Working With Chet Atkins – An Interview With Mark O’Connor

Working With Chet Atkins – An Interview With Mark O’Connor

Mark O’Connor is a widely known professional fiddler, prominent in country music and in classical music. A child prodigy, O’Connor began studying guitar at age 6. As a teenager he won national championships on the guitar, mandolin as well as the fiddle. His mentors were Texas fiddler Benny Thomasson and Jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli. He has recorded solo albums for Rounder, Warner Bros. Records, Sony, and his own CD line OMAC Records. He has won two Grammy awards, one for his New Nashville Cats album and another for his Appalachian Journey album he did with Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer. He was named Musician of the Year by the Country Music Association six years in a row (from 1991-1996).

One of the most sought after Nashville studio musicians in the 1990s, O’Conner’s violin can be heard on countless hits.

In his career, O’Connor has crossed musical genres, composing, arranging, and recording folk, classical and jazz music. His Fiddle Concerto has received over 200 performances making it one of the most performed concertos written in the last 50 years. He has composed six violin concertos, string quartets, string trios, choral works, solo unaccompanied works and a new Symphony. He has worked and recorded with a wide variety of artists, such as Chet Atkins, James Taylor, Michelle Shocked, Alison Krauss, Bela Fleck, Stéphane Grappelli, The Dixie Dregs and Wynton Marsalis. One of his most popular compositions, Appalachia Waltz (appearing on the album of the same title), has been adopted by Yo-Yo Ma as part of his live performance repertoire. O’Connor hosts an annual fiddle camp (the Mark O’Connor Fiddle Camp) in Tennessee and annual String Camps in San Diego and New York. O’Connor is currently living in New York City.

TR: I know you grew up in Washington. Can you tell me a little bit about your early music influences?

MO: Well, Chet Atkins was certainly one of those early music influences. I was a guitar player first, beginning around age 6.

TR: Yes, in fact I’ve seen a video of you and Chet and Paul Yandell playing on a television show from the eighties. You were playing lead. A TNN show I believe.

MO: Yes, that was “Gallopin’ Guitar”. Somebody has recently added that video on my Facebook page. I was a classical guitar player initially, and then I also studied flamenco guitar and finally country and bluegrass.

TR: And this is before you ever even touched the violin?

MO: Yes. At age 11 I got really interested in bluegrass and country guitar, and I was able to really draw inspiration from all the great guitar players that were recording in that era; of course, Chet Atkins, and Jerry Reed, and Doc Watson and some of the bluegrass guitar players like Tony Rice, and Norman Blake.

I played a lot of guitar through my teenage years, even after starting the violin. I kept my guitar playing up pretty well and then I recorded an album of all guitar music when I was 16 called “Markology.”

And I think “Markology” might be the best guitar work I’ve ever done in my entire life. I had some special guests on that album, including Tony Rice, Dan Crary, David Grisman and Sam Bush. It was the album Chet Atkins heard. It was the first time he ever heard of me.

Just about a year after that album was released, Chet wrote me a letter and he was really, really nice. He said, “I heard your album and I really loved it,” and he invited me to come see him whenever I was in Nashville.

It took me awhile to get to Nashville to have a meeting with him. I think I was 22 or so when I finally went to Nashville and met Chet in his office. I remember the conversation like it was yesterday. I was sitting in Chet’s office, and he said, “You’re a talented young man. Where are you living?” I said, “Well, currently I’m living in Atlanta, Georgia.” and he said, “Well, you should be in Nashville,” and I said, “Well, what would I do here?” and he said: “Anything you want to!”

Of course I was completely blown away. He asked me again what I wanted to do and at that point I was kind of lost for words, so I blurted out, “Well, I guess be on television,” and as soon as I said that, I felt kind of embarrassed because I really only said it because I didn’t really know what to say — I was young and awkward.

But to my surprise he said, “Well, I think you can do that – I’ll make a call.”

So he called Ralph Emery over at TNN, and the phone conversation lasted only a few minutes. He got off and he said, “Well, what’s your schedule the next couple of weeks?” So in just a matter of minutes Chet had set that first television appearance up for me and that is where I went on with Chet and we played “Gallopin’ Guitar”.

