Mark O’Connor is a true musical prodigy. He began playing guitar at age six, moved on to violin at 11 and was winning national fiddle championships by age 12. He won the National Junior Fiddle Championship four years running from 1974 to 1977. During almost the same period (1973 to 1976) he won the National Old Time Fiddle Championship. He moved on to win more prestigious titles and captured the Grand National Fiddle Championship three years in a row (1979 to 1981). Then he exited the contest circuit and began touring with David Grisman’s band.
Grisman was a bluegrass pioneer who helped shake country music loose from its rural roots. He wrote music for the traditional bluegrass quartet (fiddle, mandolin, guitar and bass) that was closer to jazz and classical chamber music than down-home country. O’Connor joined Grisman’s group in the early 1980s but primarily played guitar while the group featured violinists Stephane Grappelli and Darol Anger. He departed the group after a skiing accident resulted in a broken arm.
In an interview in down beat O’Connor said: “Breaking my arm was like fate. I lay in the hospital bed and knew someone was trying to tell me something. I’d been a little unhappy in the Grisman band because… I knew I could be better known as a violin player because it’s my natural instrument.” In his tenure in the Grisman band, he had learned about the new directions the country violin was taking and the new realms into which country music could be pushed. His next outings moved him into the world of rock.
When O’Connor joined the Dregs they had simplified their name from the Dixie Dregs to help dispell their image as just another southern country-rock band. The Dregs’ music can best be described as jazz-rock, or “fusion”—a term that indicates the influence of jazz improvisation, classical motifs, and a variety of ethnic rhythms. O’Connor loved playing in an electric band with the added kick of drums and the punch of electric bass. Although the Dregs’ music allowed a lot of room for improvisation, most of it was orchestrated. O’Connor, who never learned to read music, learned the orchestrated parts by ear. The Dregs’ 1982 release, Industry Standard, with O’Connor playing violin, may be one of the band’s most successful albums.
O’Connor’s earliest solo albums are steeped in blue-grass and country music and showcase his violin virtuosity. The 1979 release Markology is for the guitar aficionado—O’Connor’s innovative flatpicking style can be heard along with guest guitarists Tony Rice and Dan Crary. Reviewing the album, Guitar Player said: “Mark O’Connor flatpicks bluegrass music in a clear, rippling style punctuated with unexpected chromatic flurries, effective syncopation, and blues bends…. [His] maturity and his musical intuition are even more remarkable than his dazzling technique.”
On the Rampage (1981) mirrors the fusion influences of his tenure with Grisman and the Dregs, but his still-youthful enthusiasm is reflected in this quote from the album jacket: “Thanks to the obsession I had with skateboarding during my 17th year, this music was able to flow out from me. As you listen, picture me catching air off a vertical wall. I’m still going for it.”
With the releases of Meanings of and False Dawn we see the emergence of O’Connor’s personal style, one that incorporates the many different influences in his career. He demonstrates that he can compose and arrange music and play almost any instrument with strings. The albums are self-produced and he overdubs his playing on violin, viola, mandolin, cello, dulcimer, bass, and a variety of acoustic, classical, and electric guitars. Meanings of, his first album for Warner Brothers, got mixed reviews. It was praised for O’Connor’s inventiveness and mastery of his instruments but was also called “cluttered and claustrophobic”(Washington Post) and marked by “instrumental pyrotechnics and run-wild egotism”(down beat).
Born August 1961, in Seattle, Wash. Began playing guitar at the age of six and violin at age twelve; became well known as the winner of various national fiddle and guitar contests, 1974-81; performer (primarily on guitar) with David Grisman Band, 1980-81; violinist with the Dregs, 1982; solo performer and session musician, 1982—.
Awards: Winner of National Old Time Fiddle Championship, 1973-76, National Junior Fiddle Championship, 1974-77, National Guitar Flatpicking Contest, 1975 and 1977, Grand Masters Fiddling Championship, 1975 and 1980, and Grand National Fiddle Championship, 1979-81.
Addresses: Office –c/o Warner Bros. Records, 3300 Warner Blvd., Burbank, CA 91505.
But his pyrotechnics are not egoistic. They just show his youthful delight at discovering new sounds with his instruments. His early violin playing was grounded in the strict traditional styles which were required to win fiddle contests. His approach to the guitar evolved when he played with the Grisman band and is strongly influenced by his violin techniques. He says that when he played guitar with country musicians he surprised them by inventing new chords. Later, as he played with a broader range of musicians, he discovered that his chords were well known in jazz circles.
He also has a remarkable pair of hands. Guitar Player noted that he has a reach of seven frets: “He has extremely long, thin left-hand fingers that can actually stretch between 1/4 and 3/8 [of an inch] out of their sockets. His joints even allow him to bend his fingers to touch the back of his hand.” O’Connor attributes this physical dextenty to a long history of playing during his youth while his hands were still developing.
Success at a young age has not been easy. As he told Guitar Player: “When you’re around drunken Texans and drugged-out rock and rollers and you’re young, you’ve got to keep control. I was really strong about that and nobody could budge me. I just told myself what was happening and let all my emotions and feelings out through the music.” Now a much in-demand Nashville session player, he regularly appears in recording studios with the likes of Dolly Parton, Chet Atkins, Leon Redbone and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. With his eclectic solo releases he is earning a reputation as a musician of the New Age. Although he started young, his musical career is still just beginning.
Four-Time National Junior Fiddle Champion, Rounder, 1974.
Pickin’ in the Wind, Rounder, 1976.
Texas Jam Session, OMAC.
In Concert, OMAC.
Markology, Rounder, 1979.
On the Rampage, Rounder, 1981.
Soppin’ the Gravy, Rounder.
False Dawn, Rounder, 1984.
Meanings of, Warner Bros., 1986.
Stone from Which the Arch Was Made, Warner Bros., 1987.
With David Grisman Band
Quintet ’80, Warner Bros., 1980.
Mondo Mando, Warner Bros., 1981.
Stephane Grappelli/David Grisman, Warner Bros.
With the Dregs
Industry Standard, Arista, 1982.
Audio, June, 1986; October, 1987.
Country Music, May-June, 1986.
down beat, June, 1982; May, 1984; July, 1986.
Esquire, December, 1985.
Guitar Player, May, 1980; April, 1981; July, 1982; March, 1984; April, 1987.
People, February, 1986.
Stereo Review, September, 1984; February, 1987.
Washington Post, August 15, 1981.
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