Posted On 01 Mar 2017
The O’Connor Band, on Rounder Records, is comprised of acclaimed GRAMMY® Award winning fiddler/violinist Mark O’Connor and his family members – wife Maggie O’Connor (fiddle), son Forrest O’Connor (mandolin and vocals) and future daughter in law Kate Lee (fiddle and vocals); with National Flatpick Guitar Champion Joe Smart and double bassist/old-time banjoist Geoff Saunders.
Together, this group performs a dynamic show featuring compelling arrangements of Americana — rich with virtuosic solos, and tight vocal harmonies. The O’Connor Band received a GRAMMY® nomination for “Best Bluegrass Album” after spending nearly half of the year at the top of Billboard’s bluegrass album chart and in fact, they recently won at this years Grammy Awards!
Mark O’Connor’s creative journey began at the feet of a pair of musical giants — folk fiddler and innovator who created the modern era of American fiddling, Benny Thomasson; and French jazz violinist, considered one of the greatest improvisers in the history of the violin, Stephane Grappelli. Working with classical violin icons Isaac Stern, Itzhak Perlman, Yehudi Menhuin and Pinchas Zukerman, Mark absorbed knowledge and influence from the multitude of musical styles and genres in which he studied and participated. With his body of work, including 45 feature albums of mostly his own compositions, Mark O’Connor has melded and shaped these influences into a new American Classical music, and a vision of an entirely American school of string playing.
In 1986, O’Connor, Edgar Meyer, Béla Fleck, Jerry Douglas, and Sam Bush formed the band Strength in Numbers, which played some of O’Connor’s own pieces. His first GRAMMY® award came in 1991 for his album New Nashville Cats. His music became increasingly sophisticated, utilizing elements of folk, classical, jazz, and world music — what he calls the “four pillars of string playing.” His first album on Sony Classical, Appalachia Waltz (1996), with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and bassist Edgar Meyer, impressed classical critics with its originality and attractiveness and became a huge crossover hit. The trio’s next album, Appalachian Journey (2000), won O’Connor his second GRAMMY® award. His Fiddle Concerto, composed in 1993, has been performed around the world hundreds of times. By 2010, he had written another six concertos and the Americana Symphony, recorded by Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony.
Learn more about The O’Connor Band in the following All Access interview:
Thanks for your time! So, now that 2016 is over, what are some words you would use to describe the year for you? What were some of the highlights for the band? What are you most excited about for 2017? Did any of you make New Year’s Resolutions?
2016 was a big year in the O’Connor family! We decided to be a full-time professional band, and that was the biggest highlight for all of us I believe. A record contract followed and we made the best album we could, entitled “Coming Home.” Now that CD is nominated for a Grammy for “Best Bluegrass Recording.” Our Grand Ole Opry debut was a huge highlight as well, so was our hit Christmas tour in 2016 that took us across the country. We signed with new management in Nashville, Velvet Stone Management that is led by iconic country music producer Tony Brown. So 2017 means trying to capitalize on those successes as a band and see how far we can take this very good start. We want to get back into the studio for one thing and try out some new material soon! -MOC
Can you talk about how your family first decided that you could be in a band together? Was it a hard decision to come to?
It was a bit of a hard decision to form a professional band out of grown family members. It all began when I asked Forrest, Maggie and Kate one by one, each successive year to join me on my annual Christmas tours across the country. That is how we all ended up on stage by 2014. My family consists of sincere individualists and of course, I am an ultimate musical rebel. I am used to taking the most difficult route and I like it that way. So we have to watch out for each other a bit and make sure we are committing to the same things we all want. Sometimes ideas shillyshally a bit because there are young musicians in my family who are discovering, and heck I am still discovering.
An example could be that one of us might think that we should do more pop, another one more country, another one more bluegrass or Americana, and there I am playing my violin going, guys check this out! Look at this classical music orchestration I created or we could turn this song into experimental jazz! We want to find a direction that makes sense for us and that begins in bluegrass because that is where we all started as kids anyway.
We have bluegrass as our unified musical language, bringing us together as a musical family in addition to our immediate family profile. What it is we want to do as a band in the next few years, is what we are figuring out for our 2nd album right now. It has to be said though, this family is chock full of musical virtuosos, and that makes this very interesting especially. I believe that 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 is like the old country song by Buck Owens – just act naturally! -MOC
The easiest part of being a band of family members is traveling together. It is very easy to be around the people you love and experience new things together. I suppose the hardest thing is being overly sensitive to someone’s bad day on the road, rather than just ignoring them like in a regular band. But it is never that bad, really. Everyone one of us has a huge sense of humor that really comes out when it is just us together alone, and we end up belly laughing at each other’s funny comments more than anything. It really helps that our two sidemen Joe and Geoff come from families of musicians and they have a great sense of humor too, and are perfect in responding to our family dynamic. Being humorous probably helps this family of greatly trained and somewhat tightly wound talents. We simply like to have a good time together and look forward to each trip. -MOC
How did you come up with your band name? Was it difficult to settle on one name that described your music?
We began as the O’Connor Family Band, but realized that we needed to include me name for the marquees because of my decades-long career and making sure my fans follow me to this new incarnation. So we switched quickly to the ‘O’Connor Band featuring Mark O’Connor. -MOC
Congrats on being nominated for a Grammy this year for Best Bluegrass Album! What does that feel like? Were you surprised when you first found out? Are you looking forward to performing at the Grammy Awards Premiere Ceremony?
