Ramblin' Rhodes

Stroll down memory lane with music columnist Don Rhodes.

Ramblin' Rhodes: Famed fiddler Mark O'Connor played way out of poverty

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Growing up around Seattle, Mark O’Connor didn’t experience Appalachian Christmases in his childhood.

Fiddle and guitar player Mark O'Connor will perform an "Appalachian Christmas" concert in Evans on Dec. 9.   JIM MCGUIRE/SPECIAL
JIM MCGUIRE/SPECIAL
Fiddle and guitar player Mark O'Connor will perform an "Appalachian Christmas" concert in Evans on Dec. 9.

But he and his family did experience the poverty of many Appalachian families, and he had a burning desire to make his life better.

“We used lawn chairs for our furniture,” recalled O’Connor by phone. “The bed for my mom and dad was made from boxes with a foam mattress on top. We lived in a 400-square-foot cylinder, government-owned house.

“My dad worked two jobs: at a lumber yard and working under houses cleaning up foundations. Their every available dollar went into buying gas so my mom could drive me to a music lesson.”

It paid off with O’Connor becoming one of the best known guitar and fiddle players in the world from his performances and thousands of recordings as a session musician, guest artist and principal player on his own albums.

O’Connor is returning to the Augusta area for his “Appalachian Christmas” concert at 7 p.m. Monday, Dec. 9, at the Jabez S. Hardin Performing Arts Center, 7022 Evans Towne Center Blvd. in Evans.

Tickets cost $47 and $52 and can be purchased by calling (706) 726-0366 or online by clicking the “Events” tab at augustaamusements.com.

Accompanying O’Connor in performing songs from his 2011 CD An Appalachian Christmas and other selections will be Carrie Rodriguez, Cia Cherryholmes, Joe Smarta, Kyle Kegerreis and O’Connor’s son, Forrest O’Connor.

“It was a real gift when I began putting together my Christmas album,” O’Connor said. “I wondered if I could use some of my past recordings, and I was able to lease my own masters back from different record companies.

“So, consequently, I got to use some absolutely amazing recordings with some amazing people who originally recorded on them.”

O’Connor’s remarkable career was made possible through the support and caring of some amazing people.

He was 11 when he met one of the greatest influences in his life in the form of a Texas-born, legendary fiddle player named Benny Thomasson.

O’Connor had been playing the fiddle for seven months and had become good enough to start entering fiddling contests. It was at one such event in Idaho that he first saw Thomasson from a distance.

But it was another small contest in Oregon shortly afterward that changed his life when Thomasson walked into the hallway of a small schoolhouse and heard O’Connor warming up.

“We basically froze when he walked into the schoolhouse, because we never had met anybody famous,” O’Connor said.

“He went up to my mother and asked about me and basically said, ‘I want to teach this boy.’

“She said, ‘We can’t afford lessons,’ and he said, ‘I’m now living two hours south of you, and if you can bring him to me, I’ll teach him for free.’ ”

That began a twice-monthly trek for three years when O’Connor was ages 11 through 14.

It also led to O’Connor winning his first national fiddle championship when he was 13 and his first national guitar championship title at 14.

And at 16 he became the first person to win both the fiddle and guitar championships, held in front of 20,000 people at the Sixth annual National Flat-Picking Championship in Winfield, Kan., in 1977.

“My first trip to Nashville (Tenn.) was in 1974 when I was 12 with my mother,” O’Connor related. “She drove across the country from Seattle in June and our car didn’t have air conditioning.

“That was when the Pickin’ Parlor (nightclub) in Nashville was going strong and when the Grand Ole Opry was still in Ryman Auditorium. We met on that trip Doc Harris, who ran the Grand Master Fiddler Championships in Tennessee, and Roy Acuff’s musicians Bashful Brother Oswald and Charlie Collins.”

Acuff , a famous fiddler himself, would come to admire O’Connor.

“There really were no other kids ages 12 and 13 that I could play with on my level, but the older guard, icons and legends, gave me the feeling that I could hang in there with them.”

O’Connor’s music would take him from those days of being bullied in Seattle schools for playing his fiddle to traveling all over the world and playing with great musicians of all genres of music.

He even toured for two years with the Dregs jazz-rock-country flavored band that had originated in Augusta as Dixie Grit before becoming Dixie Dregs and finally just the Dregs.

“I’ve always thought musicians are some of the luckiest people in the world,” O’Connor said. “They somehow survive all they go through, and they love to put smiles on people’s faces.”

HOLIDAY MUSIC

WHO: Fiddler/guitarist Mark O’Connor & Friends “Appalachian Christmas” concert

WHEN: 7 p.m. Monday, Dec. 9

WHERE: Jabez S. Hardin Performing Arts Center, 7022 Evans (Ga.) Towne Center Blvd.

TICKETS: $47 and $52; (706) 726-0366 or buy online by clicking the “Events” tab at augustaamusements.com


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