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Elastic, Exceptional Mark O’Connor Pens His Own Unlikely Fiddle Story

Mark O'Connor
John David Pittman

My life in music began when I was seven and my Mom enrolled me in a Suzuki violin program. I took classical lessons and pulled the bow back and forth with reasonable dedication and skill for about eight years. But I moved on to other instruments – the drums, bass and guitar – because the violin felt at the time like it had limits, like it was typecast for a narrow type of person and music. That was misguided, but in my defense, that was before I woke up to the music of Mark O’Connor, a confounding, dazzling, expansive, boundary-smashing virtuoso whose (main) muse was and is the fiddle.

When I discovered O’Connor, he suddenly seemed to be everywhere. I’d hear him drive the newgrass revolution with my favorite progressive pickers, taking them to new places. I’d hear him on stage at Merlefest in North Carolina, freely improvising by himself for ten thousand people like a solo climber with no ropes. I’d see him on The Nashville Network in the 1990s leading hot bands that blew my mind and beckoned me to move to Music City. I’d see him play gypsy jazz and hot swing with some of the greatest musicians on Earth. I’d see him perform a concerto for fiddle and symphony orchestra, one of several that he composed on his way to developing an entire new method and lesson program for formal American music. (I’d see O’Connor make a pugnacious, persuasive case to the string world to dump the outdated Suzuki method for his own.) I’d also see O’Connor play bluegrass with the fire and fluidity and bluesy yearning inspired by the first generation of the genre, and this might be the greatest of his many modes of playing. This range, devotion and mastery are uncanny. This life – this almost 50-year career – just doesn’t compute. It’s like a screenplay more than a truth. Even now that it’s in book form it doesn’t feel real.

That book is Crossing Bridges: My Journey from Child Prodigy to the Fiddler Who Dared the World, the first volume of an epic memoir-in-the-works that comes out Feb. 10. In O’Connor’s granular way, the book takes 420 pages to cover his life from age 12 to age 20, yet for those of us fascinated with roots music history, it transports us vividly to places we’d go in a time machine if we could – to the Appalachian fiddle contests of the 1970s, to Roy Acuff’s dressing room at the Grand Ole Opry, to recording sessions with bluegrass legends, to David Grisman’s Bay Area inner sanctum at the birth of Dawg Music, and to rock venues with the Dixie Dregs. On the way there’s the drama of a troubled father, a supportive, put-upon mother, a fortuitous encounter with a master teacher, a mystical white violin, the buzz of discovery (in both directions, the world of Mark and Mark of the world) and all the magic and disruption he causes in the staid ranks of classic country music.

I spoke with O’Connor from his home in Charlotte, NC. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. He will be in Nashville for a run of engagements around the publication of the book: the Grand Ole Opry on 2.10, The Country Music Hall of Fame on 2.12 and the Franklin Theater on 2.13. More information is here.

When would you say you wrote the first sentence that grew into this first volume?

We did a series of Monday nights with Mark and Maggie during the pandemic. And people that were buying tickets to the online concerts kept urging me to start writing the stories down that I was telling during the online shows. I started telling stories to fill some time. And I knew they were very special in my childhood, and I had covered them with (would-be) biographers. But, I ended up scrapping those projects, and they really encouraged me just to start writing. So I would say about just a little over two years ago, I wrote the first words to this memoir.

Tell me about the archives you could access and how what was there synched up with your memories?

It was an incredible realization - how much information we keep in the recesses of our brain. I remembered a lot about my childhood musical life, because the stories were so rich. And it was really dotted with all the legendary musicians that I was meeting. I was not only performing with them, but learning from them. I was able to remember a lot, but looking through the archives, it just opened up the floodgates. I had a lot of audio, which is resulting in a companion CD of never heard never before heard recordings from my childhood. And the beautiful pictures, the photographs that my mother took on her Nikon, the black and whites, all through the 70s, following me around the country. When I put the audio and the visual with my own memory, and the stories of those legends that I was hanging out with, I mean, entire conversations I could recall. And because there were so many things involved. I mean, my family was involved. So it meant a lot, not just to me, but especially to my mother. So my memoir, especially in my childhood years, involves a really interesting relationship and dynamic with a mother and a son in a dysfunctional family and trying to figure out how a child could make it in a career in, you know, country, bluegrass fiddling, folk music really, for the first time.

Mark O'Connor
Mark O'Connor with Roy Acuff at the Grand Ole Opry in the 1970s.

That dysfunction seems to have been one of the great motivators to really dig into music and to imagine a future for yourself. Fair to say?

Yeah, and I mean it was such an odd and rough and sad childhood, in many respects, that music was really the escape. So it became everything, especially a safe harbor. There were many aspects to my story that I talked about that I think even a general reader can relate to, even though we're talking about a prodigious child in music, an artist that was performing in big time venues, starting at age 12.

And you write about how your dad insisted when you were 12 or 13 that you were going to work for him in construction? Between your time and your future and the danger to your hands, that’s just so wrong in so many ways.