The O’Connor Band being Grammy-nominated this year for ‘Best Bluegrass Recording’ is absolutely thrilling to us – to me personally too. I have had many accolades with four decades of work in music behind me and sometimes it feels a little unfair to have these very talented family members looking on and not being directly a part of that. This honor of a nomination takes care of that! They went out there and earned this. There should be no pretenses, it is extremely difficult to have the door slightly opened in the music business because you are related to someone who won CMA Musician of the Year for instance, and then have to prove your own worth to the audience. That is difficult to do and takes some thick skin and steady temperaments. It takes an inner confidence you have to tap into in order to deliver on the stage like my family does each night. And they did it on the recording and on stage! Kudos to them! They wrote some beautiful songs for the album and sang them with so much emotion and story-telling ability. Everyone played beautifully. And now with this performance we have at the Grammy Premiere Ceremony, they have the grand platform to show the most celebrated members of the music industry who we are as a band, who we are together as a musical family. It will be a huge moment for the OCB! -MOC
Mark, would you say that what drives you to make music these days changed at all? How do you approach writing these days?
I would say that my recent “The Improvised Violin Concerto” and my “Americana Symphony” recorded by the Baltimore Symphony are two of my best works as of late. I also have taken my abilities to orchestrate and arrange to our bluegrass band. Everyone in the band has had some kind of formal training and reads music. One of my compositions I brought to the CD is my “Fiddler Going Home.” I scored it like a classical composition complete with six individual staves, a line for each of us to perform throughout the entire piece. It was like chamber-bluegrass music. Listening to it, people would have a hard time believing that it was scored in that way. That was a real highlight for me to see through. Arranging some of the 3 fiddles in our band for the songs has been really a lot of fun. With Geoff and his beautiful bass arco work, we can turn ourselves into a legitimate string quartet with the flick of the bow!
These days, music education really drives my muse in addition to the band’s material. The ‘O’Connor Method’ for violin/fiddle and string instrument education has really taken off where now tens of thousands of students are learning to play an instrument from my music education books. And aside from being astounding players, singers and writers, my family all teaches music and in facts teach the ‘O’Connor Method’ at camps and outreach programs during our touring. The lesson plan features mostly American music, creativity, cultural and ethnic diversity, Mexican and Latino music improvisation, various ensemble playing settings, string orchestra and all of these things are now the buzz words in formal music education finally. Helping to usher in ‘A New American School of String Playing’ has been one of my crowning achievements as a musician. As pedagogue I have composed many materials for the books over the last 10 years and still working on additional materials right now! -MOC
What musicians continue to inspire your music? Is there anyone that you would love to work with one day?
Well, my stock answer used to be that I have worked with all of my favorite musicians already – but that was back in the 80s and 90s! There is a whole new generation of professional musicians coming up and it is a bit dizzying trying to keep up with everyone. I find myself comparing this new scene to the older scene I cut my teeth on . There are artists now who are doing some incredible stuff, Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbel, Maren Morris and Sturgill Simpson out of Nashville come to mind as some of our best we have. Lori McKenna “Humble and Kind” is one of the best country songs I have heard in a very long time. A lot of inspiring artists for this band to follow. -MOC
When you aren’t performing, working in the studio, what do you like to do for fun? How do you four unwind from it all? Is it easy to turn off the music and just be a family together or do you find that you are always talking about the music?
One of the greatest blessings in my life is to really be in love with my wife Maggie. The other great blessing in my life besides my son Forrest of course is my little daughter Autumn. She also happens to be the very biggest fan of the O’Connor Band and knows all the words to the songs and sings along when she insists on hearing our CD over and over again. I can’t wait to come back home to Charlotte, NC from the road and experience a 6 year-old life with her. A true joy for our family. -MOC
What do you hope is the message of your music? What do you hope people continue to take away from your songs?
We want to inspire people as singers and songwriters but also folks who play real musical instruments too. It is unfortunate over the last generation that as a culture, we have gotten further and further away from these regular musical instruments in favor of having our entire world revolve around computers and iPhones. There seems to be an increasing divide in musical creativity and the ability to play an instrument creatively as well as excellently. It is becoming a lost art. Many millions of people can sing well around the world, and millions more can write some kind of lyric or poetry pretty well too. The whole package is what this band offers and it is rather unique in commercial music. It comes out of a bluegrass tradition of both playing and singing, but my family has taken it a bit further. It is incredible to hear testimonials from audience members, many say that this was the best concert they had ever seen and it just blows me away. I am just glad that my family has such level heads that it really doesn’t get to them too much! I have been in some heady groups before – swapping licks with Wynton Marsalis, matching tones with Yo-Yo Ma…. But this is very special indeed. -MOC
Is there anything else that you would like to share with our readers about your music or the band?
Like any band, we are adding repertoire for the band’s shows. Because of this group and the fact that we have one of the best flat top guitar plays on the scene in our group, Joe Smart, they have all inspired me to pick up the guitar again too. It was my very first instrument, but I laid it down 20 years ago! Over the summer, I worked up a slow song on the guitar to play with the band, kind of feeling my way back into it without stretching too much. Then during the holidays break, I dusted off my old 1945 Herringbone Martin and began to actually practice. I got good at it again, to my surprise! It is kind of shocking to me in some ways that I can still play guitar, perhaps up to the level that I left it at 20 years ago. What is hilarious about this whole thing is that my Martin still has the same 20 year-old strings on it and somehow, they sound great. There even kind of rusty in spots by I really like playing on those same old strings from decades ago. It is kind of both freaky, and magical! Now we have just added one of my old epic guitar jam tunes I wrote for my old ‘Strength In Numbers’ band called ‘Slopes.’ All I can say, is that you cannot wipe the grin from my face these days. And everyone sees it. I am so happy to be here and it is great to play with my talented family. -MOC