Put away the turkey and bust out the fiddle: Mark O’Connor’s “An Appalachian Christmas” tour will head to the Tower Theatre on Wednesday.
Multi-instrumentalist O’Connor, perhaps best known for blurring the lines between classical music and bluegrass on his albums “Appalachia Waltz” and “Appalachian Journey” (featuring Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer), has toured his Christmas show for nearly a decade following the 2011 release of the “An Appalachian Christmas” album. The record featured guest performances from jazz vocalist Jane Monheit, singer-songwriter James Taylor and mandolinist Chris Thile, among others, and continued many of the “Appalachian” album series’ themes in a holiday setting.
O’Connor will be joined at the Tower by his family band, which features his wife Maggie O’Connor, son Forrest O’Connor and daughter-in-law Kate Lee O’Connor. The group’s 2016 debut album “Coming Home” netted Mark O’Connor his third Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album.
Q: Please correct me if I’m wrong, but might this be your first time bringing Appalachian Christmas to Bend? I also couldn’t find any evidence that you’ve played here before, period (although again, I could be very wrong)?
A: While I have not performed in Bend often, there may have been a concert or two a few decades ago, the city will always stand out most to me because my parents almost moved to Bend when I was 5. But the Seattle suburbs won out as my grandmother who had grown up in Tennessee in the late 1800s and later stationed out in Seattle during World War I with her husband, wished us close by.
Q: How has the Appalachian Christmas show changed and evolved since the record’s release and first tour?
A: The show has seen some changes over the years. We have included some other songs like “Linus and Lucy,” which sounds great in this bluegrass band configuration. Also a very straight ahead bluegrass version of “Jingle Bells.” We have the addition of my mandocello this year and I will play a new rendition of “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.” I will definitely add the two-fiddle version of “Silent Night” with my wife Maggie to the set.
Q: What’s the best part of getting a family band together? Do you feel a responsibility or desire or drive to pass on these musical traditions to your son and daughter-in-law?
A: The desire to pass on my love for music to family members has always been there from the beginning. For me, the best part is seeing it take ahold so completely. Even my wife grew up listening to my recordings and being inspired by them. My son carried my CDs around with him when he had his own discman as a little boy. Of course, he traveled with me each summer on my tours and attended my string camps since he was 6. It has come full circle now where my family helps me put the music on stage like no other musicians could in so many ways. They are really at the top of the scene, all of them. When we play together, it is magic.
Q: In the blurb on the Appalachian Christmas website, you talk about how this album forms a trilogy with “Appalachia Waltz” and “Appalachian Journey.” When you first got together with Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer, was there a specific vision in mind?
A: Yes, we did have a vision in mind from the outset of the “Appalachia Waltz” project. It would include both American classics and original pieces that I contributed, such as my composition “Appalachia Waltz.” It is now widely recognized in string-playing circles. The musical direction we pursued was our version of reinventing American classical music, bringing string-playing into the fold more fully. The idea also helped to usher in the “O’Connor Method” for music education, using mostly American classics as well as some originals too, formalized An American School of String Playing. I see a connection between most all of my music projects and music education. The albums I have made with this kind of music featuring Yo-Yo Ma have sold a million copies, so we have tapped into an audience for this along the way!
Q: What was it like winning championships in fiddle, guitar and mandolin at age 13? How did having this kind of success so early in your performing career affect your music and your outlook?
A: In some ways, it seems like a lifetime ago, and I suppose it is. As a child musician on the road, it was a unique experience having audiences applaud you, and being awarded in competition pitting me against adult players. The older professional musicians responding to me to such an extent, was indeed really interesting to comprehend. I adopted the role of being their entertainment I guess you would say. If they asked me to play them a tune, then I would jump to it and play them a tune. I figured that if the thing that I can do so very well can put a big smile on people’s faces, then that was what I was meant to do. This notion from childhood is something that I have retained to this day. It’s my role in life to contribute music and art. Those early competitions stirred the competitive juices in me as well. I like to try to outdo myself from years past. I feel like I play a little bit better each year. I am really motivated to play each day.
Q: What are you working on right now? Anything coming up that you think people should know about?
A: Our new album “A Musical Legacy” has just been released. This is our follow up to our Grammy-winner “Coming Home.” It is a compilation of some of the best live recordings I have ever put out in my career, and with the addition of the studio tracks produced by Zac Brown, makes a very impressive release on this band. It is one of my favorite albums of mine to listen back to in fact, I just love the way it came out. “A Music Legacy” speaks to the idea of two generations in the family group, the instrumentals that I have been known for, and that have inspired my family to play.