Markology II (OMAC Records)

Mark O’Connor

Released April 2021

DownBeat Four-and-a-Half-Star Review




Late one night in 1980 in Lexington, Kentucky, I was awoken from slumber by the voice of Marian Leighton, one of the founders of Rounder Records. “We have a problem, Béla”, she said.

I probably wasn’t really all that asleep what with being so excited about tomorrow. The next morning I was booked on a flight to San Francisco with my good pal, bassist Mark Schatz, for the most important session of my life so far.

We were to be recording with the top musicians in our acoustic music community, David Grisman on mandolin, Tony Rice on guitar, and Mark O’Connor on fiddle. I was thrilled and a little bit shocked that they all had agreed to record with me on my second banjo album, Natural Bridge, but – now there was a huge roadblock.

Tony Rice had just canceled at the last minute.

I had some warning actually in looking back; the split of the original David Grisman Quintet was still relatively fresh and some hurt feelings had not healed yet between Tony and David. In hindsight, it was impertinent for me to think I could reunite Tony and David so soon to record my music. My master plan of having the core of the DGQ but with Mark included on the fiddle was pulverized.

Now we had to rejigger this thing.

There was only one obvious solution.

Mark had replaced Tony in the DGQ on guitar, a surprising and yet inspired solution, considering Mark’s double threat status as a monster guitar soloist in a groundbreaking fiddler’s body! But could he learn to be the rhythmic motor for David’s highly refined musical concept? Tony had rewritten the book on bluegrass rhythm guitar, and when he joined David’s group, he expanded the ‘new acoustic’ (as we called it for a while) rhythmic frontiers. He could make the music dance, swing, and most of all drive.

I understand there were intensive rehearsals, and Mark has told me that David had a way of letting him know when he was making it happen and when he wasn’t. It was a high bar, in terms of mastering the ensemble concept of the group.

And Mark rose to the occasion, making intuitive leaps in his guitar playing, taking in the rhythmic aspects of Tony’s playing and understanding the core truths of it – while not being subsumed by attempting to become Tony Rice. Translating all this data into his language, he used it to expand his unique style to a surprising degree.

So when he agreed to switch to guitar for my session, not only did I get the level of musical feel and groove that I had thought I could only get from Tony, I also got Mark’s creative musical mind and his stunning technical ability in the solos.

It is more than fair to say that he ‘saved’ that session; helping make those tracks we recorded some of my personal favorites to this day. Of course, it wouldn’t have been the same without David Grisman, Darol Anger, Mark Schatz, or Mike Marshall, who all played superlatively.

Ironically, at the time he told me he was a little disappointed not to play fiddle on it, because he was playing so much guitar in those days, and had been excited to fiddle. But he did also contribute some great double fiddle work with Darol. 

The next big move for Mark after the DGQ was when he moved to Atlanta to join the The Dregs, an astonishing rock-fusion instrumental band that featured violin in its lineup. It also featured a very different kind of guitar hero, electric guitarist Steve Morse. Steve is and was a superstar player, very highly rated, a technical wizard with his own unique approach.

So Mark had left the guitar orbit of Tony Rice to join the guitar orbit of Steve Morse.

They made some great music together and Steve had a big and very different set of influences for Mark to draw on. I remember New Grass Revival (who I played with) co-billing with them for a concert, and I guess I wasn’t that surprised to see Mark whip out an electric guitar for one song and give Steve a very tough run for his money.

A few years later the Nashville chapter of the “new acoustic congress” was thrilled to hear that Mark was moving to town. I’m talking about Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas and myself in particular, and many others.

We knew he’d be doing some sessions, but we were all a little startled at his dominance of the session scene. Mark is a competitive cat, and if he sets his mind on something, it tends to go very well for him. And go it did!

It seemed to go from nothing to full tilt in almost no time. He was working around the clock, playing tons of fiddle, but also mandolin and guitar with the top recording stars of the day. He happened to be an exceptional fretless bass player as well, which may have irritated some of us!

I knew that I would hire him on anything I could get him on if I was producing something. And I continued to be a major fan of his guitar work.

As one would hope, Mark, Sam, and Jerry and I found ourselves in musical situations regularly, sometimes with Edgar Meyer who had also moved to town.

I remember one month doing a weekly gig with Peter Rowan where we would blow the roof off of the Station Inn. But there were lots of great times together in Nashville and elsewhere on tour.

But the one that turned into a band was what later became known as Strength in Numbers. It started with us playing on Edgar Meyer’s Unfolding album, which led to us playing on the big street festival Summer Lights, where we were amazed at the reaction. That led to our takeover of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival’s all-star jam and eventually to the making of our album on MCA, The Telluride Sessions.

A mathematically savvy wing of the band had figured out that if each of the 5 players wrote a song with each other one, it would add up to 10 songs. Check the math, it works! So we each wrote a tune with each other person in the group.

