Mark O’Connor and his band, which includes his wife, son and daughter-in-law, are set to perform “An Appalachian Christmas” at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 6 at the Historic Everett Theatre, 2911 Colby Ave. (For tickets, call 425-258-6766.) O’Connor, who grew up in Mountlake Terrace, considers the concert his annual hometown show this year.
Here, he talks about the holiday show, performing with his family and his musical influences.
What can your audience expect to hear at the “An Appalachian Christmas” concert?
My annual Christmas tour began eight years ago and it quickly became a hit with audiences. I grew up in the Seattle area (I’m living in North Carolina now). I remember Christmas presents of favorite bluegrass and fiddle sheet music that I had been hoping for from the mail-order catalog. Another strong memory from when I was a kid is of musicians coming by our house to jam with me during the holidays. That spirited mixture of Christmas carols and fiddling left a lasting impression on me as to what music at Christmastime was all about. I wanted “An Appalachian Christmas” to sound like how those experiences felt. I hope the audience feels that they simply dropped by the house during Christmas to share in some cool Americana music and holiday cheer.
How wonderful is it that your family is part of your ensemble?
It’s no problem in talking about this great band. The O’Connor Band won a Grammy for “Best Bluegrass Album” for 2016’s “Coming Home.” We followed up that with Zac Brown producing some tracks for us, as well as a live album recording, and the result is called “A Musical Legacy,” a CD out just in time for this Christmas tour. I am proud of this album because it showcases the incredible musical talents of the O’Connors. My wife, Maggie, is a stunning violin/fiddle player. The Christmas show is perfect for her approach to the instrument, and she sings with her beautiful native Georgia accent. I am so proud of my son, Forrest, and his musical abilities. Born in Nashville, Forrest’s first Christmas tours were his start as a professional musician. He has grown into his own during these years, and is now a top-tier mandolin player, wonderful singer and beautiful songwriter. Kate Lee, my daughter-in-law, is an awesome vocalist and burns it up on the fiddle. Our rhythm section includes guitar powerhouse and national guitar flatpick champ Joe Smart, who is from Pasco. Jeff Picker is on upright bass for us this tour. He is on loan to us from the Ricky Skaggs band.
Your Facebook pages talk about your current projects, as well as exciting times from the past.
We have a few pages, one for Mark O’Connor Band, one for O’Connor Method, featuring our educational initiatives for music, and then the official Mark O’Connor page. Fans who remember me from many years ago love those old archive posts. It is pretty neat getting to share my scrapbook in this way.
Along with Benny Thomasson and Stephane Grappelli, who else influenced you?
Thomasson and Grappelli were huge influences and they were my private teachers and mentors. And playing partners. I have a lot of musical influences, too numerous to name them all, but they would include some of the people I have worked with as a professional, but still influenced me as a child. Steve Morse and The Dregs, Tony Rice, David Grisman, Joe Venuti, Peter Rowan, Johnny Cash, Charlie Daniels, Chet Atkins, Glen Campbell, John Denver, Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, J.D. Crowe, Sam Bush, Kenny Baker, Vassar Clements, Jean-Luc Ponty, Johnny Gimble, Buddy Spicher, Byron Berline, Itzhak Perlman, Jachia Heifetz, Yehudi Menuhin, Clarence White, Jimi Hendrix, Chuck Berry, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Robert Johnson, B.B. King, the Beatles, Bach, Beethoven, Mahler, Copland, Gershwin, Niccolo Paganini and Eck Robertson, the first fiddler to record in country music, and Benny Thomasson’s teacher. Obviously, that’s a long list and in no particular order. I love calling out the names of those who made the music possible for me.
Talk about what you term the “new American classical music.”
My career has been lifted up by my compositions that I perform. The … compositions are made up of various ingredients that we just began to call “American classical.” That seemed to be perfectly fine. There are some quintessential American classical composers who actually cultivated styles that neatly fit this description, like Bernstein, Frye, Ives, Copland, Gershwin, but over the last 60 years, there has been an interesting stylistic void — meaning the style of classical music being composed in the states could have hallmarks that are more European, or Asian, Russian, Middle Eastern, so it no longer had identifiable cultural roots that make it American music — principally hoedown fiddling, jazz, ragtime, spirituals, blues, Appalachian, New Orleans brass band, etc. I realized that all of these things inform my own musical compositions, so calling it “American classical” was a natural fit. Maggie and I performed my “Appalachia Waltz” at a service in our local Baptist church recently. Sometimes it feels like a modern-day spiritual to listeners.
Talk about the Coming Home project.
The title track of our band’s first album “Coming Home” was written by Forrest, a really cool song that I just love. We shot the music video in Seattle, and went back to my old neighborhood in Mountlake Terrace for it. It is pretty much the same as when I was a kid. It was the neighborhood where I skateboarded, most all of the streets have the very same blacktop road surfaces as in the 1970s, albeit a lot rougher. I got out the old board, a 1976 Jay Adams Z-Flex, and played the fiddle while I road the board getting it on film. Check it out on the Mark O’Connor YouTube Channel along with hundreds more videos from throughout my music career.
Got any messages for your longtime fans who will be in the hall Dec. 6 in Everett?
First of all, it will be great to see the folks I have a history with and fans who remember me here as a teen. This is a heartwarming, musically thoughtful and non-cheesy Christmas show, filled with playing and singing that represents the furthest thing from manufactured, processed and packaged music that you can find. You will be in the right place. Let’s have a beautiful evening together. A homecoming.
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