Those of us who were following bluegrass music in the 1970s were most fortunate to watch the emergence of a true prodigy in Mark O’Connor.
Before even hitting his teens, Mark was wowing musicians with his fiddle, mandolin, and guitar playing. He made his Grand Ole Opry debut at age 12, and signed with Rounder Records as their youngest artist. At 13 he took first place in the prestigious Grand Masters Fiddle Championship, besting rivals several times his age with an equal lifetime of experience.
Growing up outside of Seattle, WA, he was studying guitar and fiddle by the time he was eight years old. The same year he won the Grand Masters in Nashville, he also took first on guitar at the National Flat Pick Guitar Championship in Winfield, KS.
Then at 17, he followed Tony Rice into the David Grisman Quintet on guitar, and found himself recording with one of his idols, the great French jazz violinist, Stephane Grappelli. Between 1974 and 1982, O’Connor released six albums for Rounder, focusing alternately on his fiddling and guitar playing.
After his time with Grisman, Mark stepped away from the bluegrass world and took a job playing fiddle with progressive rockers The Dixie Dregs, later known as The Dregs, fronted by guitar maestro Steve Morse. But he stayed active on the contest scene, winning four times at the National Old Time Fiddler’s Contest in Weiser, ID and the Buck White International Mandolin Championship in Kerrville, TX.
From there, Nashville called, and Mark found himself quite busy as a fiddler, even hosting a television program for several years called American Music Shop, which regularly featured other young bluegrass stars like Béla Fleck, Sam Bush, Tony Rice, and Jerry Douglas.
Though he eventually returned to the traditional string world with his family outfit, The O’Connor Band, Mark spent many years away from this music as he focused on classical composition and performance, and his own innovative instructional materials for violin, using American folk music as a basis.
Now, having reached the ripe old age of 60, Mark is looking back at his early years with a set of two books and an audio CD that examine his meteoric rise from a teen aged phenom to a bluegrass music powerhouse in little more than a decade.
A memoir of his life, Crossing Bridges, is now available, along with a photo book, A Childhood in Pictures, in either paperback or hard cover editions. Anyone who remembers Mark’s emergence onto the music scene as a boy will surely cherish the opportunity to relive that exciting time, as will those who have only come to appreciate his genius in more recent years.
Also due to be released this month is the CD, Early Childhood Recordings, which includes 23 tracks captured during his teen years, and a few even earlier. Among them are recordings taken from his various fiddle and guitar competition wins, and this precious example of the very young Mark O’Connor playing and singing a version of Banks of the Ohio.
Crossing Bridges and A Childhood in Pictures are available for purchase now wherever books are sold. Early Childhood Recordings is set for release on March 14.
Here’s a brief video of Mark reading from his memoir late last year.