Mark O'Connor: From Camps to Concertos -- Doing It All
Over twenty years have passed now since the child prodigy fiddler from Washington State first walked onto the contest stage, and the fiddling world has never been the same since. As a young teen, Mark O'Connor became the most celebrated contest fiddler ever, forever changing the standards by which fiddlers are judged. One can still hear the echoes of his playing in virtually every young Texas-style contest fiddler in competitions throughout the U.S.
Contest fiddling was merely a springboard for the young fiddler in the late seventies and early eighties. Due to his technical mastery and prodigious improvising skills, Mark's forays into bluegrass, western swing, jazz and new acoustic music left fiddle observers everywhere shaking their heads in disbelief. By the age of twenty, he was already generally regarded as the greatest all-around fiddler ever.
After stints in the early '80s with the David Grisman Quintet (primarily as a guitarist) and the rock-fusion based Dregs, Mark moved to Nashville and quickly became the leading studio session fiddler, picking up numerous Country Music Association Instrumentalist of the Year awards. He also became the musical director of the weekly television program American Music Shop on TNN, recorded several solo albums for Warner Brothers, and still managed to perform around the world.
Several years have passed since Mark decided to cut back on his session work in order to tour more and promote his solo career. Now at the age of thirty-four, he is without doubt the most influential fiddler of our day. Only has the classical violin world seen technical virtuosity at the level displayed these days by Mark O'Connor, and probably never has this been combined with such stunning improvisational skills.
The following interview took place at the Strawberry Music Festival just outside of Yosemite, California, in September, 1995.
Why don't we start with what you've been doing lately -- you're balancing recording, solo performances, even some classical concerts.
This has been my most enjoyable year in my music career, I believe, because of the broad range of possibilities that are out there for me at this point. I started out my career with a variety of music tastes... I've actually successfully made a career out of having no particular direction. That's really satisfying. It must be obvious to most people that have followed me along the way that I kept mixing it up, and just following my heart wherever it leads me musically and not ever trying to force anything to be different, but just being different naturally. And addressing it, you know. I feel I really need to do a blues album now. I want to try to be in a position where I can pull that off. I think I've got a record company -- Warner Brothers -- that has seen me through some of these changes, and the latest one, of course, in a classical setting, was a fiddle concerto for violin and orchestra, and my string quartet for violin, viola, cello and double bass.
Let's talk about how you've risen to the level of technical ability that you have, and a little about your practice history, and what got you to this level. Because other fiddle players have never gotten to the technical level that you've risen to, and I'm wondering if you know why that is. Can we look historically at how you've practiced, since you were a kid and on...
Well, you know, to be frank and honest, I don't practice. And I haven't practiced at great lengths since I was thirteen.
You began at about age eleven...
Well, I actually began playing the guitar when I was five or six, and I started playing the fiddle at age eleven. And I really practiced and played like crazy for two years. I must have learned two hundred fiddle tunes.
Would you say you were putting in four or five hours a day?
More. And I was doing it because I wanted to, but sometimes I practiced all day, maybe seven or eight hours, learning these fiddle tunes. And I learned two hundred fiddle tunes in two years. And I learned most of them from Benny Thomasson.
So they were mostly Texas style.
Yeah. And I think when I was fourteen, I said, "I've done enough of that. I've got enough fiddle tunes now." I wanted to try other things. And then I went into a slump, because my teacher, Benny Thomasson, left and I couldn't find a replacement that was inspiring to me up in the Northwest at that time. This was at age fourteen. And everything just went downhill as far as playing outlets, practicing...
Still, you were doing contests on a regular basis...
In the summer. Once in a while in the winter. But I wouldn't even prepare for the fiddle contests. I wouldn't even go over, even run through any tunes until I arrived. And the same way with Weiser. For some reason, it was a mixture of losing my teacher, I think it was mid-teenage blues, it was feeling like I had more talent than I had an outlet for, and I was sort of misunderstood, and people didn't know where to put me. I didn't understand all that at the time. As a matter of fact, Rounder Records -- I made two albums for them when I was twelve and thirteen -- and age fourteen went by, age fifteen went by. All this time they were calling, saying "We'd like another record from Mark," and I said, "No, I don't want to." When I was sixteen, they kept calling every couple of months, and my mom would say, "Well, he says he doesn't want to." I look back at this and say, "here's a record company begging a musician to record an album -- they weren't begging, but they were asking many, many times. I can't believe it.
You just weren't inspired to do it.
I didn't want to do it. I remember when I was sixteen they said, "Well, what about a guitar album?" They were trying to use a different line with me, and I said, "I don't wanna." And they'd call in a few months again, and said, "Tell Mark if we could get him anybody he wanted, would he do one?"
And I said, "Well, what about David Grisman and Tony Rice?" Just to dare them -- all my heroes, right? And they called back and said, "We can get them." I said, "Yeah, right. Well, I still don't want to do it." And then my mom put her foot down and said, "You know, we've given you guitar lessons for all those years. The least you could do is think about music for fifteen minutes a day. I'm not even asking you to play guitar -- just think about it. Think about what you would do if you had a chance to make an album of guitar music." So that was how out of it I was, as far as practice. But what was weird about this was, all of a sudden, after a couple of days, I started getting ideas. And then when I picked up the guitar, I was better. I was way better than I ever was before. And the Markology album came out and is still available.
At this point, you still hadn't won Weiser, the National championship. Were you not practicing? Didn't you have that as a goal, to win Weiser? I would have thought you were putting massive hours in for Weiser.
No, it was anti. Everybody was telling me, "Mark, if you could just play like you were thirteen, you would win."
Is it because your note selection was too progressive?
Yeah, and it was just too wild sounding. It wasn't old-timey enough. It impressed some people, but it scared other people. When you're playing for old time music judges, some of them are going to be impressed, some of them are going to mark you down. So everybody was saying, "Regress, regress." So there was no need to practice. I had to strip it down. And so when I showed up, the first time I was actually trying to play to the judges, was when I was seventeen, when I won the national contest. Every other time I was just trying to do what I do, the best I could.
[This interview is from the (out of print) Spring 1996 issue of Fiddler Magazine.]