Just as the bluegrass world was digesting the wizardry of young fiddle prodigy Mark O’Connor in the late 1970s, we had to also come to terms with his equality stunning guitar work. He had already won the Grand Master Fiddle Championship at 13, and had released an album for Rounder, Pickin’ In The Wind, at 14. A tall, gangly youth, he looked every bit as much a skateboard kid as he did a champion fiddler, and he seemed unimpressed with himself in competitions and live appearances. He was, after all, just a teenager.
Later in his 14th year, O’Connor also won the prestigious Nation Flatpicking Guitar Championship in Winfield, KS. These were heady days for contemporary acoustic music. J.D. Crowe & The New South had recently demonstrated a whole new sound in bluegrass with their classic 0044 album, and The David Grisman Quintet had rocked the string world with their debut project, showcasing Tony Rice’s groundbreaking guitar.
Then in 1979, Mark was announced as Tony’s replacement with Grisman, and we all wondered, can this kid – an obvious fiddle virtuoso – take Tony’s place in the Quintet? But the answer had already been recorded, and released just months earlier in Markology, his third Rounder release, which featured him only on guitar. It won rave reviews for his creative interpretations of bluegrass standards and fiddle tunes, plus a number of his own compositions, and prepared us all for his brilliant stint with Grisman.
Not long after that time, he returned to the fiddle, touring with Dixie Dregs, a southern jazz/rock combo fronted by guitarist Steve Morse. What many people didn’t know was that the steady diet of guitar playing was causing pain and injury, and the six string took a back seat to his violin. Subsequent work found him moving into the classical realm, and dedicating himself to violin education with his own method system, but using American music and themes for the pieces taught to young students of the instrument.
Now, more than 40 years later, O’Connor has revisited the flatpicking album concept with today’s release of Markology II, a new set of guitar musings that display an even greater degree of technical dexterity, with a mature musician’s sense of arrangement, improvisation, and composition. Number II differs from the original in a number of ways: it is all solo guitar, recorded live, with less of a distinctly mainstream bluegrass feel, and it is dedicated to the memory of Tony Rice.
The rediscovery of his love for guitar came during a return to the bluegrass/Americana scene with his family as the O’Connor Band. It included both Mark and his wife, Maggie, on fiddles, his son, Forrest, on guitar and mandolin, and Forrest’s talented wife, Kate, on fiddle and vocals. Their Coming Home album in 2016 was a big hit, and they toured together for much of the next two years in support.
So O’Connor spent time over the next four years rebuilding those guitar chops, and recording tunes at his leisure. And voila… Markology II.
Mark’s good friend, Béla Fleck, contributed liner notes, in which he describes his own satisfaction at hearing O’Connor on guitar again.
“When I hear this new recording of Mark’s [Markology II], I have a variety of reactions, all of them very strong. Energetically and sonically there are things Mark can do with the guitar that he can’t do with the fiddle, and vise versa.
Another reaction is being a bit stunned at the shear technical bravado his guitar playing is capable of (including that bit of jealousy that I’ve always had at how well this guy’s hands work!).
It reminds me how any time we were hanging out and Mark would pick up any instrument, the room would go silent, how even him just noodling around would put us mortal musicians into a state of awe.
I’m so happy to hear the renewed passion in his playing, and that sense of a rediscovered love….I’m so thankful for the evocative aspects of the playing on this recording, which can take you to a peaceful place as a listener, as well as that beautiful sound that Mark has learned to create – and also to record. Between the great tone he pulls from his guitars and his expertise at recording them, the sound is another joy.
And lastly there is the joy of reconnecting with an old friend, the sound of Mark’s guitar playing that I thought was lost forever – a sound that I didn’t realize I had been missing for all this time.”
The songs were all recorded in Mark’s studio, and he captured the performances on video as well as audio. Here is a look at one, his version of the enduring classic, Greensleeves.
We had a chance to speak with Mark about the new album, and his musical life in general, which offers a great deal of insight into the mind of a genius.
What made now the time for you to revisit the Markology concept?
It all happened through a series of circumstances apart from anything to do with conceiving an album project. As some of your readers may be familiar, I laid the guitar down for 20 years due to right-arm playing injuries such as tendonitis, but more specifically chronic bursitis. I never thought I would play guitar again. At the same time I became perfectly content with my fiddle/violin career and playing it for the rest of the way.
About a year into the O’Connor Band formation with my family members, I found myself around our band’s guitarists Joe Smart and my son Forrest along with their new dreadnought guitars made by the Colorado Guitar Company. Their sound reminded me of why I was inspired by the guitar when I was a teenager. Lacking any guitar callouses, I started to pick them up casually. My family members started asking me to play a little more, urging me back to the guitar. We chose a very simple vocal song for me to play an accompaniment part on in the band, and eventually I added a small little lead line. Within six months, I had my own custom made guitar from the Colorado Guitar Co. and we were already working up my old Strength In Numbers tune Slopes. This was about four years ago.
