There may be legions of bluegrass and acoustic music aficionados that never knew Mark O’Connor played guitar. They might have missed his 1978 album Markology, on which he played his 1945 Martin D-28 in the company of Tony Rice, David Grisman, and Sam Bush. And for the past four-plus decades, those who know O’Connor’s music rightly think of him as a violinist-composer renowned for diverse collaborations (Steve Morse and the Dregs, Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, the New Nashville Cats, Charlie Daniels, the Hot Swing Trio, the family-based O’Connor Band) and such major orchestral works as Fiddle Concerto, Fanfare for the Volunteer, The American Seasons, Americana Symphony, and The Improvised Violin Concerto.
It’s not just the 43-year-gap between guitar albums that makes Markology II such a revelation. O’Connor hadn’t even played guitar for 20 years before setting out to record this album; bursitis inhibited the motion of this player who had twice won national flatpicking championships (as a teen) and occupied the guitar role vacated by Tony Rice in the David Grisman Quintet in 1979. These ten performances of original and traditional tunes bear not a single sign of the long layoff; indeed, they come at you with a bit of I’ve-got-something-to-prove flash. Someone with O’Connor’s technical ability probably just can’t help himself. A direct heir of Rice (who died last December at 69, and to whom the album is dedicated), it’s in O’Connor’s nature to play with breathtaking speed, cleanliness, and precision.
But while the playing does draw attention to itself, it rewards that attention with myriad layers of sound and feeling that eventually reveal themselves—especially upon repeated listening. The first impression might simply be one of awe: Strummed chords, acrobatic single-note runs and clusters, and diamond-point harmonics come at you with a velocity that leaves you stunned, or giggling at the audacity of it all. O’Connor takes no prisoners on the oft-performed classics “Beaumont Rag,” “Salt Creek,” and “Alabama Jubilee,” associated with Doc Watson, Bill Monroe, and Roy Clark, respectively. “Flailing” is an astounding whirlwind of alternating strummed and picked passages, and “Kamala Boogie,” which opens with O’Connor tuning his low E string down to C, wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Led Zeppelin II.All of these tracks are likely to cast you into a state that mandolinist/guitarist Tim Ware long ago called “idiot glee.”
The six-and-a-half-minute opening-track exploration of hoary old “Greensleeves” sends the message that you are going to spend the next 38 minutes swimming with O’Connor in deep musical waters, carried by swift and smooth currents, towed through furious rapids, sucked down into kaleidoscopic whirlpools, and occasionally released into calm, open pools, their surfaces gently rippled by quieter strums and picking.
For most of the album, O’Connor plays a dreadnought built in 2017 by Colorado Guitar Company master luthier John Baxendale. Heavy-gauge strings add to O’Connor’s big, lustrous tone. For “On Top of the World,” which gives you a chance to catch your breath five tracks in, and “Ease with the Breeze,” which closes the album with a virtual sigh, he plays the same D-28 he used on Markology. And his gorgeously melancholic reading of “Shenandoah” is on a 1924 Gibson K-4 mandocello. Given O’Connor’s many forays into the classical-crossover realm, it’s not surprising that much of the playing has an orchestral richness that is enhanced by the recording, engineering, and mixing that he did himself. He may have been out of touch with his guitars for decades, but his unexpected comeback shows that nothing is out of his reach.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.