Renowned Fiddler Mark O’Connor Plays The Egg Saturday, March 11th
Mark O’Connor plays The Egg Saturday (March 11) as part of his Crossing Bridges tour marking the release of his memoir of the same name. Chet Atkins called Mark O’Connor the greatest fiddler that ever lived. He cut his first record for Rounder when he was 13 years old, the youngest artist ever signed to the label. “It wasn’t just a copycat Memorex situation,” he explains today. “I came to Rounder Records with my own sound and style and rendition of the old timers.”
I’ve interviewed a lot of child prodigies but never anyone with as extensive a resume of early success as O’Connor.
“I first learned the classical guitar at 8, and then I added Flamenco, and I started singing Johnny Cash songs and other singers at 8. I was 10 years old when I won the classical guitar competition at the University of Washington in Seattle against all the college kids. I was literally the only kid playing classical guitar ever at that point. I started learning to play the fiddle at age 11.
“The Crossing Bridges memoir covers a lot of my triumphs as a musician. It covers my debuting at the Grand Ole Opry at 12, welcomed by Roy Acoff, the then king of country music. I was the National Guitar Champion at 14, but it was all backdropped by a difficult life on the road.
“We first traveled down to the south when I was 12. There were no kids down in the south either playing the fiddle anywhere close to what the old timers and professionals were doing. It was really an old person’s game. If you were going to make a recording of a fiddle in the 1960s and ’70s, it would be some old timer with a beard.”
Mark is one of the least likely child prodigies to be performing today at age 61. As a child of a poor family in Seattle, Washington, he would run home from school each day, chased by bullies who would beat him up when they caught up with him. He describes his early family life as dysfunctional.
“By the time I was 14, my mother could no longer travel. She was bedridden by cancer, and she would send me out on my own in the 1970s after staying with strangers and traveling with people my mother had never met just because I had a shot at making it in music as a musician, a very narrow pathway to success.
“I had a lot of depression early on, and at some point, it was really the music itself that saved me. As long as I could express myself through music, I felt rich. A lot of my book is about financially just being poor, but that was the music that was not only worthwhile to me but everybody around me.
O’Connor signed with Rounder Records when he was 13, the youngest artist Rounder ever recorded, but it was a challenge by the time he was 15. “I was so bored at some point that I literally quit music for nine months. I didn’t even touch an instrument for nine months. After all that practice and success practicing up to 10 hours a day when I was 12 and 13, I quit. Rounder kept calling my mother during that time asking for another record, and I didn’t feel like I wanted to do another traditional fiddle album or bluegrass album or anything like that old-timey album, and they kept after me.
“They kept switching the conversation to include David Grisman, Tony Rice, and Sam Bush and more progressive ideas. That got my attention, and then I came back with the Markology album (1978) on my guitar that I recorded for Rounder when I was 16, and so that opened up the next phase of my story and, therefore, my memoir.
“I met with Rounder founders Bill Nowlin, Ken Irwin, and Marian Leighton Levy. They knew what needed to happen. I needed to rely more on my creativity and not replicate what had already been done, so I got into composing, and they turned me loose on it. They probably didn’t completely love the direction I was going with composing, but I was thinking. Ground in what now is called basically new acoustic music that’s now inspired Nickel Creek and Molly Tuttle and a bunch of people who thrived on that era of music that Rounder allowed me to do.
“A lot of people ask me if I was ever frightened being on stage as a kid playing with these older legends (including Chet Atkins, Merle Haggard, Stephane Grappelli, and Yo-Yo Ma), and I never was because what was really frightening was my home, my neighborhood, and my school. That’s where I was really frightened.”
I asked O’Connor if he ever pinches himself as he looks back on his legacy. “Well, it’s been an incredible ride, and that’s why I wanted to write this book because there were a lot of rumors about my childhood. A lot of people saw me play, and they have these different versions of what happened. A lot of it is accurate, but a lot of it is not.”
Did it go to his head to have Chet Atkins tell him he was the best in the world? “You know, it seems heady, but for me, I had so much ridicule and praise at the same time all through my childhood that it just was sort of like another day, you know?”
If he had to pick one thing that’s happened to him in his life out of all the iconic events he’s done, what would it be? “I probably put the O’Connor Method for Strings and The Instruction for Violin at the top.”
Mark O’Connor brings his Crossing Bridges tour to The Egg in Albany, Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. Joining him will be his wife Maggie on violin. He will be signing copies of his memoir. He has recently produced a CD of violin duets entitled Duo that he has arranged from American classics featured in the advanced books of the O’Connor Method™ Book series.
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