So in between tour dates back at home, my falling in love with the guitar for the second time around resulted in new arrangements for solo guitar. I wanted to record them as I went. Many of the guitar ideas were different than the last time I had played 20 years before. Whether I realized it or not, the act of playing the guitar had been developing in my subconscious mind. In the intervening years, I was blown away with bluegrass guitar players like Bryan Sutton and Jake Workman, and more recently, Molly Tuttle and Billy Strings. I think it all had an impact on me as I tried to return to the instrument that I loved so much. I began to believe that I had something to offer on the guitar again, and documented the tunes as I came up with them.
How did you choose the tunes to include here?
As I was returning to the guitar in a big way, I chose tunes that I wanted to spend some time arranging and coming up with new perspectives on. It was all born out of my newfound interest and the results of my unlikely progress on the instrument. I was hooked into the tone and sound. This was what really lead me to these tunes. The sounds that I could make with them. So I chose mostly old tunes that I wanted to add something new to. A few of them were from my Method Books for strings. And a few originals, but it was more about arranging materials.
Two of the pieces I did on my old 1945 Herringbone Martin D-28 that had been hanging on the wall this whole time with little attention. A matter of fact, it had 20 year-old strings on it. I didn’t even have a new set of strings in the house, but I was drawn to the sound of the old box and it really inspired me, rusted strings and all. At some point, I told my wife Maggie that I needed to record the old Martin with the rusty strings because the Herringbone sounded like a piano. I didn’t want to touch a thing. I went into a local church to do the recording. Little did I know that these two tunes were going to be on an eventual guitar album.
And then I fell in love with the new custom made guitar that was made in the image of my old Martin. The sound of the dreadnought really led me to create more renditions of old tunes. I revisited my jam-tune, Flailing, but this time with about 90% new material, then a blues boogie tune in a crazy C-tuning that I was able to pull off because I was playing all this with heavy gauge strings on. I love the tone from this set up, so it is worth the extra effort. About this time, I realized that I had quite a collection of good recordings all done with my trusty old AKG C-24 (circa 1953). It was not until I had nine pieces recorded out of the eventual ten that I thought these actually might be an album. Half of them came during the time of the pandemic.
Do you have a good idea of just how shocking the first album was when it was released, given your status as a fiddle prodigy already?
I had won the National Flat-picking Guitar Championships at Winfield twice before envisioning that first Markology album. So, it was somewhat of a normality in my smaller circles. The guitar saved me back to music from teenage burnout and depression. It allowed me to revisit the creative part of the music that made a huge difference. This re-opened the door for my fiddle again too.
For the entire length of my childhood, I bounced each instrument off the other to help me find new breakthroughs creatively. I think that the professional quality of the playing on that first album when I was 16 was bolstered by Tony Rice, David Grisman, and Sam Bush who played with me on it, no doubt. They pushed me and I felt inspired by their presence and their great playing. Like I said, they probably saved the day for me because of a child musician’s life that was out of control in so many ways, and for all kinds of reasons that I am now documenting in my autobiography.
One thing that was a constant throughout this return to the dreadnought guitar the last couple of years, is that I had my old mentor and friend Tony Rice in mind as a regained my footing. It was his guitar playing, and his interest in me as a teen, that created my pathway beginning with the Markology album that Tony played on with me, and the momentous opportunity to be his replacement in the David Grisman Quintet at age 17. As crazy of a time period that all was, the memories of the music and Tony’s guitar comforted and aided my recent progress.
Then in late December, Tony sadly passed away. The memories came flooding back in how much he meant to me as a child musician. I realized that I wanted to turn these now ten recordings into an album and dedicate this to the memory of the greatest,Tony Rice.
Do you think of yourself these days primarily as a violinist, or guitarist, or multi-instrumentalist?
I think of myself as all of the above. It just depends on who you are talking to!
Will you be touring with O’Connor Family once pandemic restrictions are removed?
Our family band had decided on a 5-year plan at the outset. We loved the times we had together, the Coming Home and A Musical Legacy albums, Bluegrass Album of The Year Grammy, to recording with and opening up the Zac Brown Band summer tour. But we intended to wrap it up the year of COVID anyway. I loved every minute of playing on stage with my family though! It was beautiful!
I just signed with the great agency Skyline Artists Agency to handle the bookings for my Duo with Maggie. This setting will feature my solo guitar work that is the subject of Markology II, along with the fiddle duos and vocals that Maggie and I are singing and writing these days too! I just love playing in this setting – we can cover such a huge range with the two of us. We look forward to getting back out there and performing for people.
In the meantime, our Mondays with Mark and Maggie online weekly streaming show has been a life saver for me. It has kept me in top shape, working up new material – and old material for the shows each week. Every other week we have a special guest on, and we have had some amazing guests from Darrell Scott to Hillary Klug to Jeff Picker. We have Béla Fleck joining us as guest on the night of the Markology II release April 19! Be sure to tune in! Tickets and subscriptions are on the home page of www.markoconnor.com.
Béla and I began to text back and forth about the passing of Tony Rice and how much he meant to both of us. That led to his interest in my return to guitar. After hearing the tracks, he wanted to write the album notes and they are truly remarkable. I am so honored. And then on top of that, Tony’s brother Wyatt Rice heard the tracks and also wanted to contribute album notes, and they are just beautiful. He recognizes the close association that we had personally. As is the case with Markology II, again, it made all the difference.