Fit for a Fiddle

At times, people may not know that what they're seeing is a musical phenomenon. At other times, though, there are clues, and the clue in the late '80s in Santa Fe, New Mexico, was the horde of high-toned musicians lining up to hear the performances of a then twentysomething fiddle player named Mark O'Connor.

Santa Fe is annually the home to the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, an event that draws classical music fans from across the globe to hear the best of the best from the world of orchestral music; it's rare that anyone from outside the classical world is invited to play. But on this occasion, the great double bassist Edgar Meyer had made an exception. Meyer, a performing member of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, had not long before moved to Nashville, and he'd heard about a session musician named O'Connor who could, it seemed, do anything with a fiddle. The two had met, Meyer had been impressed, and he'd insisted that the promoters at Santa Fe give this young man a venue.

So they did, and the response was surprising, to say the least. "All these violinists who were playing at the festival were snapping up the tickets to my shows," says O'Connor over the phone from Nashville, where he was taking a break from recording. "It was a big surprise to me that these world-class violinists would be interested in hearing me play. I was up there on stage improvising, no sheet music, just playing music I had composed, and these people were just enraptured. When I finished, Edgar [Meyer] would pull me over and point out folks in the crowd. 'That one plays with the St. Louis Symphony,' he'd say, and then, 'That one teaches at the Berklee School.' And they all wanted my autograph. I really didn't know how to respond."

Part of that was because O'Connor's first experience with classical music hadn't been quite so pleasant. That had come when he was 14 and still living in his hometown of Seattle, Washington. His mother had taken him to one of the city's best teachers of classical technique, who had looked down his nose at this upstart of a musician. Though O'Connor had by that point been playing the fiddle for three years, the teacher told him he was doing it all wrong. In particular, the way he was holding his bow wouldn't work. What was necessary, the teacher told O'Connor, was that he forget everything he knew and start over again.

"He just wanted to strip me down and begin from scratch," O'Connor recalls. O'Connor, though, wasn't about to give in. Though barely a teen, he had already recorded two albums for Rounder Records and won not only the National Old-Time Fiddler's Contest in Weiser, Idaho -- America's most prestigious fiddling competition -- but also the Grand Masters fiddling championship in Nashville. None of that impressed his Seattle teacher, though, so for a half hour the young fiddler and old violinist stood nose to nose, arguing about technique. Finally, O'Connor left, his first and last classical lesson over.

In recent years, O'Connor says, he's wondered if perhaps his erstwhile instructor had been intimidated by his potential pupil, and that's why he made a point of asserting his authority. "I doubt he'd had any students like me before," he says softly. "I thought about that recently when I soloed with the Seattle Symphony. I wondered if he was in the audience. And I wondered if he still thought I needed to change my technique."

If that unnamed teacher in Seattle was intimidated by O'Connor, he wasn't the last. It's easy to be intimidated by someone who not only garners praise for playing with the likes of cello virtuoso Yo-Yo Ma, but also gets fan letters for his guitar playing from Chet Atkins and wins the Country Music Association's Musician of the Year award six years in a row. Moving back and forth between the fields of folk, country, jazz and classical, O'Connor has created the sort of fusion music that other people simply talk about. His most impressive melding of genres has been between folk and classical, something he began shortly after wowing the crowds at Santa Fe. In 1990 he wrote his first string quartet; in 1993 came the Fiddle Concerto for Violin and Orchestra; now he's written a second fiddle concerto that he hopes to record sometime later this year. And that he's done it pretty much on his own makes it just that much more intimidating.

Not that O'Connor isn't eager to give credit to others, primarily Benny Thomasson, a Texas fiddler whom O'Connor counts as his mentor. Thomasson encountered O'Connor in 1973, when the young fiddler was only 11 years old. That was at the Old-Time Fiddler's Contest in Idaho, which O'Connor had convinced his mother to take him to, despite the fact that he'd been playing the fiddle for only seven months. "I'd been thinking about it for years, though," he says. "I'd seen Doug Kershaw playing fiddle on Johnny Cash's TV show in 1969, and I knew I wanted to play the fiddle too. It just took me three years to get one." At the contest, O'Connor took second prize in the 12-and-under division, and caught Thomasson's eye. The older fiddler was a legend in the folk music world, having won the Texas Fiddle Championship 15 times in the 1930s and 1940s, and also being at least partly responsible for the Texas fiddle style -- a blend, basically, of the Appalachian hoedown and swing music -- becoming the dominant style across the country.

A short time before, Thomasson had retired to a small town a couple of hours south of Seattle to be near one of his sons, and after the two talked in Idaho, O'Connor started spending every other weekend taking lessons from the Texan. "He had moved to Washington because of the fishing," O'Connor recalls, "and he had this little trailer right next to a river. But we never went outside; all I remember is it raining all the time, and us sitting in this small trailer, playing. It was terrific." Thomasson taught the young fiddler more than technique; he taught him, says O'Connor, the soul of the music, the idea that there was something beyond the notes that he could reach for. "He'd play a tune, then ask me to play it, but not like he did," says O'Connor. "He wanted something different, and better."

The tutelage lasted for three years, during which time O'Connor began recording for Rounder; his first album was Mark O'Connor, National Junior Fiddle Champion which hit the stores when he was 12; his second, Mark O'Connor, Picking in the Wind was released when he was 13. During the summers, O'Connor would climb in the car with his mother and drive from folk festival to folk festival, winning prizes and earning accolades. But the school year was something different. "It was a bad family life and there was little support from the local music community," O'Connor says simply. "All the folk music was done in clubs, and I was too young to get in. And there was no support from my school." Indeed, despite his national awards, his schoolmates derided him as "Fiddle Faddle from the Fiddle Farm," seeing his fiddle skills as less an indication of musicianship than as an indication of yokelhood.

By the time graduation rolled around, he was happy to get out of Seattle. His first job was as a member of the San Francisco-based David Grisman quartet; after a broken arm in a skiing accident lost him that position, he moved on to become a member of the Dixie Dregs. Then in 1983 he relocated to Nashville to become a session player; O'Connor was only 22, and he was in immediate demand. Over the next few years he recorded with everyone from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band to Randy Travis to Emmylou Harris. In the second half of the '80s, O'Connor appeared on an astonishing 450 albums, inserting his fluid fiddle into everything he could. Then Edgar Meyer lured him over to the classical world, and O'Connor has never looked back.

His intent, apparently, is to prove that the fiddle -- which as O'Connor points out is just another name for a violin, not a different instrument -- belongs in the concert hall. "Santa Fe was the start of all this," he says. "I had gotten the idea in Seattle that classical music looked down on fiddling; then in Santa Fe I realized that wasn't the case, that fiddling and violin playing are just two points on a musical spectrum. In Santa Fe, a seed was planted in me to figure out a way to blend the two, to create a synthesis ... and I guess that's what I've been trying ever since."

"Most people talk about how different things are," he adds. "I always like to talk about how similar they are. I mean, just a short while ago I was listening to a tape that Yo-Yo Ma sent me of a Tibetan woman singing, and if I played it for you, you'd say that except for a few ornaments here and there, it sounds exactly like Ralph Stanley and Ricky Skaggs singing a Kentucky hymn. That's how connected music is, and that's the sort of thing I like to find and play up. Because that's how innovations are made."

Mark O'Connor performs as part of the Texas Music Festival at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 21, at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, The Woodlands. Tickets are $7.50, $8 and $10. For info, call 743-3167.


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