Keeping It In The Family With The O'Connor Band

Jan 6, 2017

Grammy award winning violinist and composer Mark O’Connor has played with the likes of Dolly Parton, James Taylor, and Paul Simon, and he’s never met a genre of music he didn’t like.

He even invented his own method for teaching the violin, named the O’Connor Method which focuses on teaching traditional Americana music. And he’s currently the Charlotte Symphony’s artist in residence.

But in his latest project, he’s sharing the spotlight with his band mates… three of whom are his family members. WFAE’s Sarah Delia stopped by the O’Connor’s new home in Charlotte to talk about what it’s like to be in a family band.

From left: Forrest O'Connor, Kate Lee, Maggie O'Connor, and Mark O'Connor.
Credit John David Pittman

Growing up in Seattle Mark O’Connor got bit by the music bug early. He remembers the exact moment. He was 8-years-old watching the Johnny Cash show on a black and white TV. Renowned Louisiana fiddler Doug Kershaw was on that day. He turned to his mom and told her that's what he wanted to do. A few years later he had his own fiddle. 

“A $50 pawn shop fiddle and I started taking lessons. And I took off with it. I was inspired by music. It felt like I was able to pour my emotions into this beautiful musical instrument," O'Connor said. 

Since then there’s been Grammy's, CMA Awards, and collaborations with icons like Johnny Cash, Wynton Marsalis, and Yo-Yo Ma. At this point in his career, he’s done so much it can be hard not to get bored. But that’s not a problem in his latest project The O’Connor Band. He describes the group’s sound as “progressive bluegrass.” The band’s debut album Coming Home is a mix of originals and traditional Americana.

On Left: Mark, Maggie, Forrest O'Connor, and Kate Lee at Mark and Maggie's home in Charlotte.
Credit Sarah Delia/WFAE

His future daughter-in-law Kate Lee is the lead singer and plays the violin. The group also includes O’Connor’s son Forrest on mandolin, Kate’s fiancé and O’Connor’s wife Maggie on violin and vocals. Guitarist Joe Smart and bassist Geoff Saunders round out the band. 

Mark and Maggie moved to Charlotte from New York City last spring to be closer to family, and they love living near an airport that’s a hub since they travel so much.

Kate and Forrest live in Nashville when they aren’t touring or rehearsing with the band.

Maggie says the road can be grueling with little time for sleep, when you’re doing what you love for a living, you can’t complain too much.

"We live for it and I couldn't imagine life any other way. It’s so exciting and fulfilling and to see the reaction of the audience when we play together they talk about our energy and how happy we are playing together," Maggie said.

Part of that energy comes from being a family band. Kate says there’s just something about really knowing and liking the people you’re on stage with that makes for a good show.

"I grew up being a big fan of Mark’s before I even knew he had a son that'd I’d fall in love with, it's a pretty crazy experience that I see myself in. But since joining the band we've come so much closer as musicians and a family," Kate said.

That enjoyment and polished sound has translated into a Grammy nomination for the group’s debut album. In fact, they just found about the nomination right before this interview and were pretty giddy about it.

Forrest says the nomination is a testament to the album as a whole, not just one track.

"Especially today the way people's attentions spans work, it's kind of a single driven world or viral driven world  and they can listen to one song but if the second song is a little more boring for the first 30 seconds than the first one, then they listen to something else and I think that doesn’t happen on this album," he said.

For Mark O’Connor, who will tell you he’s a natural soloist, this album out of the hundreds he’s been a part of is the one that makes him the most proud.

Listening to the group play…they’re all so…well talented.  Surely the individuals who make up this group are being pulled  in various creative directions and will have lots of options. You have to wonder if there is this extra pressure to make the band work since it is family after all?

For now, Mark isn't worried about it.

"I think if we keep reaching for our dreams in this music industry and we keep getting successes like this Grammy nomination I think it could go on for a long time," he said.

The O’Connor Band’s Grammy fate will be determined on February 12. In the meantime they’ll continue on the road with national and international stops, showing audiences you can keep the music in the family and have a good time, too.