A lot of people ask me how I progressed so rapidly at age 10 – 12, and I was literally not only practicing all day, but I was learning five instruments. I was doing everything I could to prove to my father, that I was not the candidate that he was hoping for to help him with his really rough labor jobs, which involved working underneath old houses repairing foundations after dark. Because that was his second job after his lumber yard job. And age 12 was the deadline. I mean, I was going to work labor with him after school every day. And I had to prove to him that I could not only become good at music, but I could also start to earn some income for the house.

You discover your first teacher and mentor Benny Thomasson living nearby, which was truly fateful. Give folks just a taste of the character of this man and what it was like to learn from him.

Well, Benny Thomasson was a legendary fiddler. And he happened to have just moved to the Northwest. I grew up just on the north end of Seattle. He was on the Oregon border. And one of the very first fiddling events I went to as a beginner, he was there, because he was checking out the local scene. He had retired and moved there to be close to one of his sons who was in logging. And they liked the fishing up there. He was about 64 or 65. He took a real liking to me right away. And he saw this kind of talent that he wanted to work with. And so my lessons were, I mean, my mother driving me two and a half hours, and we were broke. But he made it worthwhile, because he taught me all day long. And we would often stay in the old Chevy station wagon overnight. My little sister, me, and my mom would sleep there. And then the next morning, Sunday morning, the lessons would continue. And so this mentor relationship was significant. And this was taking place at the exact same time that I was trying to hold off my dad from working labor with him, so I could learn music and excel as I did.

And when you're taking lessons at that age, you're learning the melodies of the tunes. You're learning repertoire. But how did it set the stage for your future as an improviser and as a stylist?

Well, he was an incredible innovator, and he saw that in me, you know, a young version of me, he saw that, and so while I was kind of challenging him - to emulate him because I thought I had never heard anything better than that, he challenged me back to improve upon what he was teaching me by taking it home, developing renditions, variations, creative or improvisational ideas to the music. And we'd come back and then we would sort through some of my homework on the on the fiddle. And, you know, our foundation was the Texas style fiddle breakdowns. Those were his masterpieces. And it turns out that he was really responsible for the way most fiddlers today play these tunes. His own teacher Eck Robertson was the very first country fiddler ever recorded. So it's a great foundation to build upon your own creativity. You're honoring the tradition of the music, and then you're bringing in your own personal style, and approach to creativity, just enough to, you know, give it a new spark. And it was really my entree into improvising at large, and then composing soon after. So that was an incredible musical foundation that I really wanted to capture in the book.

Then you get to take your first national tour of fiddle events with your mom in a van and you see the South, the regions where this music comes from. It was the mid 1970s. What were your impressions?

Well, it was an incredible experience, because our hope was to be around more people that liked the kind of stuff that we were getting into. Early on, everything was through those LPs that we were ordering through the catalog and waiting a month or two months for them to arrive. And that was the window into this world. And to become, you know, a traveling musician in that yellow Econoline van at 12 and getting into the South for the first time was just a really amazing thing. I think the reaction from the professional musicians towards me was really profound. They took a liking to me right away. I was very unusual to them because I was so young and playing the music as I was. And also my own biography, you know, where I was from, was very unusual. Many of the people that we met in the early 70s on my first tours to the South had never even been to the West Coast. And so, this whole thing was just really kind of starting, and I was at the beginning of it. I mean, first of all, the 1970s was the heyday of fiddle competitions. The prize money was at its height. The crowd attendance was huge. I mean thousands of people coming to watch. And also, I was the first kid that could actually go toe-to-toe with the excellent players winning the championships. It was also this era where the real old timers were still entering and competing against these upstarts, these 40- and 50-year-olds trying to take their trophy away. And then here comes the teenager. So you had three generations working, playing out like a symphony at these federal contests. And it was really something to write about.

You observe that while today the traditional music community in bluegrass relishes and welcomes young musicians, then it was far more novel and strange. Can you just remark on that?

Yeah. Well, there was a lot of quarters that really welcomed the kid from Seattle. And there were certain situations where people found it very threatening. And a lot of fiddle music and old-time music was for older musicians. The old timers dominated the scene, and that was their party, and some of them didn't take a liking to it, especially when it came to certain fiddle contests where I started winning early on at 12 years old. So there's this whole story I talked about in the book, going to Galax for the first time and getting literally escorted off the grounds with my whole family by security. They wouldn't let me enter their contest, because they were afraid that I would win. And that it would cause a riot.

Mark O'Connor

That’s an amazing story for sure. Let me jump ahead a bit and ask you about the link between skateboarding and musical improvising. You discovered your love for skateboarding and your love of jazz about the same time and it strikes me that “freestyle” is literally a term in skateboarding. And so how do those two things sync up spiritually for you?

