“For me, Christmas time was a time for music,” says Mark O’Connor about his youth. The Grammy-winning violin master will present a show titled “An Appalachian Christmas” at Roy’s Hall in Blairstown, Dec. 11. It will be a trio show also featuring his wife Maggie on violin and vocals, and his son Forrest on mandolin, guitar and vocals.
When he was growing up in Washington state, he said, most of his playing with other musicians took place during the summer, when he toured the country, participating in fiddle contests. “So when the winter break rolled around,” he said, “it was a time for music again, and there was enough time for musicians in the local area to stop by and just play. We would play Christmas music and fiddle tunes and bluegrass tunes. So it’s kind of all rolled up into one.”
That was the idea behind his 2011 album An Appalachian Christmas, he said: “Musicians, playing fiddles, mandolins and guitars, sitting around the Christmas tree. That’s how we played. That was our set list as we would play a little bit of a fiddle tune like ‘Arkansas Traveler and then a little bit of the ‘Carol of the Bells,’ and ‘Jingle Bells,’ and so forth.”
He has been doing Christmas tours, annually, since releasing that album, though he had to skip last year because of the pandemic. He was going to do just a few shows with Maggie, as a duo, this month, “and then my son Forrest offered to play with us for any dates in December,” he said. “And I said, ‘Well, I could turn the dates I do have into full Christmas shows if you wanted to do that.’ So this is really a nice new little venture, a family setting with just O’Connors playing Christmas music. I’ve been working up trio arrangements for a bunch of stuff and am really excited to put it onstage.”
Much of his touring after this, he said, will feature his duo with Maggie.
“I’ve played with a lot of string players over the course of my career,” he said, “but she can adapt to all these things. I mean, I’ll come up with a Cajun thing or a Western swing thing. Swing, bluegrass. She graduated with two degrees from the Peabody Music Conservatory, so anything classical-oriented, she’s right on it. So that’s been really fun … to be able to share everything so closely with a partner is really an unlikely story and people get to see it onstage.
“We’re actually working on a recording right now featuring a lot of songs that we’ve written where she’s singing lead and I’m singing harmony and I’m playing guitar, and that will also feature a bit of our dual violin material as well.”
O’Connor’s most recent album Markology II, released this year, features his guitar playing. His first guitar album, Markology, came out all the way back in 1978.
“I had put down the guitar for 20 years because of bursitis and tendonitis issues,” he said. “Just in the last five years, I’ve brought the guitar back in, developing my practice habits where I’m not injuring my arms all the time, like I used to when I was in my 30s. So the guitar’s back into the fold and so is my mandolin.”
The upcoming Christmas concerts will include a section in the middle, he said, where he will do solo versions of “What Child Is This” on guitar, “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” on violin, “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” on mandocello and “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” on mandolin.
“That will be a little showcase of solos right in the middle, with the duos and the trios beginning and ending the concert, so it’ll have a lot of variety,” he said.
During the pandemic, he and Maggie did a series of 70 Monday night online concerts, titled “Mondays with Mark and Maggie.” He also worked on his autobiography.
That is something, he said, “that I’d been putting off for years. I actually started it a few times with some co-writers, and then I abandoned it because I just ran out of time. It needed so much attention … Especially the years when I was a kid, winning fiddle championships and playing with all these legendary people that are gone now, and learning from them. I was hanging out with all these guys. I mean, just the pioneers of the music.”
He’ll release it in two volumes, he said, with journalist David McGee co-writing. The first volume will focus on his years as a young musician, before he became known as a recording artist in his own right.
“That covers my touring with Stephane Grappelli, who became my final teacher,” he said. “And touring with the David Grisman Quintet to my touring with the (Dixie) Dregs. And then Merle Haggard. All these other things are in there, too, like playing at the White House for Ronald Reagan, as a featured young person.
“It’s quite a story because it’s a story about learning American music and the power of American music and how it brings people together and it moves people.”
Mark O’Connor’s “An Appalachian Christmas” will be presented at Roy’s Hall in Blairstown, Dec. 11 at 8 p.m. Visit royshall.org.
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