TR: You were part of the house band there on TNN weren’t you?

MO:Yes, but that was much later. That was after I got to be a very well-known session player in Nashville.

After that initial TV appearance with Chet I began to do a lot of session work. I got to be very busy and I was nominated for Musician of the Year for several years, and I suppose that “Galloping Guitar'” is from 1983. I started my own show on TNN called “The American Music Shop” in 1989.

TR: So you were living in Nashville from ’83 or so?

MO: Yes, beginning in 1983. I lived there for 15 years before moving away.

TR: Tell me a little bit about how your relationship with Chet changed after that initial break that he gave you with the TV show. Did you have other opportunities where you could play with Chet on stage?

MO: Yes, there were lots of opportunities and they came in the way of live performances as well as studio recordings. He started having me as a guest on his own recordings and he even played on one of mine, and I remember in particular that I played quite a bit on an album he did that Mark Knopfler produced.

TR: The “Neck and Neck” album?

MO: Yes. It was very exciting to be able to work with him, and I also ended up opening up some of his shows on the road, and once in awhile he had me play with him in concert. But I think the most memorable thing for me to associate with Chet was hanging out in his office and learning.

TR: What was it like when you went to his office?

MO: It was really great. We were able to hang out and play and I would hear him try out new ideas and new things on the guitar, and honestly, I heard him play some of the coolest stuff in those private sessions. He often played an acoustic guitar in those settings, and he would play a little differently than what he did in shows or in recordings. He would play some different kinds of repertoire that you would never really hear him play on albums or in his concerts.

What I remember mostly about that is that in his concerts, he would play mostly more of his country style and a little bit of jazz, and in his albums, he would play a little bit more of a contemporary style, sometimes a soft jazz style, but around his office, he would play really kind of eccentric, esoteric materials — things that he would be listening to, say, on a record if you transcribed it, or he would work out arrangements or renditions of things. I remember a lot of Spanish stuff, things with a Latin influence, some classical-oriented stuff and really some of the most beautiful guitar work I’ve ever heard.

TR: Do you think he played that stuff in the office because he didn’t think it was good for commercial release or that maybe a live audience would not like it?

MO: Perhaps. I think that he was very aware as a producer and as a former record label head that in order to make a record that was commercially viable, you have to have an audience that you’re trying to target, and maybe he felt like some of that stuff was just his own personal music.

Maybe he didn’t necessarily need to release it on an album because he didn’t really know what audience he would be trying to go for. But it was really interesting that he was so well-versed in all of guitar music, and his appetite and his knowledge along with his technique was able to really cover the full range of guitar music – the most that I’ve ever heard.

And he really inspired me. I would experiment quite a lot with it because I myself had studied guitar and loved all the different styles. We had a lot of that in common.

TR: So would you guys actually jam in his office, or did you mostly just talk with him? Were you playing guitar or fiddle as well?

MO: A lot of times, he would play something for me, and then he would invariably want me to play. I got a sense that he was like a kid in a candy store because he wanted to play something for me that he’d been working on. He wanted to have an audience that really appreciated and understood what he was doing, even if it was just one person.

I think every single musician in Nashville appreciated Chet but I think he felt comfortable playing really different things for me.

It was also kind of a master-student thing, where he wanted to not only engage me in the music he was playing, but also teach me at the same time. That was something that I really, really appreciated and I think he knew that.

TR: Obviously, you felt that professionally and musically those were beneficial moments for you?

MO: It really was. At times I had to pinch myself. I remember thinking, “Oh my gosh, I get to go over to Chet Atkins’ place, just hang out for an hour and then he takes me out to lunch and pays for it!” (laughs)

MO: Chet would call me and say, “Mark, why don’t you come and visit me Thursday afternoon,” and so I would just pencil it in my calendar and then show up. When I got there he would say, “Mark, I’ve got something I want to you hear,” and I never knew what it was going to be.