Well, a lot of people wonder how I was able to jump around genres so quickly as a kid. And so, the book really goes into detail about how that happened. Part of it was just getting burned out on what I was doing. And there was enough rejection from, you know, becoming a child musician as a career that I just wanted to find my own self and concentrate on that for a while as a mid-teen. That's when I got into skateboarding. And then that led into my creative process for coming up with my own West Coast version of this new fusion of violin and fiddle music that I was also on the forefront of. So I was not only doing all that stuff with the fiddle tunes and with Benny Thomasson and the fiddle contests and early bluegrass stuff, but then I was on the forefront of the whole David Grisman era and the hippies, and then even rock and jazz fusion music. So that was really the beginning of finding myself as a kind of a rebel musician, (and) it was easy for me to choose kind of a rebel sporting activity, as skateboarding was. It was not, you know, considered very cool back then. And so it felt comfortable for me because I was always kind of the odd duck anyway. And so I parlayed that feeling of going against the system. Every time I picked up an instrument or wanted to compose something or record something, I was trying to break through to another layer through my own creativity.

And through David Grisman you met Stephane Grappelli, another of your legendary teachers. He was about 72 years old at the time. It sounds like an especially exciting time.

Oh, yeah, it was an incredible thing. I mean, I had been listening to his records, and then I'd already gotten into swing and jazz by then, you know, at least for three or four years. I started improvising on “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Take The A Train” by the time I was 14 or 15 and listening to those records by Stephane Grappelli, Eddie South, Joe Venuti, Ray Nance and Stuff Smith, all my favorites. And then I got invited to replace Tony Rice on the guitar to accompany Stephanne Grappelli on tour, which was going to be one of the biggest tours that either Stephane or Grisman ever played. And I was I was a just turned 18 years old. And so the very first rehearsals with Grappelli did not know that I was also a fiddler. I was just playing guitar with him. And so the story in the book I tell is how he discovered that. It was really quite a scene. And someone in the band outed me as a as the other violin player. And I had just had this really wild encounter with Joe Venuti, which is a hilarious story in the book where, because I was a kid, I was going to become his prank is joke for the audience, because he didn't know I could play very well. And, of course, that prank backfired once I got up on stage with him, and we started playing together. And but I knew that there was some of those old jazz players didn't really appreciate the kids around. We were just in the way. And so I was wondering if Stephen was going to be like that, you know, I mean, I mean, I could also appreciate the fact that he wanted to play with these hippies. But he, he liked younger musicians and, and in the 70s, that's pretty much what you had.

And what role did he take on in your life after that tour? How did you continue to learn from him?

Well, once he discovered that I played the violin too, then we started playing duos together on the tour. And that was incredible. And I became his favorite and one of the very few students that he ever really took on at all. So it was really an incredible rare occasion. And I grew up in an era where there weren't these fiddle camps and string camps and bluegrass camps. Everything's so wonderful today, as far as, you know, older musicians want(ing) to share their knowledge with students. In the 70s, I was basically trying to create an environment where there was this kind of passing on the music. If they weren't going to do it with me, a lot of people were thinking that it could die out. So there was this transition period where they were opening their hearts just a little bit at a time saying we need young people playing this music, even if they look different than us.

As the book comes to a close, your trajectory is set as an eclectic, genre-fusing musician who is steeped in an American vernacular and the blues. And it strikes me that after these key experiences, you had a very clear idea of who you wanted to be, and it was then a matter of executing it. Can you describe that mindset?

Well, one of the things that I talk about a lot in the book is finding your own voice and learning to push back all the people telling you, you can't do that. I was going through that constantly. And the artistry was forefront in my entire childhood life. You know, basically the entire book is about being broke, because I put everything I ever earned back into the music. So I always put the art and the music first. And I think that's a really a good message for a lot of young musicians today. There's a certain richness that the 1970s provided our musical culture, which suggested that it wasn't about the commerce for someone like me. It was really about the experience in music. And that was where the richness was derived. That's where all the magic happened - learning from the legends, being around them, respecting them. Even if they treated you not so well, you know, I appreciated their music and their history of developing the music. And so it's a really a story about them as well. And that's why I really love talking about the 70s because I can bring the audience into what it felt like when I discovered all of this. And so by the time I worked with these creative giants, like Grappelli, like Grisman, like Steve Morse of The Dregs you know, by that time as a 19 year old, I knew where my heart was, and that was being a creative musician, wherever that took me.

Lastly, you have lived a life focused on instrumental music, but our roots music culture depends so much on songs. What might be your advice or your agenda to make more people more excited about instrumental music?

Well, you know, that's really an interesting idea. I mean, I myself this year started writing more vocal music with my wife, Maggie. But we're not going to leave our instrumentals behind. I do think that the 1970s really gave birth to an instrumental music culture that I want to do my part to maybe hang on to a little bit more. Remember it was the birth of bluegrass lead flatpick guitar in the 70s. I mean, what an amazing thing, and I look at people like Billy Strings capitalizing on that history. Also jazz and rock fusion, you know? The Dregs were hanging in there as an instrumental group. So, we proved that it could be done in the 1970s. And I think that's a great era for further inspiration. And I don't want people to think that we're done yet.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org