Mark O'Connor brings an Appalachian Christmas and his family band back to Spokane
By Nathan Weinbender
It's official: It's the first post-Thanksgiving week, and so we're now officially in the thick of Christmas season. That means we're about to be inundated with holiday concerts, and one of the most high profile events comes courtesy of Mark O'Connor, fiddler extraordinaire.
Last year, O'Connor brought his Appalachian Christmas tour to Spokane, and it obviously went over well, because he's back again 12 months later. It's a true family affair, too: Not only is it an all-ages celebration of all things Yuletide, but O'Connor himself will be performing alongside his wife and kids, who are natural musicians themselves.
O'Connor spoke to the Inlander via email in the weeks before the show, discussing the art of the Christmas song, what it's like performing with your kids and the lessons he's learned in his 45 years in the biz. Responses have been edited for space and clarity.
INLANDER: How has this year's Appalachian Christmas tour been thus far?
O'CONNOR: We are excited to get this eighth annual tour underway, as it is the biggest Christmas tour I have done thus far. This year we are playing 16 performing arts centers and concert halls. I am just thrilled how it has grown; the first year we performed just five concerts for Christmas.
What is it like touring and performing with your family?
The Christmas tours were how each of my family members in the current Mark O'Connor Band began playing together. [My son] Forrest was first to join the tour, then my wife Maggie, and then daughter-in-law Kate Lee. It is amazing for me to play with them — the most enjoyable times I have had on stage that I can remember. It feels so wonderful. And they are good! That fact obviously helps greatly.
What's your process for taking a well-known Christmas song and giving it a country flavor? And how do you know when a song is worthy of being included on your setlists?
I have a range of Americana styles that I apply to the Christmas songs I choose — principally bluegrass, old-time, spirituals, gospel, blues and swing. These are all traditions from the Appalachians, the part of the country where I live now in North Carolina. I have worked on some new arrangements for this tour. I am going to play four instruments during the concerts, so I am mindful of each instrument's character and what they can offer any song. We also have three lead singers in the family so that has been enjoyable, seeing what song fits each person's voice. We have a few non-Christmas pieces I always add in. One part of the music at Christmastime for me is that it always included good ol' fashioned American music around the tree growing up.
What can people expect from the concert?
We have the four O'Connors in the group. Beyond that, we have our longtime guitarist Joe Smart, who is from Pasco, Washington, and actually took music lessons from Tony Ludiker in Spokane when he was growing up. Our bassist Jeff Picker will play his first tour with us. He plays regularly with Ricky Skaggs and before that Sarah Jarosz. The ensemble is going to be really good on this tour. One of the surprises for the tour is a recently rediscovered 100-year-old instrument I've had since I was age 14, the mandocello. It sounds fantastic on stage, a 1922 Gibson. My fiddle, though, is the central voice to the evening.
You recently celebrated your 45th year as a solo recording artist. What would you say is the most valuable lesson you've learned in that time?
I perhaps learned just how stubborn I am to protect the integrity of the music and the artistry of it. I began recording my feature albums 45 years ago when I was a kid, performing the very music that I wanted to record, mostly original compositions or my arrangements of classics. Forty-five albums later, nothing much has changed. It is exactly the music I want to record and release — nothing less, nothing more. I suppose that makes me 100 percent artist and basically 0 percent a commercial musician. I have recorded on other people's albums, of course, playing on a lot of commercial music, but those are not my albums.
What I have learned in that equation, for me as a solo artist, is that I can be really proud of all the music that I have created, and I don't have to blame someone else for forcing me to record a bunch of stuff I never liked that much. I can sleep at night [knowing] that I put myself out there as an artist, every bit of what I had conceived, and did exactly what was in my heart and mind. ♦
Mark O'Connor: An Appalachian Christmas • Tue, Dec. 10 at 7:30 pm • $30-$65 • All ages • Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox • 1001 W. Sprague • foxtheaterspokane.org • 624-1200