Sometimes he would play something that he’d been working on for a recording or a show, or sometimes he would just get out the turntable — this was in the ’80’s, so it was before CD’s. He would get out a turntable and he would play me obscure stuff that he knew about and it was like a music history lesson every time I showed up.

One time he played me this incredible recording of a singer from the 1920’s that I believe was singing what sounded like, “I’m so lonesome I could cry,” and it sounded just like Hank Williams, but the only difference was it had been recorded about 15 or 20 years earlier. And I looked at Chet and I went, “Oh my gosh! Does Hank Williams know him?”

It was an old black blues singer. And I said, “So you think Hank Williams got his style from this man,” and he said, “Well, it sounds like it, doesn’t it?” And we were sitting there in the office and we were having this epiphany together, and I’ve never, ever heard that recording since. I don’t know where it came from or who it was, and nobody’s ever mentioned it before or since to me.

MO: It was just so interesting every time. And we did work on some things together. Once in awhile he’d say, “Hey, I want you to play on a show with me, so let’s work up a song,” and it could be a Beatles tune, it could be an old fiddle tune, I never knew what he had in mind. And you know I believe his father played the fiddle.

TR: I believe he played piano too and was a music teacher.

MO: Chet played a little bit of fiddle himself, and there’s not many people really know that because he never really did it professionally. But he actually would pick up the fiddle now and then because he loved it, and it reminded him of his childhood and his forefathers, and so that was another connection that he and I had. So we had the guitar connection, and then also he had the love of the fiddle that not many people knew about.

What’s really interesting and ironic about Chet as a commercial record producer is that he was one of the producers along with Owen Bradley that in a sense deemed the fiddle not commercial or contemporary enough, and he started making recordings with the strings, what was later called “the Nashville sound”.

He loved the fiddle and was good friends with Johnny Gimble. But ironically, he was kind of responsible for decreasing the amount of fiddling in country music for a long period of time. When I showed up to Nashville, the fiddle was pretty much out of favor, there was really no fiddling on recordings anymore, and Chet at that point was retired from his record executive days.

With the fiddle being out of style he couldn’t really help get any session work for me but that was something I was able to do on my own apart from Chet. But Chet really helped me by getting me on television, and he put me on his records and he put me on stage.

So suddenly, I started to make some headway in the recording scene and I’m sure that Chet was very impressed with how I helped bring back the fiddle into recordings in Nashville, and I think he was very, very proud and delighted.

TR: There was something written about you in the Los Angeles Times talking about what a great diversity of styles you play., and that you’ve crossed musical boundaries with the different styles of music that you do. Do you feel like that’s something you had in common with Chet?

MO: Yes, I think so. There’s a real parallel. As an instrumentalist, I gained a large part of my notoriety and popularity from Nashville. It was really an important association with Chet because he was the standard-bearer in Nashville. Everything that I could possibly do or achieve was compared to Chet and his career, which was tremendous, and I figured that there was no way to ever achieve anything near as much as Chet was able to accomplish.

And so it gave me a lot of gratification that he liked me and supported me. As long I’m trying to become a solo instrumentalist, it was natural to look to Chet. Chet really is the only one who was really able to do it to such a profound extent and have a real full career with it.

TR: There are so few people that have been very successful as solo instrumentalists, and obviously you’re one of them.

MO: It took quite a bit of time for me, and the eras were different. But it was great for me to be able to say that I knew Chet and I was able to play with him and learn so much from him. When I came out with the New Nashville Cats album the record company said, “Who do you want to do the liner notes,” and Chet was the first person to come to mind. I was so happy that he not only did it, but he really embraced the whole project, because that whole thing really just happened because of Chet Atkins and what he did for instrumentalists in Nashville.

TR: I have a question about the instruments themselves, the guitar and fiddle. As a solo instrument, are there some similarities between them?

MO: They both have strings.

TR: That’s the only similarity?

MO: Well technically, it’s just a whole different thing. You might as well play piano. It might as well be piano and violin, because it’s so different. Now, a lot of people end up playing the guitar because it’s a social instrument, you use the guitar to accompany a singer.

