For Mark O’Connor, performing “An Appalachian Christmas” with his band at Paramount Bristol on Dec. 1 means coming full circle.
“It was this beautiful roots’ music I grew up learning and being inspired by,” said the Seattle native and Grammy-winning composer and violinist. “The whole Christmas journey has been personal for me. It goes way back to when I was a child listening to recordings of fiddle and bluegrass albums that my mom would order through the catalog. For me, Christmas was growing up listening to music by people from Bristol way out in Seattle.”
O’Connor and his wife, Maggie, also a band member, live in Charlotte, where they run the O’Connor Method String Camp every summer.
Bristol is one of 17 cities on the Mark O’Connor Band Christmas tour — this being their eighth — beginning on Nov. 29 and ending in Santa Fe on Christmas Eve. It’s a family affair, with Mark playing the violin, mandolin, guitar and mandocello, and his wife, Maggie, on violin and vocals. His son, Forrest, will perform in song and on mandolin and guitar, and Forrest’s wife, Kate Lee, will be on violin and vocals.
Besides family members, the band includes their longtime guitarist, Joe Smart, a national flatpick guitar champion, and another famed musician, on loan from Ricky Skaggs.
“We’re having a wonderful bassist named Jeff Picker with us for the first time on the Christmas tour. Ricky is letting me use him for the whole month-long tour. We’re really excited to have him,” O’Connor said.
The audience can expect favorites from the band’s “An Appalachian Christmas” album, like “Sleigh Ride” and “Away in a Manger.” Released in 2011 and praised by Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe and other leading reviewers, the album was No. 1 on Billboard’s Bluegrass Album charts and has ranked in the top five ever since. The album is part of his acclaimed Appalachia trilogy. The others are “Appalachian Journey” and “Appalachia Waltz,” which he recorded with Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer, and which the New York Times hailed as “one of the most spectacular journeys in recent American music.”
Over the years, O’Connor has added to the band’s Christmas repertoire.
“One of our favorites is ‘Linus and Lucy.’ I’ve got a few instrumentals that lend itself well to Christmastime, like ‘Appalachian Waltz.’ I’m going to do something different on the show — I’ve gotten my old mandocello out. I’ve had it since I was 14 and got it all fixed up. It’s a 100-year-old Gibson mandocello. I’m going to do a Christmas piece on it. It sounds all warm and fuzzy, and just places you under the Christmas tree.”
Besides the mandocello, he’ll be playing mandolin and fiddle — “the fiddle being tops — but I’m going to play the guitar too,” O’Connor said.
“One of the things this O’Connor band has helped me revive is some of my old instrumental prowess on these other instruments,” he continued. “There will be a lot of great singing. We have three different lead singers and three-part harmony. The idea of putting this beautiful Christmas music to acoustic instruments and making it artistic, not cheesy, has really been rewarding. It really surprises a lot of people. It’s become one of my biggest successes on tour.”
O’Connor is excited about his band’s latest album, to be released on the first day of the tour right after Thanksgiving. “It’s called ‘A Musical Legacy.’ The title ties in wonderfully with the family aspect of what we’re doing, as well as a Christmastime feeling this kind of music lends itself to — the legacy of fiddling, of passing the music down, of bringing old classics and my older instrumentals back into the setting and having it performed so beautifully.”
O’Connor, 58, was a child prodigy who, with his mother’s urging, taught guitar to kids from his elementary school when he was 8 and studied the violin under legendry artists Benny Thomasson and Stéphane Grappelli. As a teenager, he won numerous national championships in fiddle, guitar and mandolin. He played with artists he’d grown up admiring, like John Hartford, Doc Watson and Johnny Cash. “I was a child musician. I learned the music, then ultimately got to play with all my heroes.”
Besides bluegrass and country, his musical mastery extends to classical and jazz as well. But for O’Connor, the Christmas tour represents a welcome return to bluegrass. “When you look at our Christmas show, I think a lot of people will come away saying, ‘I can’t believe how creative it is, how you took these Christmas songs and turned them into fiddle tunes and beautiful ballads and bluegrass kind of breakdowns.”
Visit ParamountBristol.org for tickets and more information.