My new album features 11 Christmas tracks, as well as several Appalachian-themed songs, one about a beloved hunting dog, another about passing a fiddle down through the generations, the Foster song Slumbering My Darling (Foster being from near the Appalachian range in Pennsylvania), and a new version of my "Appalachia Waltz" with classical guitarist Sharon Isbin, one of my most well-known pieces.
A few of my favorite Christmas centerpiece tracks for the album include Renee Fleming’s soprano embraced by a mountain orchestration and fiddle solo in "Away in a Manger" as well as the jazzy style of Jane Monheit with an all-acoustic string band for "The Christmas Song." Growing up in the O'Connor musical household, Christmas time was a wondrous mixture of carols, fiddling, bluegrass, swing and other traditional American music. This is the spirit of "An Appalachian Christmas."
First of all, I want to thank all of you for making "An Appalachian Christmas" a big selling hit for the 2nd year in a row. It achieved even higher rankings this year at Amazon.com than last year, going all the way to #1 in a few musical categories, including the bluegrass category. It might become a real Christmas favorite for years to come!
"Classical violinist and folk fiddler Mark O'Connor was born in Seattle but his heart is in the hills and hollows of Appalachia. On this largely self-produced CD...the album's best moments are the earthy "Cherry Tree Carol" and Mr. O'Connor's own "Appalachia Waltz." On "Sleigh Ride," he overdubs all 10 instruments." -WALL STREET JOURNAL
"ALL CHRISTMAS MUSIC SHOULD BE PLAYED SO ELEGANTLY ON VIOLIN"
The Los Angeles Times picked “An Appalachian Christmas,” as 1 of the top 2 holiday releases of the year. It was "pick of the week" by the USA Today. Wall Street Journal picked “An Appalachian Christmas” as their top 6 Christmas albums of the season. The Boston Globe chose it as the 4th best holiday album, and the New York Post puts “An Appalachian Christmas” in the top 10 for the Christmas Season.
I am truly thankful for its success, and thankful for all of you. The thousands of responses to it that we have received are simply an amazing gift. The music is for you, and thank you for all the kindness in return. I hope you continue to enjoy the music this holiday season and for seasons to come. It was extraordinary to take this album to the concert stage this year with incredible, beautiful, young musicians, Carrie Rodriguez, Cia Cherryholmes, Forrest O'Connor, Hans Holzen, Kyle Kegerreis. We did "band only" shows and I also produced "An Appalachian Christmas" with Symphony Orchestra for concerts as well. They all did wonderfully on stage and audiences loved the music.
For the concerts with the Northeastern Pennsylvania Symphony this year, I invited 40 children to join me on stage for some tunes out of the O'Connor Method book, "Boil 'em Cabbage Down and my arrangement of "Frosty the Snowman." Yes, we even got to play the "Appalachian Christmas" show in Appalachia this year, in rural Kentucky at an big Baptist Church. Even the Pastor came to see it and found me back stage to say thanks. We heard from folks in the audience that there were several moments during the show where there may not have been a dry eye in the house. It is a beautiful concert with these musicians and we are already planning 2 or 3 times as many concert dates for our Christmas tour in 2013.
My manager, Mark Alpert who is a veteran agent at Columbia Artists for 30 years, wrote me a letter last week after he saw my first Christmas show at the amazing hall, the Strathmore Music Center in Bethesda, MD. He wrote: "I feel very fortunate to have been at that seminal performance. It had a richness and a beauty that can only happen when everyone involved is completely committed and dedicated to the music."
It was my childhood Christmases though that informed this project. I grew up very poor, like a lot of folks. My own successful music career today however does not erase the very vivid memories at Christmas time as a child for me. My mother did the very best she could for us to have a wonderful Christmas. She often worried that there were not going to be many presents for me and my little sister under the tree, so she would often save the record albums she received through mail order during the year - the music she knew I needed to listen to for my inspiration as a music student. She held on to them sometimes for months so she could have something nice under the Christmas tree for me. I could always tell those specific presents were albums wrapped in Christmas paper, because they were about 12" square, and very thin. She did not try to disguise them, rather she used record albums and music as a feature at Christmas time, and wisely knew that this is how we could feel fulfilled and blessed. We were rich with great music around us, even if it was mostly from the family turntable in the beginning, and in later years, friends would drop by to play music with me.
Consequently, my Christmases growing up were listening and playing some carols, but also listening to the music I had been waiting to hear all year and to learn from - everything from Copland and Bernstein to Stephane and Django, to Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington and Jimmy Rodgers, to the Carter Family (with Mother Mabel on that L-5 Gibson guitar that is synonymous with Swing) and the Stanley Brothers. I knew Copland's Appalachian Spring at the very same time I was first checking out Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys - music from the exact same time period and inspired by the same region of our country – Appalachia.
