“You can have fun I’m telling you can, when you stomp your feet to a hillbilly band,” sang South Carolina legends The Marshall Tucker Band in 1972. Up across the country in Seattle at that time, 11-year-old guitar, mandolin and fiddle prodigy Mark O’Connor was delighting audiences with his amazing prowess.
Now, at the height of a 45-year career that includes numerous awards for virtuoso playing and composing in a variety of styles from bluegrass to jazz to classical, O’Connor is having fun in his own little hillbilly family band. And by that, he’s a part in the making of some absolutely gorgeous music. With his wife Maggie on violin and harmonies, son Forrest on mandolin and Forrest’s partner, Kate Lee, on violin, he’s cut the debut O’Connor Band album, “Coming Home.”
Indisputably, it’s an across-the-board knockout. Bluegrass with such real roots yet stunning elegance is rare. O’Connor the junior, and Lee, each sing lead and harmonize magnificently, their tone and range fresh and endless. To be expected, a few instrumentals are interspersed, such as their jig through Bill Monroe’s “Jerusalem Ridge,” featuring the quartet shining equally, along with excellent band guitarist Joe Smart and bassist Geoff Saunders.
The traditional “Fiddler’s Hornpipe” is a bright and shiny family violin fest that gets deep, and then raucous. But the album succeeds so wildly because it’s a song album. Forrest’s “I Haven’t Said I Love You in a While” offers feelings that create feelings, a song so beautifully sung and played it can bring tears. But then “Ruby Are You Mad?” the old Cousin Emmy country tune made popular by the Osborne Brothers, takes it all instantaneously and thrillingly into hoedown territory. Lee reveals herself to be a vocal dynamo on it, her gymnastics like nothing heard by such a young lady in many a year. “Blacktop Boy,” by Lee and acclaimed songwriter Pat Alger, tells the story of a dirt road girl being wooed by a slick player.
The moods change constantly. The songs are top-notch. Imagine the best kind of thing from Alison Krauss, cut by a fine family hillbilly fiddlin’ band. There you have it.
O’Connor Band with Mark O’Connor