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Legendary instrumentalist Mark O'Connor bringing Christmas show to San Juan College

Composer and performer delivers unmistakably authentic sound

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
Instrumentalist Mark O'Connor takes pride in the fact that his band plays a unique brand of bluegrass.
  • O'Connor performs at 7 p.m. Dec. 19 at the Henderson Fine Arts Center Performance Center on the San Juan College campus.
  • Tickets are $25 for adults, $22 for students and seniors, $18 for teens 18 to 13, and $12 for children 12 and younger.
  • O'Connor will be performing tunes from his classic 2011 disc "An Appalachian Christmas."

FARMINGTON — Mark O'Connor doesn't fit the mold of a musical insurrectionist. As a veteran instrumentalist, he is well respected, even revered by bluegrass traditionalists, as his catalog of recordings includes a handful of Grammy winners and several entries that rank among the genre's classics.

At the same time, O'Connor has spent much of his career defying convention, taking part in unusual partnerships and experimenting with new influences. He has managed to do so while retaining old school listeners who bristle at many of the trappings and creative choices of artists who have embraced the so-called "newgrass" movement.

In other words, O'Connor, who will bring his eighth annual "An Appalachian Christmas" show to San Juan College on Dec. 19, has plenty of street cred in both camps — and beyond, as he has even left a substantial mark on other musical styles ranging from classical to country. Perhaps that is because no matter where his music takes him, O'Connor seems to deliver a sound that is unmistakably authentic.

In a recent email to The Daily Times, O'Connor said his work long has reflected his emphasis on creativity and attracting new audiences. He rejects the notion that bluegrass music — the style with which he remains most closely associated — needs to exist within a carefully constructed and closely monitored set of precepts.

"I think we have lost some of that in the profession with an overbearing sense that we have to preserve something," he wrote. "As a student, should you learn how to play a hoedown, play a waltz, play the blues, play ragtime, play African American Spirituals — yes you should."

A big part of being a professional musician, O'Connor believes, is simply developing good sense and putting it to work.

"People want to know who an artist is, and I don’t think any of us want to be known as a museum piece," he wrote. "Otherwise we could easily say that all of the good songs are already written, or all of the good concertos are already composed. But that does not stop the songwriter from writing a new song, and it does not stop me from composing nine concertos. We always have to find something new to offer our audience and our culture!"

Mark O'Connor, third from left, will be joined by his family in his "An Appalachian Christmas" concert on Dec. 19 at San Juan College.

O'Connor said that's why he's so proud of his new CD with his band, "A Musical Legacy."

"There is absolutely a legacy aspect to the music, but we play bluegrass unlike any other band out there including any other newsgrass or jamband out there, and it is refreshing … It keeps it all fresh and exciting," he wrote.

As well-known as he is for his own recordings, or for the work he's done leading such legendary groups as Strength in Numbers, the "American Music Shop" house band and the New Nashville Cats, O'Connor — a three-time Grammy winner — went through a stage early in his career when he carved out a considerable reputation for himself as a hired gun. He moved to Nashville and concentrated on doing session work.

He said it took 18 months for him to break in, but once his fiddle work began to appear on chart-topping albums by the likes of Dolly Parton, James Taylor and Paul Simon, he had all the work he wanted. O'Connor's schedule was filled with recording work for the next six years, he said, but eventually, he reached the point where he had other ideas he wanted to get to, including what was to become his "Fiddle Concerto" and his composing for symphony orchestras.

"In order to pursue this, I needed more time available," O'Connor wrote. "I also wanted to take my guitar and mandolin playing further and I needed more time to practice and develop, even at 30."

Eventually, O'Connor would become an artist's artist — the kind of musician who was just as much at home recording with the London Philharmonic Orchestra or Yo-Yo Ma as he was with Johnny Cash, Vince Gill or Ricky Skaggs. Even years later, many of those experiences still resonate with him.

"The 'Appalachia Waltz' collaboration with Yo-Yo Ma was really important for my music and style of American Classical," he wrote. "My 'New Nashville Cats' really set my career on pace and capsuled the Nashville years. My 'Heroes' album, an ode to the greats from the generation before me was particularly meaningful. Out of that set was 'The Devil Comes Back To Georgia' with Charlie Daniels and Johnny Cash and is my most viewed YouTube today."

For the past several years, O'Connor has spent the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas on the road with a band consisting largely of family members performing tunes from his 2011 disc "An Appalachian Christmas," a chart-topping recording that has become a holiday classic. That's the show he'll be performing here this week.

"This year, I am playing four solo instruments on stage and will feature them throughout the sets," he wrote. "I also have some solo spots, a duet, a few with the quartet of O’Connors and full band (Mark O’Connor Band) which is a sextet. We have added additional material over the years and replaced a few from the original album of 10 years ago. We added a few more new Christmas songs this year in fact!"

"An Appalachian Christmas" will be performed at 7 p.m. Dec. 19 at the Henderson Fine Arts Center Performance Center on the college campus, 4601 College Blvd. Tickets are $25 for adults, $22 for students and seniors, $18 for teens 18 to 13, and $12 for children 12 and younger. They can be purchased online at sanjuancollege.edu/silhouette or at the box office. Call 505-566-3430.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610, or via email at measterling@daily-times.com.

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