By Crista Munro
Special to The PREVIEW
It’s 8:40 p.m. on a Friday evening, five minutes before the O’Connor Band is slated to make their Grand Ole Opry debut. Fiddle legend Mark O’Connor is standing just offstage, wearing his trademark Fedora hat, smiling at the sight of the crowd, the lights and his old friends in the Opry house band.
“It’s amazing to come full circle and return here,” says O’Connor. “I first performed on this stage when I was 12. Even though it was more than 40 years ago, I’ll always vividly remember Roy Acuff introducing me to the crowd. But this performance might be even more special, because I get to have my family out there on stage with me.”
As if on cue, Mark’s son, Forrest, walks up in earnest.
“Dad, we may have a slight problem,” says the younger O’Connor, wielding a mandolin in his left hand and a pick in his right. “I just realized that both our songs are in [the key of] E. Is that OK, or do we need to swap one of them out?”
“Whoops,” says Mark. “Well, at this point, let’s stick with what we decided, because I think the songs are different enough. I bet the audience will love ‘em!”
Within minutes, the full six-piece O’Connor Band is out on stage, launching into a cover of the old Osborne Brothers hit, “Ruby, Are You Mad At Your Man?” Forrest’s fiancée, Kate Lee (vocals, fiddle), is singing lead, and Mark’s wife, Maggie (vocals, fiddle), is chopping rhythm on the fiddle hard enough that, if you weren’t looking, you might think she was playing a snare drum. Joe Smart (guitar) and Geoff Saunders (bass) are also holding down a tight groove despite the breakneck pace. After a virtuosic vocal performance from Kate and blistering solos from father and son O’Connor, the song ends abruptly, and the audience erupts in what seems to be the loudest applause of the entire evening.
Next, the band plays “Coming Home,” a song penned by Forrest while out on the road with his dad during one of their “Appalachian Christmas” tours a couple years prior. It’s an up-tempo, feel-good, almost anthemic tune about coming home to a loved one after months of travel. All the band members, including Mark, join in on harmony vocals for the last two choruses, and the audience eats it up.
And, just like that, the set is over. The O’Connors exit stage right and shake hands with some of the other performers and staff before heading back to the dressing room.
“I think it’s bedtime,” says Maggie as she puts her fiddle in her case. “We need to be on the road at like 5 a.m. because we have two shows at Dollywood tomorrow afternoon!”
Family bands obviously have significant historical precedent, especially in bluegrass and country music (think The Carter Family, The Stonemans, The Whites, even The Band Perry), but it’s rare to find one this versatile, and with such a diverse background and story.
Mark himself has the name that fans of many different musical styles will immediately recognize. A former child prodigy and national champion on the fiddle, guitar and mandolin, Mark has won his share of Grammys and CMA Awards and has collaborated with a dizzying array of iconic artists, including Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, George Jones, Randy Travis, Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, Bobby McFerrin, Wynton Marsalis and Yo-Yo Ma. He has also written numerous violin concertos, which he has performed with hundreds of major symphony orchestras around the world.
In addition to performing, he has authored a groundbreaking and now best-selling instructional method for strings, The O’Connor Method.
Hailed by The New York Times as having followed “one of the most spectacular journeys in recent American music,” O’Connor’s career has been unique and inspirational.
“I’ve recorded on at least 500 albums,” says O’Connor, “but I have to say, there are very few, if any, that I’ve been as proud of as this O’Connor Band album. With the help of Grammy winners Gregg Field [co-producer] and Neal Cappellino [chief engineer], we’re bridging the gap between progressive bluegrass, country and indie folk and yet creating something that is also very commercially viable.”
Throughout the 12-song album, which will be released Aug. 5 on Rounder Records (the first label Mark signed with at age 12), the O’Connor Band draws upon a deep well of talent and tradition to make music whose sonic and emotional appeal transcends time and genre, demonstrating an effortless rapport that underlines the group’s family roots as well as its prestigious collective pedigree.
The title of the record apparently didn’t require much deliberation: “Coming Home,” named after Forrest’s song, was the obvious choice, as it reflects the arc of his dad’s career and the meaning of this album so aptly.
Forrest himself waited a long time before deciding to follow his father’s footsteps. Growing up in Nashville and Montana, he dabbled in guitar and mandolin until enrolling at Harvard University, where, despite the heavy academic workload, he managed to squeeze in time to practice mandolin late nights in the basement of his dorm building. After graduating summa cum laude and foregoing an invitation to attend Harvard Business School, Forrest co-founded and worked at a video tech startup, Concert Window, before deciding to pursue music as a career in early 2014. Within two months of moving from Boston back to his hometown of Nashville, he won the Tennessee State Mandolin Championship and began touring full-time with O’Connor Band co-lead singer and fiancée Kate.
“I’m what you might call a late bloomer,” Forrest says with a laugh. “But I was around so much music growing up that this way of life feels very natural to me. And our album has to be, what, number 50 or something that my dad’s released as a featured artist? It’s my first full album, but I don’t think it will sound like it. This band is a natural extension of what I have always loved about music and music-making. It’s coming along at a time when we can combine our different sensibilities to create something that will hopefully resonate with the bluegrass and country audiences and beyond.”
Two of Forrest’s original songs on the album, “What Have I Been Saying?” and “I Haven’t Said I Love You In A While,” are probably not what one would consider straight-ahead bluegrass. Both are slow- to mid-tempo duets with Kate and they feature winding, occasionally chromatic melodies, adventurous chord progressions and lush string textures. Although very personal, both songs draw upon the songcraft of the top country writers of the ‘80s and ‘90s, which is refreshing in this acoustic context.
