Mark O’Connor – String ties
O’Connor formed the Appalachia Trio, which features himself, Cook, and cellist Natalie Haas, to perform the music from 1996’s Appalachia Waltz and 2001’s Appalachian Journey, the string trio albums O’Connor recorded with Edgar Meyer and Yo-Yo Ma. Both those recordings became classical-crossover hits, but “crossover” is a term that makes O’Connor even more uncomfortable than the terms “fiddle” and “violin.”
“I’ve been called ‘The King of Crossover’ by the L.A. Times,” he laments, “and my mama always told me I should smile when I’m complimented. But I have trouble with that terminology, because I don’t feel like I’m crossing over. I don’t feel like I’m just visiting jazz or classical music; I feel like I’ve come to live there. Too often a ‘crossover’ project is the idea of some record-company guy who says, ‘Hey, let’s take this person and that person out of their element and have them do something they don’t know much about and try to sell some records.’
“If it’s an honest interpretation, that’s nice. But if it’s only for one album or one project, it betrays a lack of commitment. If Barbra Streisand releases one album of Mozart songs, you’re suspicious. If she releases five albums of art song, then you begin to take it seriously. A lot of people thought Appalachia Waltz was an idea manufactured by the label as a crossover gimmick, but no, it was an idea from me and Edgar. We both had all this original string music that we wanted to play, so we got this idea of writing Yo-Yo a letter to see if he would collaborate with us. He said, ‘Yeah,’ and the first rehearsal was at my house in Nashville.
“I can’t complain too much,” he admits with a sigh. “Sony has used the crossover label to bring my music to a lot of people. I think the music was strong enough that it wiped out the crossover label in the end; it influenced string players all over the country. And I don’t have any better terminology. Some people call my music alternative string playing, but alternative to what? We don’t want to threaten anything; we want to add on. Nowadays I call it American string music.”
O’Connor grew up in Seattle, the son of an alcoholic father and a cancer-plagued mother. One of his mother’s few sources of pleasure was her collection of classical records, and she played them constantly. She even bought her young son a nylon-string guitar so he could take classical lessons. Period photos reveal him as a long-legged, chubby-cheeked kid with flattened bangs. But he also had the big ears and agile fingers of a musical prodigy.
“My mother was this strait-laced, classical-music lover,” he reflects, “but for some reason in 1969 we watched this TV show from this hillbilly town called Nashville. It was the very first ‘Johnny Cash Show’, and the guests were Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Doug Kershaw. Even at 8, I got it. I knew this was special. I started to learn Johnny Cash songs. I started begging for a violin, because there was something about the way Kershaw played that struck a chord in me. I could imagine myself holding it and making music with it. With the guitar, I was talented, but I felt restricted from some natural pathway for myself. I had an innate sense that if I got hold of a fiddle, the whole music world would open up to me. I begged for three years, and when I finally got one, it turned out to be true.”
That was the end of 1972, and the 11-year-old O’Connor’s first violin teacher was Barbara Lamb a teenage classical/folk player who later gained renown with the group Ranch Romance and her own solo albums. By insisting that he hold the box and the bow in the proper classical fashion and by drilling him on good tone, Lamb gave O’Connor the fundamentals. But she was also open-minded enough to recognize the interest in folk music inspired by his television encounter with Johnny Cash and Doug Kershaw. She suggested that he might want to attend the National Old-Time Fiddlers Contest in Weiser, Idaho, the following June.
There he met Benny Thomasson, the most important teacher of his life. “When I heard Benny, I was transfixed,” O’Connor remembers. “I knew right away he was the master and he was the one I wanted to emulate. If you gave him a theme, he’d create a variation that was as strong or even stronger than the original. Even at an early age, that blew me away. And his phrasing was brilliant. I told my mother I’d rather quit than sound like I sounded, compared to him. She said I could, because she was still thinking of the violin as a second instrument. I put it down for a month, but I couldn’t leave it alone.”
A few months later, at another fiddle contest, Thomasson heard O’Connor practicing in a hallway. The master was impressed enough that he told the youngster’s mother she should bring him down to Thomasson’s home in Kalama, Washington, near the Oregon border. At this point, the mother’s ambition and the son’s converged, and they began making the drive south as often as possible.
O’Connor wasn’t enrolling in a conservatory, but he was entering a system of music education every bit as rigorous in its own way. Thomasson was from west Texas, where old-time fiddling was passed from generation to generation orally and then tested at a series of local, regional and national championships. Maybe the lessons never involved sheet music; maybe they took place in Thomasson’s old fishing cabin rather than the classrooms of Berklee; maybe the recitals took place on outdoor plywood stages rather than hushed concert halls; but it was a meticulous education with clearly defined repertoire, techniques and standards.
O’Connor thrived in this environment. He began studying with Thomasson in 1973, and a year later won the junior division of the National Old-Time Fiddlers Contest in Weiser. On the strength of that, Rounder Records put the 12-year-old in the studio with mandolinist Norman Blake, guitarist Charlie Collins and producer Tut Taylor to make O’Connor’s debut album, National Junior Fiddling Champion. In 1975, he won the Grand Masters Fiddling Championship in Nashville. He released his second Rounder album, Pickin’ In The Wind, in 1975, and his third, Markology, in 1978. In 1979, he graduated from high school.
“I had two different lives,” O’Connor recalls. “I had the life of a fiddle prodigy, which didn’t afford me anything other than praise. It didn’t get me scholarships or professional opportunities. In the off-time, when I was going to school, I was beat up and ridiculed, and the teachers were going to hold me back for missing too much class. I couldn’t get a fair shake. I had an opportunity to go to college early in the 10th grade, and they wouldn’t let me go. They threatened to flunk me out and not give me my diploma.
“When I was 14 or 15, my mom was dying from cancer, and she would send me to these fiddle contests so I could play. I’d be by myself in these strange cities, and people would give me alcohol. One day Roy Acuff was walking down the hallway, and he pulled out a twenty and said, ‘Mark, here, take someone to lunch.’ But I didn’t need lunch; I needed a scholarship. Could he not see I was there by myself without my parents? If it had been a classical situation, I would have gotten that scholarship. That’s the downside of going down an alternative pathway.”