Mark & Maggie O'Connor
Mark and Maggie have been existing in an uninterrupted musical collaboration since the day they met eight years ago in 2014. As they were perfecting the finer points of Mark’s American Classical violin duos, it got so good that they decided to get married. The next stage of their musical journey turned into a larger family collaboration for which they each took home a Grammy for playing bluegrass in the O’Connor Band. Now, they have turned yet another musical corner. With a year-and-a-half of isolation from touring during the world-wide pandemic, they dedicated their days and nights towards further musical growth together. The couple workshopped new songs during seventy weekly online concerts from home; Mondays with Mark and Maggie. A group of dedicated viewers watched as they made their musical experiments, some fans tuning in for all of them. What came out of this exploration is an Americana album project of mostly original vocal songs they sing together, other popular songs reimagined, and all of them supported by a small universe of acoustic instruments they’ve brushed up on in the time off the road. The album reveals the pair’s most sincere and deeply personal work yet.
“The album has really turned out beautiful for us,” says the former seven-time CMA Musician Of The Year, an artist who had recently turned 60 but has never shrunk from any musical idea he ever set out to accomplish, from national fiddle, guitar and mandolin championships to the composer of a dozen full scale concertos and symphonies, and, toss in a million sales of his “Appalachia Waltz” played with Yo-Yo Ma. After playing on 450 albums in Nashville during the 1980s, Mark returns here as songwriter, guitar-picker, singer and musical producer, not just the fiddler that changed how Nashville thought of the instrument for the better. The evolution was made possible by the compelling performances, musical talents and encouragement of his wife, Maggie.
“Maggie's vocals have lot of personality. She can tell a story—brings you in. As the harmony singer, I found a blend with her voice that worked, and that brought these songs right into our duo performances.”
The idea of blending voices led to many newly written songs. Maggie’s Georgia roots are evident in her singing, and, her fiddle solos benefit from two degrees on violin from the Peabody Conservatory. As for Mark, he is still considered one of the greatest multi-instrument virtuosos of his era.
“I’ve pulled out leads on guitar, mandolin and a bunch of fiddle background lines in the verses and choruses, all from my own top drawer again. Reminds me a little of my Nashville years from the ‘80s, playing on all of those big country star’s albums. I always found a way to compliment a vocal with my instruments, and at the same time give the listener something new of myself.”
And this is key. The album is not so much about a return to something from before, but a reinvention of a thing that is new. Mark continues;
“This really is an album about now, who we are now... what the world made us to be and our response to it.”
Songwriting collaborations with Joe Henry and James Parker produced evocative lyrics on several songs, others are joyful and heartfelt. A co-write between Mark and Maggie, “Ride Towards Home,” is about the love of horses and what they have meant to human development through the ages. The duo’s other songs interpret some of what the world has been living through more recently. “We Just Happened To Fly” is a song about trusting each other to take that jump; “Life After Life” is about all of life's chapters unfolding; “All We Will Be” is about being no more than what you are right now, so you might as well try to like it; “One Sun Ray At A Time” is for the parents watching a daughter grow up; “Spice Of Life” means cherishing all the incidental things we do every day.
“It was a six month-long production, I hadn’t spent this kind of time producing an album since my The New Nashville Cats and Heroes. I love our material here. The “covers” we have chosen have to do deal with personal growth as well. And they all fit Maggie's voice just right.”
The duo brings fresh arrangements and compelling performances to Dolly Parton’s “Wild Flowers,” a hit single that Mark played the fiddle on with Parton from the 1987 recording, Trio, featuring collaborators Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt. The duo focused on bringing other songs with messages about the human spirit. A beautiful interpretation of Jason Isbell’s, “Something To Love” is highlighted as well as the iconic, “Love’s In Need Of Love Today” from Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key Of Life. The R&B classic, reinterpreted to Mark and Maggie’s Americana, moves from the opening fiddle and guitar duet to an arrangement that includes a string quartet of instruments handcrafted to remember slain journalist Daniel Pearl and the fight against hatred. By the middle of the song, a string orchestra with these same instruments included, supports the final choruses.
Throughout the recording, Nashville’s top rhythm section session players, Dennis Crouch on upright bass and John Gardner on drums, join Mark’s guitar for some tasty grooves and unique rhythms. Neal Cappellino who recorded their last Grammy-winner was at the controls.
“The timing was just right for this recording. As Alison Krauss and Robert Plant finished up in the studio at the Sound Emporium in Nashville, we swooped in to use their recording team of engineers and even musicians with the good vibes still hanging out in the room, the gear still warmed up from the days before!”
Mark has done many things in music. One of them is to put Krauss, a fellow fiddler, on stage with him for her first appearance on the CMA Awards show in 1991.
“The entire album was created during the pandemic, the songs, the ideas, and our working them up into duo repertoire. To conclude the album, our two fiddles unite again, just as we started our musical journey together eight years ago. In yet another way, this piece ties the album to what we are living through right now.”
Mark created an arrangement of the heart-wrenching Ukrainian folk song, “Verbovaya Doshechechka.” It is a centuries-old melody that he and Maggie first filmed with an international online violin choir featuring violinists from the Kyiv Symphony Orchestra recording from their basements-turned-bunkers while bombs dropped just outside by the invaders to their democratic country. The video went viral with millions of views as the musicians asked for humanitarian relief donations.
“We recorded the violin duo at the beautiful Fisher Center at Belmont University in Nashville, a new symphony hall that Maggie and I played the first public performance in—and it was our own first in-person performance after the worst of the pandemic. While we open this concert hall, we have to witness Ukraine’s symphony halls being bombed out by an invading army. We wanted to bring us back to the sensitive violin duo music where the musical notes themselves become the words that no one can write. This album is what we can offer as artists, to bring what we experience as human beings to music. We are naming the album after one of my songs co-written with the great Joe Henry; Life After Life.”
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