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On The String: After Forty Years, Virtuoso Mark O’Connor Reunites With The Guitar

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Mark O’Connor will turn 60 this August and not far behind, the 50th anniversary of his arrival on the roots music scene. A musical prodigy if ever there was one, O’Connor was making such a stir on the fiddle contest circuit by age 12 that Rounder Records signed him to a deal. By 16, he’d released three albums, including his daring bluegrass guitar opus Markology. Now, 44 years later, there’s a sequel, and it’s a wild story.

The world came to know O’Connor as perhaps the most complete and innovative fiddler/violinist in American history. But his first instrument was actually the guitar. Not folk or bluegrass guitar, but classical and flamenco, starting about age six, because his mother loved the styles, and Andres Segovia was a favorite artist. But once he got into fiddling and involved in contests, he won trophies and attracted some legendary figures to mentor and teach him.

His first Rounder release documented his championship tunes, with the giant Norman Blake on rhythm guitar. Then on Jan. 1 of 1976, when he was 14, his Pickin’ In The Wind LP featured original instrumentals, more standards, and support from Sam Bush, John Hartford and other luminaries. That’s when the forces of the music business and the business of being adolescent collided, as O’Connor tells me in Episode 169 of The String.

“I was actually just utterly depressed. I had not only those mid-teenage blues, but a lot of things that being a child musician, from age 12 through 15. It really put me through a lot of hurdles, and kind of psychological games. I was trying to grow up, and part of that was just kind of rejecting my childhood music experiences. I just wanted to get away from it. And Rounder Records, to their credit, kept calling my mother saying we would like another album by Mark, and I was turning them down...I just wanted to skateboard.”

Then Rounder really got creative, suggesting that instead of another fiddle album, Mark could put his guitar playing out front. O’Connor says he was coy at first and then he set what he thought were impossible terms. If they could get his heroes Tony Rice to play guitar and David Grisman to play mandolin, he’d do it. Rounder called his bluff, and that’s how Markology came to feature the top acoustic pickers of the times playing with the skateboard kid. And the results were astonishing, a suite of original and interpreted standards that shot newgrass music ahead by leaps and bounds. 

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Unfortunately, O’Connor found that his guitar playing style, with a lot of rotation in his forearm, caused bursitis in his right elbow, threatening both of his key instruments. So he gave up guitar, focused on fiddle, and the rest is history, as they say. His resume is overwhelming. O’Connor played rock and roll fiddle for a time with the Dixie Dregs. He moved to Nashville and became the first-call session fiddler in town, playing on scores of hit country sessions. He was the impetus for the wildly influential Strength In Numbers supergroup in 1989 with Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas and Edgar Meyer. He was band leader for the amazing TNN show American Music Shop. And then he went classical, or neo-classical, composing for orchestra and small groups, including his profound Appalachia Waltz with Yo Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer. He also pursued gypsy jazz with some of the best bands to make that music in modern times. In recent years, he returned to bluegrass with his family band, winning this third Grammy Award in the process. He also years ago launched a fiddle camp that helped new generations of string band innovators find their voice and form a network of friends and colleagues.

During the family band adventures, he began playing the acoustic guitar again just to see how it felt and he felt encouraged to start playing a bit on live shows. That led to more intense practice and testing his limits, which opened up doorways to a contemporary approach and style.

“When I started to put down tracks, I didn't think it was going to be an album. I wanted to demo my progress, but I wanted to make sure the sound was great, you know, just in case. And so that was going on for a few years. And I had about five pieces down. So then the pandemic hit 14 months ago. And so I thought, well, I'm going to do a new one, because I have more time. And then I did another one and then another one. And then all of a sudden, I had nine out of 10. And then Tony Rice passed away.”

While he knew Rice only glancingly when he secured his help on Markology in the 70s, Rice became a mentor and lifelong friend. Rice became the dominant force on guitar for his generation just as O’Connor became the center of gravity on fiddle. Their lives were intertwined, so that’s why Markology II is dedicated to Rice. It’s not just a fine tribute, it’s a one-of-a-kind project. Bluegrass guitar is a lead instrument but it’s rarely if ever a solo instrument. Over 46 minutes, O’Connor bids the guitar in all kinds of directions completely on his own. It’s fiery, finessed, extravagant and spellbinding. So often we lament the passing of musicians whose voices are stilled. Rarely do we witness a resurrection.