‘An Appalachian Christmas’ a holiday tradition for Mark O’Connor and audience
By Azaria Podplesky
If you go
‘An Appalachian Christmas’
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox, 1001 W. Sprague Ave.
Cost: $30-$65; tickets available through foxtheaterspokane.org.
Growing up, acclaimed musician Mark O’Connor’s home was full of music during the holidays, a mix of Christmas songs, fiddling, bluegrass and Americana. Grammy-winning O’Connor remembered those being the best times during the school year because he got to play his instruments all day, and older musicians would visit the O’Connor house to pick with the child prodigy.
“We lacked a lot in terms of money and presents, but the music made up for it,” he said. “There were mostly some very thin 12-inch square packages underneath the tree for me … haha! It was all I really wanted.”
Years later, that holiday tradition hasn’t changed much, only now those musical celebrations are far too big to fit inside the O’Connor home. Now in its ninth year, the “An Appalachian Christmas” tour has taken O’Connor, wife Maggie, son Forrest and daughter-in-law Kate across the country performing songs from the 2011 album of the same name. They’ll be at Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox on Tuesday.
The album is the third in a trilogy of Appalachian music. First, there was “Appalachia Waltz,” with Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer, in 1996. Then the trio followed up that with “Appalachian Journey” in 2000, which went on to win a Grammy for Best Classical Crossover Album.
“An Appalachian Christmas” features Christmas classics and Appalachian-themed songs about things like a beloved hunting dog and passing a fiddle from one generation to the next. The album features Ma, Meyer, Renée Fleming, Jane Monheit, Alison Krauss, James Taylor, Sharon Isbin, Chris Thile and Steve Wariner.
“These annual tours keep getting bigger,” O’Connor said. “This year we have 17 performing arts centers booked for it. The first year, we did just five. … It has become a perennial, one of my most loved albums now.”
If you saw the O’Connor family during its Christmas show last year at the Fox, don’t worry. You won’t be seeing the same concert over again. O’Connor is playing four instruments during the show, and three of the four O’Connors share lead vocals.
“This year, I wanted to play four solo unaccompanied pieces on the four instruments and bring the audience into the sequence of when I began to play each instrument in my childhood,” O’Connor said.
The band also is bringing back “The Christmas Song,” which features Kate on vocals and O’Connor and Maggie sharing the fiddle solo, and debuting “Treetop Angel,” a song a friend wrote, which Forrest and Kate will sing.
“This year there is not a song in the entire show that is less of a favorite than the next,” O’Connor said. “Whether it is the song itself that is great or the cast of musicians up on that stage that I have assembled, including guitarist Joe Smart and bassist Jeff Picker, or the arrangements I have written and created for all of these songs, something magical is happening, and the audience is mesmerized by it, including us, too.
“Sometimes we are just transported by the beauty of this music during this season of the year.” These “Appalachian Christmas” concerts also are special for O’Connor because they were the catalyst for the creation of the Mark O’Connor Band.
The band, O’Connor, Maggie, Forrest, Kate and Smart, officially formed in 2015. In 2017, the band’s debut album, “Coming Home,” won a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album. In November, the band released “A Musical Legacy.” Most of the album is a live recording of a performance in Pennsylvania, but there are a few studio tracks produced by Zac Brown, as well.
“The results are beautiful,” O’Connor said. “It is one of my favorite albums I have released overall. This year I am celebrating my 45th anniversary as a recording artist, and this is the 45th feature album. I have listened back to this one so many times, I can’t tell you. It is remarkable to think that my family is playing and singing like that. Proud of all of them.”
While O’Connor said there won’t be songs from “A Musical Legacy” in the setlist during “An Appalachian Christmas,” the album will be available for sale at the merch table. Nine years after releasing “An Appalachian Christmas,” O’Connor is honored that so many listeners have made the album part of their holidays.
“It is something that I would not have predicted a long time ago, but I am sure glad that I was able to offer this music to folks around the country and the world,” he said. “I know that it has brought some additional joy to the season for many, and that is heartfelt. I can’t think of a better way for my fiddle to have made such an impact.”
But he also hopes that audience members feel inspired to help make a child’s holiday season a little like the musical ones he experienced growing up.
“I always talk about the gift of music to children at Christmas,” he said. “I encourage people to spend their money for a child to learn music, an instrument as a gift or paying for music lessons. It makes a difference to so many children.”