I met up with Mark to write our tune in Telluride, where we were all playing at the festival. He didn’t have a guitar song for the album yet, and we all liked the idea of having one, although not having a guitar for most of the music gave the band a unique sound.

He had a promising piece already started, so I had to scuffle to add something meaningful to it. But I remember us starting to play it together and how great it always felt to play banjo with his guitar. The piece ended up being called “Slopes” and was a high point on the album.

From what I understand, as time went on Mark developed bursitis when he played guitar, although it didn’t affect his fiddle playing. He attributes it to not being body aware in those days and just pushing through the pain. I also can relate to this, because I used to love to flat-pick the guitar, but whenever I played hard for more than a short while, my elbow would hurt like the blazes. Feeling fortunate that it didn’t affect my banjo playing, I also let it go.

For many years Mark stayed very busy playing his violin in countess amazing settings, from the trio with Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer, to Hot Swing with Frank Vignola on guitar, and even a reprise of his own original new acoustic music, Thirty-Year Retrospective with Bryan Sutton on guitar and Chris Thile on mandolin.

Largely though he was composing and performing his new music for orchestras.

He was getting a whole lot done!

But he was not playing guitar. 

Life moved along as it does.

Fast forward 20 years later, and Mark found himself in a new place in his life, with a grown-up and very talented son Forrest, and a life partner Maggie (who happens to be a wonderful fiddler).

Between Forrest and Maggie, there was a lot of appreciation of the chapters in his life when he was deeply involved with bluegrass and related acoustic music.

It caused him to refocus on and appreciate how special that piece of his musical life was, and they started a band together. The Mark O’Connor Band made waves, won a Grammy, and as Tony Rice might have said – they were a powerful unit.

Mark started messing around with the guitar again just to see what would happen. And to his surprise, it didn’t hurt his arm! By carefully monitoring the edge and stepping back from it, he could now regrow his guitar playing without damaging his arms.

This was a rebirth of sorts. He rediscovered the guitar and his voice within it. He enjoyed touching base with his old language, but there were differences now. All his years of playing music had their impact on his guitar playing. He credits the changes to the great guitarists whom he performed with during those years, Frank and Bryan among others, but there was something different about it for sure.

When I hear this new recording of Mark’s I have a variety of reactions, all of them very strong.

One is that it’s fascinating how different instruments can show off the different sides of a musician’s personality.

Energetically and sonically there are things Mark can do with the guitar that he can’t do with the fiddle, and vise versa.

Another reaction is being a bit stunned at the sheer technical bravado his guitar playing is capable of (including that bit of jealousy that I’ve always had at how well this guy’s hands work!). 

It reminds me how any time we were hanging out and Mark would pick up any instrument, the room would go silent, how even him just noodling around would put us mortal musicians into a state of awe.

I’m so happy to hear the renewed passion in his playing, and that sense of a rediscovered love.

Here’s one more – boy I’m so thankful for the evocative aspects of the playing on this recording, which can take you to a peaceful place as a listener, as well as that beautiful sound that Mark has learned to create – and also to record.

Between the great tone he pulls from his guitars and his expertise at recording them, the sound is another joy.

And lastly is the sense of reconnecting with an old friend, when I hear this sound that I thought was lost, that I didn’t realize I had been missing for all this time.

Bela Fleck (March, 2021)

Track Listing:

1. Greensleeves 6:38

2. Goin’ Home 3:51

3. Beaumont Rag 3:57

4. Salt Creek 3:15

5. On Top Of The World 4:20

6. Alabama Jubilee 2:15

7. Shenandoah 4:46

8. Flailing 6:10

9. Kamala Boogie 5:02

10. Ease With The Breeze 5:32


Mark O’Connor, guitar

Recorded during 2017 – 2020

Produced, engineered and mixed by Mark O’Connor

Mastered by Dave Harris


To say that Mark O’Connor is a remarkable musician is an understatement. In his career as a violinist, he made his Grand Ole Opry debut as a teenager, toured with Stephane Grappelli, worked with David Grisman and the Dregs, wrote many classical works and remains an important figure in the category-blurring New Acoustic Music movement. O’Connor has been so consistently busy as a violinist and a composer that it is easy to forget about his guitar playing. Back in 1978, O’Connor recorded Markology, a wide-ranging album that showcased his guitar in a sextet with two other guitarists, two mandolins (including Grisman) and bass. Markology II features him as a solo guitarist on six traditional melodies, “On Top Of The World” (which was on the original Markology) and three of his originals. O’Connor can improvise ridiculously fast lines with ease while clearly articulating each note. On beloved numbers as “Beaumont Rag” and “Alabama Jubilee,” his ideas fly by at a blinding speed, but O’Connor also displays an obvious joy at embracing a strong melody such as “Goin’ Home” and “Shenandoah.” While listeners can debate if this is a jazz album, they can’t argue that the guitar playing on Markology II is less than brilliant.

Scott Yanow (DownBeat)