Copland’s famous Appalachian piece composed in 1941, just four years prior to Flatte, Scruggs and Monroe uniting in 1945 to invent bluegrass music. Monroe’s most famous fiddlers, and heroes of mine as well, Chubby Wise, Vassar Clements and Kenny Baker all were jazz and swing fiddlers before they were bluegrass fiddlers. Monroe found them as jazz and hoedown players mostly, then taught them bluegrass! Once you know all of this, Appalachia grows in dimension and scope, and I knew it from my earliest beginnings. A matter of fact, I believe Appalachia had more jazz violin players than New York did in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. African American blues, spirituals and ragtime have roots in Appalachia of course going back even hundreds of years. More recently even pop icons and a guest on An Appalachian Christmas, James Taylor, has North Carolina ties as he lived there for some time. Appalachia gave birth to some of our best pop, rock, gospel and country styles. And of course there are symphony orchestras all over Appalachia and they embody the spirit of that region of the country too.
To be able to put the violin/fiddle playing right at the center of some of the greatest holiday music, and with some of the greatest singers we know, was incredibly special for me. And as far as the singers, I mean it doesn't get much better for me than this - the jazz of Jane Monheit, the classical of Renee Fleming and the bluegrass of Alison Krauss, all coming over for "An Appalachian Christmas!" Having the violin be the thread through this album, weaving the history of Americana through its tracks with such strong themes as Christmas, faith, love, family, passing down a fiddle through the generations, saying goodbye to a loved one and even a favorite hunting dog was a poetic journey for me. All of it inspired by the original melting pot, stir fry and the mystical musical culture of what is Appalachia, as well as my own memories around our Christmas tree 3,000 miles away in Seattle, is something I have been thinking about for not just years, but in fact decades.
Oh yes, I made it down to the South, lived there for 18 years. Even before that, I entered so many fiddle contests throughout the South as a young boy. I announced to the Kentucky audience that I was their Kentucky State Fiddle Champion when I was 14. And then I came back several years later to win the Champion of the decade playoff for the Kentucky State. I told them I knew first hand, and at an early age, just how good Kentucky and Appalachian fiddlers were. I went up against them in the contests and competed hard.
Though I celebrate another wonderful Christmas time at home and on the road with my music, my heart hurts for the young children this season. I have been thankful to have had my two kids on tour with me during December. I have been trying to put music first for everyone as well. Music is a great healer in our country, in our world and in our human history. I played my solo version of silent night and near the end of it, I felt so connected to the depth of the song in that rural church in Kentucky, that a sensation came over me towards the end as I played the final phrases. I knew the music was for the kids, so I announced to the audience that what I had just played was for children everywhere. Music at Christmas time is important, as it should be all year long. If there was more music, more music-making and more musical instruments, there would be less violence in our culture. We need to play music together and play music for people, most of all in the non-professional ways. Music is a social and communal environment.
I shared music with my own kids from when they were young. I never expected them to be great at music, or to be music professionals, I simply thought that sharing music and my music friends was the right thing to do - in every way. This Christmas tour, I asked my oldest child, Forrest to join me and to play and sing. At every show and every rehearsal, when I looked across the stage at him, I knew that music lessons and learning to love a musical environment helped him succeed in life. He has a very high IQ and went to Harvard. There were times when he was younger that I thought he may be too much for me to handle and I was nervous about demonstrating the right things for him. Was I going to mess up and not steer him right? But I insisted in music lessons for him, weekly, starting at the age of 6 all the way through school, whether he ever played on stage or not. To this day, he credits music as focusing him and all of that pent up energy and intelligence into something that was highly productive, as well as helping him get into a school like Harvard where he had the proper outlets for his mind.
He is a happy young man today. I used music to get closer to my kids. I urge everyone within the sight of this message to do the same. Music and music making can actually save children from going wrong. It saved me from going wrong. My mind was much too complicated to deal with life without something that was inspirational, nurturing, entertaining, loving, communal, disciplinary, communicative, aspirational, like music is.
Forrest sang "Now it Belongs To You" on the Christmas tour and it was very moving each time he sung. He played a mandola that I played quite a bit as a young man in my Nashville session work, and that very mandola now is his favorite instrument. Forrest was in the original video of the song, he is the 2 year-old boy that is playing his 16th size violin in the field with me, and takes off my hat at the end of the video. A citizenry that places more emphasis on music and musical instruments will be a safer and better place. People that play together and sing together will not want to harm each other. Here's to music at Christmas time and for all times!
I welcome your comments.