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An interview with Mark O'Connor

by Tom Redmond

Mark O'Connor
Mark O'Connor is a widely known professional fiddler, prominent in country music and in classical music. A child prodigy, O'Connor began studying guitar at age 6. As a teenager he won national championships on the guitar, mandolin as well as the fiddle. His mentors were Texas fiddler Benny Thomasson and Jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli. He has recorded solo albums for Rounder, Warner Bros. Records, Sony, and his own CD line OMAC Records. He has won two Grammy awards, one for his New Nashville Cats album and another for his Appalachian Journey album he did with Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer. He was named Musician of the Year by the Country Music Association six years in a row (from 1991-1996).

One of the most sought after Nashville studio musicians in the 1990s, O'Connor's violin can be heard on countless hits.

In his career, O'Connor has crossed musical genres, composing, arranging, and recording folk, classical and jazz music. His Fiddle Concerto has received over 200 performances making it one of the most performed concertos written in the last 50 years. He has composed six violin concertos, string quartets, string trios, choral works, solo unaccompanied works and a new Symphony. He has worked and recorded with a wide variety of artists, such as Chet Atkins, James Taylor, Michelle Shocked, Alison Krauss, Bela Fleck, Stephane Grappelli, The Dixie Dregs and Wynton Marsalis. One of his most popular compositions, Appalachia Waltz (appearing on the album of the same title), has been adopted by Yo-Yo Ma as part of his live performance repertoire. O'Connor hosts an annual fiddle camp (the Mark O'Connor Fiddle Camp) in Tennessee and annual String Camps in San Diego and New York. O'Connor is currently living in New York City.

TR: I know you grew up in Washington. Can you tell me a little bit about your early music influences?

MO: Well, Chet Atkins was certainly one of those early music influences. I was a guitar player first, beginning around age 6.

TR: Yes, in fact I've seen a video of you and Chet and Paul Yandell playing on a television show from the eighties. You were playing lead. A TNN show I believe.

MO: Yes, that was "Gallopin' Guitar. Somebody has recently added that video on my Facebook page. I was a classical guitar player initially, and then I also studied flamenco guitar and finally country and bluegrass.

TR: And this is before you ever even touched the violin?

MO: Yes. At age 11 I got really interested in bluegrass and country guitar, and I was able to really draw inspiration from all the great guitar players that were recording in that era; of course, Chet Atkins, and Jerry Reed, and Doc Watson and some of the bluegrass guitar players like Tony Rice, and Norman Blake.

I played a lot of guitar through my teenage years, even after starting the violin. I kept my guitar playing up pretty well and then I recorded an album of all guitar music when I was 16 called "Markology."

Mark at age 6
And I think "Markology" might be the best guitar work I've ever done in my entire life. I had some special guests on that album, including Tony Rice, Dan Crary, David Grisman and Sam Bush. It was the album Chet Atkins heard. It was the first time he ever heard of me.

Just about a year after that album was released, Chet wrote me a letter and he was really, really nice. He said, "I heard your album and I really loved it," and he invited me to come see him whenever I was in Nashville.

It took me awhile to get to Nashville to have a meeting with him. I think I was 22 or so when I finally went to Nashville and met Chet in his office. I remember the conversation like it was yesterday. I was sitting in Chet's office, and he said, "You're a talented young man. Where are you living?" I said, "Well, currently I'm living in Atlanta, Georgia." and he said, "Well, you should be in Nashville," and I said, "Well, what would I do here?" and he said: "Anything you want to!"

Of course I was completely blown away. He asked me again what I wanted to do and at that point I was kind of lost for words, so I blurted out, "Well, I guess be on television," and as soon as I said that, I felt kind of embarrassed because I really only said it because I didn't really know what to say -- I was young and awkward.

But to my surprise he said, "Well, I think you can do that - I'll make a call."

So he called Ralph Emery over at TNN, and the phone conversation lasted only a few minutes. He got off and he said, "Well, what's your schedule the next couple of weeks?" So in just a matter of minutes Chet had set that first television appearance up for me and that is where I went on with Chet and we played "Gallopin' Guitar".

Video: Chet and Mark O'Connor play "Gallopin' Guitar".

TR: You were part of the house band there on TNN weren't you?

MO:Yes, but that was much later. That was after I got to be a very well-known session player in Nashville.

Chet and Mark warming up
After that initial TV appearance with Chet I began to do a lot of session work. I got to be very busy and I was nominated for Musician of the Year for several years, and I suppose that "Gallopin' Guitar" is from 1983. I started my own show on TNN called "The American Music Shop" in 1989.

TR: So you were living in Nashville from '83 or so?

MO: Yes, beginning in 1983. I lived there for 15 years before moving away.



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