“It’s a pretty cool thing to contribute to the wonderful musical traditions of bluegrass and country while also trying to build on it,” Kate adds. “I grew up listening to Mark and being inspired by his music, long before I ever knew that he had a son that I’d be engaged to. It turns out that Forrest and I have similar writing sensibilities, which is one of the reasons we hit it off so well after we met.”
The chemistry Kate and Forrest have developed together over the last couple years as vocalists and writers is evident both onstage and on the new recording.
Kate’s journey to this point, however, is perhaps more similar to Mark’s than Forrest’s. Born and raised in Rochester, N.Y., Kate became the leader of her own band, Kate Lee and No Strings Attached, at age 12, and she won several state and regional songwriting contests in the ensuing years. Soon after moving to Nashville to study commercial violin performance at Belmont University, she began performing behind a number of the biggest names in country music, including Martina McBride, Lady Antebellum, Vince Gill, Jennifer Nettles and Rascal Flatts. She also formed an unlikely but highly productive songwriting partnership with Pat Alger (Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood, Nanci Griffith), and a couple of their songs appear on the O’Connor Band album.
“The songs Kate and Pat wrote — especially ‘Blacktop Boy’ — are so accessible,” says Maggie. “That one in particular sounds like a radio single to me, and Kate’s singing on it is so powerful. But honestly, it’s hard to choose favorites on this album. The music is diverse yet so cohesive. I think that’s because we have such a good camaraderie. Of course, having a band with two couples is unique, but in some ways our very different backgrounds contribute to the cohesion. It’s like we are each inspired by each other’s journeys to this point because, in spite of being a family, we all followed different paths to get here.”
Maggie, who sings both lead and background vocals in addition to playing violin for the O’Connor Band, is the only core member of the band with a higher academic degree, having earned a master’s of music in violin performance from the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. After growing up playing and singing country, bluegrass, and jazz with her own family band in a small town outside Atlanta, Ga., she underwent years of intense Russian School classical violin training, but she never lost her yearning to play American styles. In 2014, while still considering pursuing an orchestral career, she reached out to Mark — whom she had never met — about setting up a fiddle lesson during a trip to New York City, where Mark was living at the time.
“I’ll put it this way: That lesson changed a few things!” exclaims Maggie.
Within weeks, Maggie began performing with Mark both domestically and abroad, including with the Singapore Chinese Orchestra and at the Leopold Auer Academia in Hungary and the Berlin Konzerthaus in Germany. But perhaps no performance meant as much as one they played November of that year — at their own wedding.
Maggie’s ability to blend tonally with her husband is startling; indeed, it literally sounds like they are one violinist sometimes. Fortunately, given Mark’s command as an arranger, the two are able to harness the beauty of their blend often, especially on Mark’s versions of the driving Bill Monroe classic “Jerusalem Ridge” and the bouncing, energetic traditional tune “Fisher’s Hornpipe,” as well as in his majestic original composition, “Fiddler Going Home.” All three of these songs appear on “Coming Home.”
“Playing with Maggie is so effortless and invigorating,” says Mark. “I’m not just saying this because she’s my wife — I’ve really never enjoyed playing with another violinist this much. But honestly, that’s how it is with Forrest and Kate, as well. I’ve played with many of the top female singers in my time and there are really none better than Kate — she is just that good. And Joe and Geoff have to be two of the best sidemen on the bluegrass scene today. Who knows? Maybe they’re related to us too somehow.”
Joe, a former National Flatpick Guitar Champion, and Geoff, a DMA candidate in Bass Performance from the University of Miami, grew up listening to Mark’s music, so perhaps the chemistry with them should come as no surprise.
“Joe’s playing on ‘Coming Home’ has to be one of the best bluegrass guitar performances of the year,” Mark says. “And our co-producer, Gregg Field, praised Geoff as having the best bass sound he’d ever gotten on record. Pretty amazing stuff for players who haven’t been on the scene that long yet!”
The truth is that all six musicians possess impressive multi-instrumental abilities that allow the group to explore a wide range of musical configurations. The three-violin lineup is unique amongst contemporary ensembles. The virtuosic playing competes with any bluegrass band out there. The songs (described as “modern-day classics” by Field) hold their own with anything you’ll hear on a Friday or Saturday night at The Bluebird Café in Nashville.
Back at the Opry, Mark smiles and shakes his head after walking offstage.
“That might have been the fastest we’ve ever played Ruby,” he laughs. “Whew! I forgot how much I loved playing here. It definitely feels like I’m coming home.”
Fans will have the opportunity to hear this amazing ensemble at this year’s Four Corners Folk Festival at 5 p.m. on Sept. 4.
Also joining the O’Connor Band on this year’s festival lineup are The Del McCoury Band, The Milk Carton Kids, Sara Watkins, Darrell Scott, The Black Lillies, John Fullbright, Sierra Hull, The East Pointers, Lindsay Lou and the Flatbellys, The Lonely Heartstring Band, Rose’s Pawn Shop, Trout Steak Revival, Songs of the Fall and Coral Creek.
The 21st annual festival gets underway Sept. 2 on Reservoir Hill and is supported in part by a matching grant from Colorado Creative Industries.
For information about tickets, camping, volunteering or schedule, visit the website: www.folkwest.com. There is a free festival app available for iOS and Android devices; search “FolkWest” in the app store.
Story courtesy of The O’Connor Band.