How many classical musicians can you name who have ever played country music?
If you heard a fiddle on a country song during the second half of the ‘80s, chances are it was played by Mark O’Connor. He was the on-call guy in Nashville, performing on something like 450 different albums between 1985 and 1991.
“I was busy doing overdubs,” he said recently, “and going from one studio to the next. There was a tracking that the musicians union did, and I think for three years I was on more Top 10 records than any other musician.”
He also won the Country Music Association’s Musician of the Year award six years in a row, from 1991-1996. But for the last decade, he’s been earning kudos for his recordings and concerts in the classical field. That’s the side he’ll present Thursday night when he performs with his Appalachia Waltz Trio at the Great Bridge Presbyterian Church as part of the Virginia Arts Festival. It’s a return to his musical beginnings growing up in Seattle.
“It’s been quite an interesting journey,” he told me when he called from Ohio, where he was performing with the Trio. “It was classical to begin with, and then for a few years flamenco. And that was all before I started playing the fiddle. I started violin late, at eleven. It was guitar all the way back to when I was five.
“I progressed quickly once I had the violin. I learned my lessons very quickly and was somehow able to pick up the repertoire at a fast pace. I remember learning two or three, sometimes four or five tunes a day when I was twelve. On the weekends, I would spend them with the great [Texas folk] fiddler Benny Thomasson, and I’d come back with a bushel full of tunes. As soon as I started getting into that, I sort of left the classical stuff behind for a while and went headstrong into folk music, bluegrass and later jazz.”
He made his first record when he was twelve, winning national fiddle contests and recording bluegrass in his teens. Then he joined legendary French jazz violinist Stephane Grapelli’s band:
“I auditioned for his group when I was still seventeen and I made it in as guitar player. Stephane really embraced me during that time and wanted to feature me on the violin as well, so in his concerts he would have me come out at the end and play twin violins with him. That was just a treasure of a memory.”
After a brief stint with the southern rock/fusion band, The Dregs, he headed to Nashville in 1983, at the age of 22. Within a couple of years, his studio sojourn backing up the big names in country music had begun.
“I think the second phase of my career, the recording sessions, was really more of a job than a passion,” he admitted. “You know how a person—say a great artist—will take a job painting someone’s bedroom? My goal was never to become a full-time session musician; my goal was only to pick up enough sessions each month to pay rent so that I could concentrate on my own artistic output. The albums I was making before that on Rounder, albums like False Dawn which was really exploratory music, that was a precursor to what I’m doing now. I wasn’t on the radar yet, but that was what I was hoping I could achieve in my career, some success in that direction.
“But the lure, not only the financial aspect of being a successful recording musician, but it’s tough to turn down all those praises and awards, people patting you on the back thanking you over and over for helping them. You just kind of get caught up in it for a while; then you start to lose your intensity for your own artistic output. So I had to struggle to get that back. But what was funny about it was I used the session world to get me back with The New Nashville Cats. That created the launching pad to start my solo career.”
O’Connor’s first purely classical album was The Fiddle Concerto, released in 1995, a sumptuous work that put him squarely on the map as a first-rate serious composer. A year later he joined forces with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and bassist Edgar Meyer for the magnificent Appalachia Waltz, a disc that owned the Billboard classical chart. It’s the project that planted the seeds for the trio he brings to Chesapeake this week.
“This is the next generation,” he said. “I think one of my charges in this whole effort was to make sure that the Appalachia Waltz music had some future and didn’t just die with the dissolving of the original cast. So with Yo-Yo Ma’s blessings and Edgar Meyer’s blessings, they encouraged me to find young string players to assemble a new Appalachia Waltz Trio to perform the music that I composed for that project.”
Violist Carol Cook and cellist Natalie Haas are the young players he found, and their first CD together, Crossing Bridges, is a stunning tour de force that does just what its title implies.
“There are so many different bridges being crossed,” O’Connor explained. “There’s the Appalachia bridge, the virtuosity technical side of string-playing bridge; there’s the Texas fiddle avenue, there’s natural habitat and environments. There’s even a piece that was inspired by fiddle contest rounds; the fast-slow-fast aspect of the fiddle contest round mirrors a fiddler form that’s in lots of classical music compositions. Every piece has its own story.”
Mark O’Connor’s story continues to unfold as he crosses bridges and blends musical idioms to create a musical genre of his own.
“Right from the beginning,” he said, “I felt like I had an opportunity, a handle on creating a new kind of string playing that equally accessed classical music settings and forms, and idiomatic folk music languages and techniques. I think the marriage between those ingredients is basically what I’ve been thriving on in my career and Appalachia Waltz music embodies that example.
“It is really gratifying, mostly because I’m doing some of my best composing now and along with it, I’m playing with some of the most talented musicians I’ve ever played with. I’ve certainly played with a lot of great musicians in the past but it was always about what they were doing. I was like the sponge that could adapt. Now I’m adapting to my own artistic desires.”
copyright © 2006 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.