stephane Grappelli and Benny Thomasson.
(Carol: The foundation of those early bluegrass and country influences of Benny Thomasson and David Grisman, along with the connection to jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli, show the outlines of an eclectic musical career that had seen Mark move from the bluegrass world into jazz, eventually in classical, back again, and many variations and mixing genres in the middle, including an album with the band Strength in Numbers that was put out on a short-lived MCA Records imprint called MCA Master Series.
I happened to be at the record label’s launch event where many artists were in attendance that were recording for the label, which focused on original acoustic music from great players like Edgar Meyer, Larry Carlton and the band Strength in Numbers, which was an all-star band of Sam Bush on fiddle and mandolin, Jerry Douglas on dobro, Bela Fleck on guitar and banjo, and Mark was playing fiddle, guitar and mandolin, along with Edgar Meyer on bass.)
Mark: Of course, that has become somewhat of an iconic album. People remember it as really important. We knew at that time that we felt like it was a very special recording. We just couldn’t get any traction in the music industry on it, but now of course looking back, people think it was a hit.
Carol: I liked the ambition of the idea of the MCA Master Series in print and the artists that they were focused on during that time and putting out. I don’t think a lot of that music got traction that deserved traction, only because I think the label might’ve not really known what to do with itself.
Mark: Yeah. Also, it was a time where they just simply did not know what to call it. The default for all of that music, including Strength in Numbers, believe it or not, was new age. They marketed it as new age music. It was sort of like a clumsy use of the term because this was, what do you call it? I think, at this point in my career, it’s amazing to see the struggles that we were having because we were mixing it in the cracks.
I always felt like if we stuck it out and hung in there long enough, we would basically create our own genre or musical environment or something would happen, because if you create a body of work, that’s what it’s all about. It’s going to be too hard to ignore and attention will just come to it.
Carol: I think Darol Anger was the first person I ever heard call it “new acoustic” a few years ago.
Mark: Yeah. Actually, that was to do with Rounder. Rounder had a marketing thing and Darol was involved with that where some of us were calling it new acoustic music. I don’t know if it even has a title even to this day, but I love what we’re doing, but I think when I started to, at least what I was doing, American string playing, then it started to make sense to a lot of people that one of the struggles we’ve been having is that American string playing has largely been ignored and pushed aside, and all the collective styles, the traditions and the developments together have been pushed aside in the industry and in formal educational circles.
That’s what really is hitting home for me now is that I’m able to, it doesn’t really matter what kind of music we’re playing, it could be termed indie pop or folk or bluegrass, we are truly now developing an audience for this catchall. Bluegrass has expanded its definition over the course of the 30 years since Strength in Numbers, and now a lot of people think that Strength in Numbers is a bluegrass band. Certainly that was not the case when we released it. We could only get really hired at a couple of very progressive bluegrass festivals that were good friends of ours, Telluride and MerleFest, basically.
Carol: I think the term “Americana” is capturing a lot of things that go into a large pot.
Mark: Yes. That is also true. Alison Krauss’ success has a lot to do with creating a demand for this kind of environment that includes fiddles and mandolins and acoustic guitars with a flat pick, and then also Nickel Creek had a big heyday and they brought a lot of attention to this music. When you have leaders out there like Chris Thile and like Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer that are setting new standards, then the culture and the environments have to catch up, because now the musicians are really providing the platform for it all to happen.
Carol: When you’re talking about world-class string players, then a lot of them have also dabbled in classical music.
Mark: Yeah. Those projects we did with Yo-Yo Ma really gave birth to a whole area of classical musicians truly interested in bluegrass and fiddling and ways to unite these things, like I started to do with my fiddle concerto right from the very beginning of my forays into this environment.
Then you have folks like my family members who in the O’Connor Band grow up listening to people like me and some of my friends as the tradition. They also admire the older guys. Don’t get me wrong, they do respect the traditions, but they actually grew up listening to my music. That’s like a starting place for them. “Butterfly’s Day Out” and “Macedonia” is a starting place for mandolin. It took me decades to get the mandolin to that point.
That’s the starting place to mandolin, and completely understanding what Bill Monroe and others brought to the instrument, and then to be able to play that music onstage, matter of fact, Forrest got my mandolin going again. He’s getting me onstage with him playing mandolin and sharing that music that he grew up listening to and that ultimately inspired him to become an accomplished person.
You can duplicate the stories with each of the members of this group, including our sidemen. The new norm is a progressive bluegrass country fiddle sound and literature that has really given birth to a whole now new generation of, I would say, almost super musicians that can play well, that can write well, that can sing well and write songs, and put bands together. That’s what old-time musicians were doing 150 years ago, and now that’s what continues to happen is that the music keeps moving on through the young minds and hearts.
