Mark O’Connor, by the time he was 12 years old, was already superhuman. As a contest player, he was unparalleled, carving up people left and right on fiddle, mandolin and guitar. The instrument really didn’t matter. He studied at the feet of a fiddling legend, Benny Thomason. Mark’s mother must have had a pretty clear idea of what she had on her hands, and she took him everywhere until he was old enough to do it on his own. That’s probably about the first time I saw him, in his late teenage years. Since then, he has taken his instrumental prowess to about every corner of music that one can go.
It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone in the bluegrass and country fiddling world that family connections or family bands make up a significant part of the musical landscape. It’s been a part of the culture for a long time. With Coming Home, Mark O’Connor gets to shine the light on his own family.
From the first cut on Coming Home, it is apparent that Mark, though always palpable in the mix, is presenting a band. So here they are: Forrest O’Connor, vocal and mandolin; Maggie O’Connor, fiddle and vocal; Kate Lee, vocal and fiddle; Joe Smart, guitar; Geoff Saunders, bass and banjo. Mark’s son, Forrest, is almost the spitting image of his dad; and he and his dad trade licks like— well, like only two O’Connors could do. Suffice it to say, though, that everyone here is an accomplished and/or prize winning musician. That didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me was the singing and songwriting that is really the soul of this recording.
The bulk of the songwriting and singing is carried out by Forrest and Kate, and they do a fine job on both counts. And I enjoy their duet sound. Kate has even had the rare opportunity to do some co-writing with Pat Alger, a legendary songwriter who, I’m sure, doesn’t waste time or lyrics on just anyone. From “Blacktop Boy” to “Jerusalem Ridge,” the O’Connor band presents varying soundscapes that can appeal to a wide audience. From the multiple violin strains on “Fiddler Going Home” to Kate belting out the old Osborne Brothers classic “Ruby,” this is a group that is also letting you know that they have a show.
I’ve listened to this CD numerous times now. In the big picture, this is contemporary folk/bluegrass that is youthful and easy on the ears, with musicianship that is stellar all the way around. The songwriting is mature, with both depth and creativity. Like so much of contemporary acoustic music, though, it has more urban sensibilities rather than country music sensibilities, even if the latter isn’t entirely absent. That is to say, I hear the strains of classical music, jazz or even show tunes as being as important and influential to the music being made here. And I think that’s exactly what this group wants to share with us.