It was a welcome reunion. First, because I discovered that O’Connor — one of the most inventive string musicians of this era — has returned to playing guitar, after a twenty year break that was required by the pain of bursitis and tendonitis. Then I also found his Improvising Toward Democracy solo fiddle pieces on the internet. As he tell his listeners,
“I am recording an improvisation on my violin each day, until our country is safe from the clutches of Trumpism, Cultism, Conspiratorialism, Racism and Authoritarianism. I will record a new violin improvisation each day as a form of a sincere musical prayer until Biden/Harris are voted in to the White House ensuring that Americans will retain our hard-fought democracy. I have been given a musical gift, so I will use this in service to my country and our Republic each day now. When I improvise in this manner on the violin, it is a spiritual devotion. The power of inspired music-making must be called upon now.”
We each have to do what we can to save our democracy. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
O’Connor, who will turn 60 next year, has been playing a wide array of roots, jazz, and classical music since his early teens. His first lessons came from American fiddling legend Benny Thomasson, and he quickly began studying the iconic French jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli, with whom he toured as a teenager. At age thirteen, O’Connor became the youngest person to sign a recording contract with the roots music company Rounder Records and I first became aware of O’Connor’s music through his early Rounder offerings, such as Pickin’ In The Wind and the amazing guitar album Markology. Always a versatile virtuoso, he was winning fiddle, mandolin, and guitar competitions well before he was twenty.
As an 18-year-old, O’Connor took over the guitar chair in the seminal David Grisman Quintet from none other than Tony Rice, followed by a short stint as the violinist in another important instrumental group, The Dregs. A stint as a top-flight studio musician in Nashville was next, where in the early 1990s he headed up the house band on The Nashville Network’s American Music Shop show and signed with Warner Brothers records. The deal led to best-selling albums such as New Nashville Cats and Heroes, the latter a series of tunes cut with his fiddle heroes, ranging from Jean Luc-Ponty to Johnny Gimble, Carlie Daniels to Grappelli, Vassar Clements to Pinchas Zukerman (on a delicious twin fiddle version of Ashokan Farewell), and everybody in between. O’Connor is a composer, has been atop the classical charts with albums where he teams up with Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer, and…oh hell, he’s played everything with everybody. Go check them all out on his Wikipedia page if you’re interested. I just want to get into some music!
Much of his early fame came in the bluegrass/newgrass genre, so let’s jump right in the fire with this incendiary version of Bela Fleck’s Whitewater from a live Merlefest concert that features newgrass royalty: Fleck (banjo), Rice (guitar), Jerry Douglas (dobro), Sam Bush (mandolin), O’Connor (fiddle), and Mark Schatz (bass). O’Connor was not the fiddler on the recorded version of this song, but here he helps the band take the tune to new heights.
To give you a sense of the type of music played during the David Grisman Quintet days, I have two options for your listening pleasure. The first is from a 1980s Austin City Limits show with O’Connor on guitar, Grisman and Mike Marshall on mandolins, Darol Anger on fiddle, and the late Rob Wasserman on bass. For a period of 18 months from 1979—1980, this line up of DGQ toured the U.S. and released an album on Warner Bros. Records called Quintet 80.
O’Connor’s incredible musicianship as seen in the video may require some explanation:
Notice at 6:37, as O’Connor begins his guitar solo, his string snaps and one can hear this audibly. The high E string of the guitar came lose from the end pin and dropped all the way down to where it was flopping. You can see O’Connor attempting to figure out what to do as he continued his solo on national television. Beginning on the lower strings, he mutes some with his right hand, then gestured towards David Grisman as if he was going to give his solo back to him. Grisman does not respond and continues to play rhythm not really knowing what happened. Then O’Connor turns away from the mic and within a period of three seconds (from 7:01 to 7:04) the high E string is perfectly back in tune for the remainder of the solo. This very moment back in 1980 helped solidify O’Connor’s reputation as a young star whose ability as a great young musician was growing. These few seconds were the talk of the show to many guitar players watching at the time.“
The second video is a live version of the Dawg 90 album tune Pupville, featuring Grisman, O’Connor (on fiddle), Rice, and dobro master Jerry Douglas from the American Music Shop show. Check out Grisman’s eye rolls watching O’Connor’s solo about the 0:45 second mark.
Since we’re now into his Nashville days, let’s check out O’Connor playing Pick It Apart with the New Nashville Cats and then as one of the super pickers with Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs and Steve Wariner on Restless.
O’Connor’s Heroes album is a treat for the ears and a place where one can find the many influences that have come together to make up his music. The first video is a compilation of some behind-the-scenes footage of the making of the album, while the second is the aforementioned Ashokan Farewell. Stay with it all the way to the end…those last notes are sublime.
Also in the 90s, O’Connor began writing and recording folk-inspired classical music. One of the best known is Appalachia Waltz, recorded with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and MacArthur genius grant recipient Edgar Meyer.
“What Bach did was, he took all these dances from all the known world around him and put them in suite form. Old dances, new dances, courtly dances, peasant dances. And what Mark did was, he took this piece that is somewhat based on the Norwegian fiddling style, with the drone and that, wrote it in Santa Fe, and called it `Appalachia Waltz.’ It’s just so moving. It’s traditional. It is new. It comes from many different places, but it’s authentic. So after a long Bach evening, rather than play more Bach, this is the perfect thing.”Yo-Yo Ma
O’Connor’s Thirty Year Retrospective album, recorded live at Vanderbilt in 2003 with mandolinist Chris Thile (another MacArthur genius grant recipient), innovative guitar flatpicker Bryan Sutton, and bassist Byron House, was a new take on the wide ranging scope of the musician’s early work. In the liner notes, O’Connor wrote that Thile and Sutton were the two players who most captured his sound and spirit on their respective instruments, and by this time O’Connor had stopped playing both due to his wrist issues. Here’s the group’s wonderful version of Granny White Special. O’Connor, Sutton, and Thile set the woods on fire with this one.
For a five-year period beginning in 2000, O’Connor joined with jazz musicians Frank Vignola and Jon Burr for a trilogy of Hot Swing Trio albums dedicated to his mentor Stephane Grappelli. I heard this trio play a complete acoustic concert, with no microphones, in the beautiful Strathmore Music Hall just outside of D.C. and it was magical. To get a sense of how these cats swing, check out Limehouse Blues. The solos by all three are other-worldly.
The most recent project of this prolific musician may be his most personal: the Mark O’Connor Band. This is a family band with his wife Maggie O’Connor on fiddle, son Forrest O’Connor on mandolin and vocals, and daughter-in-law Kate Lee on fiddle and vocals. Rounding out the band is National Flatpick Guitar Champion Joe Smart.
The Fretboard Journal story was about Mark’s return to guitar after a 20-year hiatus, and it is so rewarding to see him playing the old six-string again in this setting. The next video is a mashup of two shows (with changes of clothes and sunlight) where the band plays his New Nashville Cats hit Restless. This one features some more of Mark’s guitar work, along with Darrell Scott playing some tasty electric guitar in the background. The final video of this set is of the Bill Monroe classic Jerusalem Ridge, which was featured on the Heroes album.
I want to end with the most recent meditation from his Improvising Toward Democracy solo violin series, this one No. 16 that was posted yesterday.
As you can see, the man is prolific and jaw-droppingly amazing. You can find more videos at O’Connor’s website.
More to come…
*Long-time readers will know that I have a deep love affair with Fretboard Journal, which chronicles musicians and the instruments they play in luscious detail. I generally refer to the magazine as guitar porn, but it is so much more to those of us deep into the music played on that most accessible yet difficult of instruments.