Carol: At one point you were a student, and now you’re a teacher. The fact that you’ve also formalized it on the one hand, but on the other hand, you’re a teacher just by being out there and performing and influencing and inspiring so many other players, whether they’re string players or not string players.
I also, again, in the history of violins in America, what are your thoughts about David Bromberg’s collection of 260 violins going to the Library of Congress?
Mark: That is really amazing. Mr. Bromberg had contacted me about that and wanted to know if I would provide an endorsement or even perform a concert when the time was right at the Library, and of course I said yes. I’ve known David since I was a kid, first played with him when I was 12 or 13, I believe it was somewhere in the Midwest, maybe Chicago or Milwaukee or something, but-
Carol: I appreciate the thought that if some of these violins were to be made in circulation, that somebody might slap an Italian name on it and mark it up and sell it for ridiculous sums, but does it make you sad that they aren’t in the hands of people who should be playing them?
Mark: Yeah, that is true. Matter of fact, I have personal experience with that because I grew up playing my, some would say, infamous white fiddle, the one that I entered all the fiddle contests with and won many of them, and I had given that actually just down the road here. I’m talking to you from Nashville. I had donated it to the Country Music Hall of Fame and it hung in the museum for 15 years.
By the end of that period of time, it was a permanent gift, by the way, so I wasn’t planning on getting it back, and that’s the way they operate over there, they’re permanent gifts to the Country Music Hall of Fame, but I was starting to feel sorry for it.
Even though I didn’t want to play it full-time, I go, “At least I could play it now and then.” I got it back out. They let me take it out. I said, “I’m very emotionally attached to this. This was something I had in my childhood,” which was completely accurate. They did feel that they could give it back to me.
I’ve actually played it now and then. I actually play it on a cut …
Carol: On the new CD?
Mark:… on the new recording, yeah, “Old Black Creek,” one of the songs that my daughter-in-law-to-be, Kate Lee, wrote and sang. It sounds so cool. It’s so haunting on that track.
I did feel bad about it. Now, having said that, the MIM, the Musical Instrument Museum of Phoenix, asked to have my, quote, “Nashville fiddle,” which I played on all those recordings, 500 albums. I played it on the New Nashville Cats and the Heroes albums that I did and everything. I just sent that off, but that’s only for a year. It’s a year loan. It might be extended, but it’s not permanent. It will be on display, because I don’t play that violin right now, but I don’t necessarily want to give it to someone permanently, but I would consider loaning it.
Carol: That is a thing about instruments: they travel through time and they pass hands and literally people’s blood, sweat and tears are on these instruments. I totally appreciate the enthusiasm and certainly the love that somebody could collect over 260 American-made violins with such deep rich, really rich history, but it does make me a little sad, I have to say.
Mark: I don’t know what the long-term vision of this is, but hopefully it brings attention to the violins and then they end up in circulation again down the road. I remember going to the Library of Congress a lot and getting to play Fritz Kreisler’s violin. I was one of the very few players that actually got to get it out of its case. It was so valuable that they didn’t even put it behind the glass. They kept it under lock and key in its case. It’s Fritz Kreisler’s Guarneri.
I actually played it in two different concerts. I premiered my fiddle sonata on Fritz Kreisler’s violin. The last time I played it was I was playing my Poets and Prophets piano trio that I composed to tribute Johnny Cash with and I was doing a double bill at the Library of Congress with Rosanne Cash. At that point, they wanted the guards very close by. They were always within 20 feet of me.
I couldn’t take the violin out of the dressing room without putting it in its case and I couldn’t have it in any public walkway. There was this walkway between the dressing room and the stage, so I couldn’t just go from the dressing room to the stage. I had to put it in its case and then walk across the three-foot public walkway and then take it out of its case again. There’s all these rules.
I started to feel sorry for that Kreisler violin the second time because you could feel it just wanted to be played. It didn’t sound quite as good as it did when I played it 10 years before. Some of the really finer instruments like that, they like being played.
Carol: I would think so. They were built to be played.
(Carol: For more information on the donation of American violins and fiddles to the Library of Congress by David Bromberg, you can go to the Library of Congress website.
The O’Connor Family Band with Mark O’Connor are on tour in support of their new album Coming Home, out on Mark’s original record label, Rounder Records. They also have plans at the end of the year to be back out together for the O’Connor Christmas shows. You can head to markoconnor.com if you’d like to learn more about the O’Connor Method of string playing and the camps they have lined up in the near future.
My thanks to Mark O’Connor for talking about his love of strings and the new album for Musicians on Mic. I’m Carol Handle