TR: Yes.

MO: But very few people excel as soloists on both of those instruments. Now today is a little different, but certainly when I was a kid and certainly when Chet was a kid, you hardly found a person that did both instruments solo with any success. So it really is a different type of thing, although when I picked up the violin, I already had seven years of guitar training, so I was able to pick up things faster because at least my fingers were moving and I was thinking about music and I knew how to learn music and my ear was fairly well along in its ear training, and so things moved much faster for me than if I would have started cold for sure.

TR: I was going to ask you a question about the way you play. Obviously, you have all the technical chops for these instruments. How does emotion or feeling come out in your playing?

MO: Well, I describe it like this: With the violin, I am able to capture an emotional energy that is deep inside me, and I have to take it back to my childhood. There was something about the music and my ability to play back then that really helped get me out of a struggle-filled childhood. It allowed me to get out of poverty, and to appreciate nice people. It was a way out of my house, where I would have probably been forced into working labor with my family members. I would have been working labor type jobs after school and not practicing.

TR: You’re talking about physical labor jobs related to your family situation?

MO: Yeah, and there was also the fact that I was talented at age 12 and started to make money with my playing – that really impressed them, and so they allowed me to play.

TR: You’re talking about your parents?

MO: My father mainly. My mother was hoping that I would play, but mainly my father was the one that needed convincing.

TR: He was the one that made the decisions in the house?

MO: Well, you know, times were tough and he had a son with two hands and a back. He would want me out there doing labor and construction and all the stuff he was doing. He worked hard the whole day, until 10 at night every day. I probably got my work ethic from my dad. And I realized what it meant when he allowed me to not have to do what he did.

So I never took it for granted. I practiced and I practiced like there was no tomorrow. I’ve never, ever forgotten those feelings, so when I play music even today there’s this kind of emotional intensity that I can find in my violin playing that makes me think of that little boy that wanted to reach out and tell the world that he could really play.

TR: Is this something that you tried to convey to students in some of your string camps?

MO: Yes, especially if people are having a hard time getting motivated and focused. I really do think that music brings people together. How else could I have got my experience with Chet Atkins? It was incredible that a 22-year-old musician would come to have a relationship with Chet Atkins who was in his sixties at that time. It was only possible through this special bond of music. I never knew a real granddad, but vicariously I got something similar through the relationships with my older musical mentors, including Benny Thomasson, Stephane Grappelli and Chet Atkins. I was fortunate to be able to be around these role models and I credit them with allowing me to find a decent life to lead. They showed you by example how to have some kind of moral compass, and to reach out to different communities. It’s important to always be looking to try to do good things through music.

TR: You can do a lot through music and people don’t realize it.

MO: Yes.

TR: What is the strongest memory you have about Chet?

MO: About a few months before Chet died, I got a phone call. I remember I was out in the yard. I was living in San Diego at that time, so I had left Nashville and I wasn’t seeing Chet regularly anymore, and it had been quite awhile since I’d last seen him, and just out of the blue, the phone rang and they called out to me that someone from Nashville was on the phone. So I ran up to the house and got the phone, and it was Chet. And I said, “Oh my gosh! How are you doing?” He said, “Fine. I just wanted to tell you that I love you,” and it was like the world just stopped — It was just so — it was just so shocking.

TR: He was saying goodbye?

MO: He was saying goodbye. It was so heartfelt. And I said “Chet, I love you too — you know that.” and he said, “I just wanted you to know that, and how much you mean to me,” and then maybe a month later, he was gone.

MO: It’s very, very similar to what Stephane Grappelli did right before he died. We were at this place together a couple of months before he died and he grabbed my hand and just didn’t want to let go.

I really believe the mentor-student relationship is one of the great things in humanity. And to be able to experience it with Chet and also Benny Thomasson and Stephane Grappelli has just been a true privilege for me. Those experiences with these mentors are one of the reasons why I put on my fiddle camp and try to reach out to kids today.

TR: Mark, thank you for taking the time to speak today.

MO: Thank you so much.